Exile and the Prophetic: Shoah business

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Isaac is now a hurricane battering the New Orleans area. With the storm passing into the Gulf and beyond, the weather here is hot and humid. On the religious front, some Rabbi of distinctive lineage is providing the invocation for the Republican convention while a conservative Cardinal is doing the honors for the closing bell. Birds of a feather.

Interfaith dialogue love fest. Or what I call the Interfaith Ecumenical Deal. Empire Jews and Christians gather to celebrate their conformism to power. No Muslims in sight but they’re standing on the sidelines itching to be called in to do their bit. It’s the ticket to mainstream White America.

Rachel Corrie. The internet chatter about her verdict is huge. News passes quickly on our easily forgetting news cycle but Rachel’s witness remains.

Contrast that with the invocation Rabbi. I shouldn’t be shocked. Years ago when my Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation was translated in Spanish, I traveled to Costa Rica for the book launch. The group that published my book arranged a visit to the local synagogue. When I met the Rabbi, who was of Latin American descent, he proudly informed me that he was a supporter of Pinochet, the torturing dictator of Chile. With that he handed me a prayer book and a kippah as Sabbath services were about to begin. I put them both down and left.

On Skype with Aaron and Isaiah, they’ve arrived at their respective universities for the new academic year. Isaiah wants to get a job bartending to help with costs. Aaron is contemplating his future after his graduate degree. In the mood of mentor, I sent both words that came to me via a friend some years ago: “Try not to think about work and the future. Instead, think of the monastery of contemplation, thought and action. You’re not going anywhere in particular, only deeper, which is where you need to go.”

My friend’s words bring to mind the Thomas Merton, the monk and the contrast with so many “important” figures today. Like Fareed Zakaria, who can be found in every media outlet imaginable. He was found plagiarizing an article published in the The New Yorker. Like Jonah Lehrer who resigned from the same magazine because, among other things, he wrote a book using manufactured quotes ascribed to Bob Dylan. Thoughts, too, of the Rabbis who pray for White Mitt and the public figures who are calling out Rabbi Lynn. The judge at Rachel Corrie’s trial. Those who manufacture scandals in order to reap millions in donations. The list is endless.

Stealing from others and making stuff up – well the story is the same. I can’t imagine discovering that I thought someone else’s words were my own. It’s amazing that Zakaria and Lehrer are gurus for thoughtful people when, in fact, they’re primarily on the make for status and money.

Then there’s Claude Lanzmann whose memoir was recently reviewed in the Sunday New York Times. Lanzmann, of the documentary film, Shoah, fame, always struck me as an unsavory fellow. His memoir confirms this. As it does my sense that contemporary Jewish life is vacuous. Even in his own description, Lanzmann comes off as a bully.

As I read the review, I thought of the recent incident in Jerusalem’s Zion Square where a Palestinian was beaten unconscious. In Lanzmann and in Jewish life, I see a direct connection. I will write more about this in the future but just as a preview, my run-in some years ago with Rabbi David Forman, the founder of Rabbis for Human rights, or as I like to think of them, Rabbis for (Jewish) Human Rights, reminded me of Lanzmann.

Like Lanzmann, Forman was a bully. Sure, Lanzmann didn’t wear a kippah like Forman. Nonetheless, they were peas in a pod. This is true of much of Jewish life today. So why show surprise when systematic state violence against a people – with a Holocaust backdrop – erupts on the individual level in Zion Square? Or when Israel is found innocent of Rachel Corrie’s death?

Following his life’s arc Lanzmann appears hollow and without an ethical anchor. In many ways, Shoah exhibits the same character. Everyone nods their assent to Shoah as rote obeisance, as if we are standing up in synagogue when the Pinochet Rabbi announces the next pages of text. In real life everyone stays as far away as they can.

Shoah made its debut just a few years after the Israeli bombing of Beirut. It was a Holocaust comeback, just as Holocaust remembrance was taking on water. And with a rebranding terminology, shoah, Hebrew for catastrophe, struck a nerve. Parts of the Jewish community were beginning to distance themselves from the Holocaust because it was being used as a blunt instrument of discipline against others and even against Jews who were stepping out of line. On the other side, the Jewish establishment perceived the Holocaust had gone universal because it was being used to name other catastrophes.

On the Jewish establishment front, the Holocaust becoming universal was a threat to the use of the Holocaust as a lever for Jewish power. For establishment types the Holocaust was being dumbed down and shared with other communities. The Holocaust was losing its distinctive identity. Better find a “Jewish only” term for the mass death of European Jews.

Rebranding means a credibility problem is at hand. Rebranding means something that once meant one thing now means another. Rebranding is, on one hand, a return to the origins and, on the other, it wants to shift the ground upon which the origins can be accessed. In the end, rebranding the Holocaust succeeded in more or less the same way that the rebranding of Israel did some years later. It delayed the inevitable in the immediate time frame while tarnishing both in the long run.

Typical of the Holocaust/Shoah as it extends itself in history, Lanzmann shows ruthlessness in getting his story across. In the search for truth, ruthlessness is sometimes allowed, primarily if it’s done in the service of the marginalized and oppressed. One can agree or disagree with this or that tactic and still admire perseverance. Yet by the time Lanzmann finishes his film, the Holocaust was on the march, was organized insttitutionally and was so powerful that punishments for criticizing Israeli policies were linked to Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. The Holocaust wasn’t being forgotten by history.

Lanzmann’s film checked in at more than nine hours in length. By the end of the film you don’t have the energy to say Palestinian, let alone the courage. By remembering the Holocaust in this way, the hope was that you would forget all about Palestinians. More or less, Lanzmann accomplishes this goal.

Lanzmann’s documentary shuts down discussion related to Israel and the Palestinians. It also shuts down discussion about life beyond the Holocaust and how the Holocaust, if it is to retain any meaning at all, must be a bridge toward all those who are suffering, including and especially the Palestinian people.

“There’s no business like Shoah business,” a Rabbi once shared that with me in reference to Elie Wiesel – I wrote of this earlier. But Lanzmann’s, Shoah business is more serious and perhaps more destructive. There is no pretense to hope or light or interpretation in Shoah. We are just there. Shoah functions as a dead weight on Jewish dissent. It closes down the Jewish prophetic.

Shoah is an asceticism – but (un)like the training of a fighter in Emmanuel Levinas’ evocative understanding of the prophetic. True, it is starker than stark, using only present remains of the Holocaust, including interviews with Nazi protagonists that don’t realize what’s going on. Reality doesn’t always emit light, so the prophetic gathering of light can become idealized, like a scripted Hollywood movie. But, then. place Shoah and Romero in motion. You’ll see the difference. In each ask to what destination you are traveling.

The Holocaust/Romero in life, as in film, our first question shouldn’t be how they function. However, since they seek to represent a wider historical lens, they make little sense without that question. Both feature an austere asceticism. What kind of asceticism do they depict? It is only a short step from depicting to proposing, or they are already connected, if not one and the same.

Shoah isn’t only about the Holocaust.

Shoah business – even as an anti-meaning film that drags the viewer through the muck of the death camps without placing us there historically/visually. We are somewhere, though. We are stuck in hour upon hour of no movement/no hope/no redemption. No rising.

In the “monastery of contemplation, thought and action,” Shoah doesn’t rate the asceticism we need. For the prophetic. It isn’t the training of a fighter. For the future. This means the Holocaust, as our major export and as the defining moment of Lanzmann’s ambition – even with the rebranding name change, Shoah – isn’t going anywhere fast. It isn’t going anywhere slow, either.

If Shoah was made in the present, with no archival footage, as indeed is the case, then Israeli soldiers also have to be depicted as they march into Lebanon with Israeli fighter planes lighting up the Lebanese sky. Along with the still living Nazis and survivors, interview Israel’s invading force. Film Nazi railroad lines. Film Israel’s invasion troop lines.

ShoahLebanon – how’s that for a title? Full picture, mix it up, deconstruct the meaning of both. Then the asceticism needed for the present would be on the big screen for all to contemplate, think and act.

That would be the courage Lanzmann is lauded for and lacks.

Think of Lanzmann’s courage. Then think of Rachel Corrie’s courage. Full picture. Mix it up.

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Full picture: Rachel Corrie had nothing to gain except except justice.

Prof. Ellis, I found it very interesting when you wrote about the RNC: “a conservative Cardinal is doing the honors for the closing bell.” And I think the correctness of this depends a lot on closely watching what the Cardinal says- in particular whether he says anything that runs in favor of one candidate over another. To give two examples: (1) As you noticed in Innsbruck, there were lots of crucifixes in one of the… Read more »

Woody, I highly doubt that simply saying a few things admiring Jesus and persecuting atheists would mean someone was really a Christian candidate, even if that was a “very Christian thing to do”, which it isn’t. Just saying a few things in a campaign does not mean someone is really a Christian candidate, a Socialist candidate, a peaceful candidate, or a pro-education candidate. George Bush during his campaign portrayed himself as an isolationist candidate, saying… Read more »

RE: “There’s no business like Shoah business,” a Rabbi once shared that with me

MY COMMENT: I have seen it attributed to Abba Eban.

RE: “In the ‘monastery of contemplation, thought and action’, Shoah doesn’t rate the asceticism we need. For the prophetic. It isn’t the training of a fighter. For the future. This means the Holocaust, as our major export and as the defining moment of Lanzmann’s ambition – even with the rebranding name change, Shoah – isn’t going anywhere fast. It isn’t going anywhere slow, either.” ~ Marc Ellis ALSO SEE: “Is There a Way Beyond Israeli… Read more »