Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
I don’t think Alice Walker really believes that the popular demand for a Hebrew-language edition of “The Color Purple” is so great that the government of Israel will evacuate the Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to win her approval for its publication. But those of us who worry about the Jewish state ought to be concerned that a writer of Walker’s stature is lending her name to the cultural subsection of the BDS (Boycott Divest Sanction) movement.
“I would so like knowing my books are read by the people of your country, especially by the young and by the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside,” explained Walker. “I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon, this may happen. But now is not the time.”
One unhappy but mostly overlooked consequence of the BDS movement is that Israel is being erased, sometimes quite literally, from the cultural landscape in which we live. Thus, for example, when I recently tried to find a box of what I am accustomed to call Israeli couscous at Whole Foods, I discovered that the product is now called “pearled couscous.” And when I pulled up behind a bus at a red light, I was able to study an advertisement for Santa Monica College that depicted the flags of the world — including those of several predominantly Muslim countries — but the Israeli flag was nowhere to be seen.
I am not suggesting that Whole Foods or Santa Monica College have joined Alice Walker in the BDS movement. But it is self-evident that even casual references to Israel are now seen as intolerably provocative by companies and institutions that seek to avoid controversy, which represents a victory by the BDS movement. No matter where you stand on the settlements, the notion that the Jewish state cannot be safely included or even mentioned in the public conversation is not good for Israel.
Some activists, as I recently discovered, claim to be committed to opening a conversation rather than shutting it down. Even a writer as critical of the settlements as Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” and “Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, An American Nightmare,” sought a way to “boycott the Israeli economy,” as she puts it, “but not Israelis.”
“For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published ‘The Shock Doctrine,’ I wanted to respect the boycott,” she explains in an item posted at her website. “I contacted a small publisher called Andalus…, an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus’s work, and none to me.” Her plan, explains Klein, “required dozens of phone calls, e-mails and instant messages, stretching from Tel Aviv to Ramallah to Paris to Toronto to Gaza City. My point is this: as soon as you start implementing a boycott strategy, dialogue increases dramatically.”
Of course, both Walker and Klein are assuming that the cultural BDS movement will have some influence on Israel, but it’s hard to imagine that the Netanyahu government will change its policy on the settlements in order to court public opinion in America or anywhere else in the world. Nothing in recent history suggests that world public opinion matters much in the decisions that governments make; certainly, it did nothing at all to stop the German government from murdering Jews by the millions during World War II. And, ironically, the cultural boycott of Israel only strengthens the conviction of the hawks, both here and in the Jewish state, that the world is already so hostile toward Israel that nothing they might do on the ground would put the Israeli flag back on bus advertisements.
For that reason alone, Alice Walker may wish to reconsider her decision and to follow the example of Naomi Klein, who is no less opposed to the settlements but found a way to engage with her Israeli readership rather than to punish them.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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June 6, 2012 | 11:38 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Not long ago, I reviewed Peter Longerich’s benchmark biography of Heinrich Himmler in these pages—a work of meticulous and compelling scholarship about the master architect of the Final Solution, a mostly ordinary human being whose claim on history is that he succeeded in putting Hitler’s apocalyptic fantasies about mass murder into operation on an industrial scale.
Himmler’s second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, figures importantly in the Longerich biography, and so I read with special interest the much-talked-about novel by Laurent Binet, “HHhH” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $26), translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Indeed, the title of the book is an acronym for the German phrase “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” (translation: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) that was used to describe the crucial relationship between these two men, each one a monster in his own way and, together, the executors of the Final Solution.
What intrigued Binet, as he readily confesses, were the dramatic possibilities of the incident that ended Heydrich’s life. Two commandos, one Czech and one Slovak, were parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia with the mission of assassinating Heydrich. They succeeded in causing his death—Heydrich was only wounded in the attack but later died of an infection—but only at the cost of their own lives and the lives of hundreds of wholly innocent victims of the revenge campaign that the Nazis carried out, including the entire population of the town of Lidice.
As a novelist, Binet decided to present the story under the guise of fiction. But he is also mindful of the moral dangers of fictionalizing the events of the Shoah, and so he breaks the narrative frame to address the reader with the bitter realities that lay just beneath the surface: “I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story,” he writes, “you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.”
But the frankness can be unsettling. He confesses that his research methods included leaving the TV set on the History Channel, and that he didn’t bother to consult the memoir that Heydrich’s wife wrote about the war. At one point, Binet makes much of his assertion that a character in Charlie Chaplin’s famous allegory of Nazi Germany, “The Great Dictator,” is actually a depiction of Heydrich. A few pages later, he announces: “I just said that one of the characters in Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator was based on Heydrich, but it’s not true.”
The juxtaposition between artifacts of popular culture and authentic historical research make for strange bedfellows in the pages of “HHhH.” For example, he muses on “Conspiracy,” an HBO dramatization of the Wannsee Conference—the planning session for the Final Solution over which Heydrich presided—and expresses admiration for Kenneth Branagh’s performance, which depicts Heydrich as capable of both affability and authoritarianism. “I don’t know how accurate it is,” the author quickly confesses. “I have not read anywhere that the real Heydrich knew how to show kindness, whether real or faked.”
The same color commentary runs throughout “HHhH,” which narrates the life of Heydrich in fits and starts but is decorated and enlivened by Binet’s interior monologue, his candid announcements to the reader and his blunt confessions about his own problems with the book itself. “You’ll have gathered by now that I am fascinated by this story,” he confesses, on page 47. “But at the same time I think it’s getting to me.”
Indeed, he is perfectly willing to accuse himself of breaking faith with the heroes who are the focus of his book. He depicts a decisive moment in the life of one of the two commandos, Jozef Gabčík, and then he acknowledges his crime against history and identity: “How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet—a man who’s been dead a long time, who cannot defend himself,” writes Binet. “To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee.”
What Binet has done here deserves attention and even admiration, and it is provocative from beginning to end, but it comes with a caution and a risk. Binet is a novelist rather than a historian, and “HHhH” is neither a work of history nor a work of fiction in any pure sense. Rather, I would characterize the book—which I could not put down—as the troubled musings of an imaginative author on a subject that beggars the imagination.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which will be published under the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.