Category Archives: anti-Semitism

The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944)

JournalMihaiSebastian

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The journal of the Romanian Jewish essayist, playwright and novelist Mihai Sebastian is still seeped in historical controversy in his native country. In fact, this journal, which the author kept for nearly ten years (from 1935 to 1944), was such a taboo subject that it wasn’t published until 1998 (in French) by Editions Stock. The Ivan R. Dee English edition appeared in 2000, increasing the diary’s international exposure–as well as the controversy that surrounded it. The Journal of Mihai Sebastian is particularly problematic for the Romanian community, both in the country and abroad. It depicts the regimes that allied themselves with the Nazis as well as some of Romania’s most notable writers and philosophers—Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu–whom the playwright Eugene Ionesco characterized, due to their Fascist political affinities, as part of the “Iron Guard generation”–in a rather negative light. Sebastian’s frank and lucid picture of the Fascist influence in Romania can offend on several levels.

Many Romanians with strong nationalist sentiments still view Ion Antonescu as a national hero that protected the country’s interests in an impossible political context. Furthermore, even Romanians without strong nationalist feelings take great pride in Romania’s leading 20th century intellectuals, particularly Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu. Some of them do not take kindly to a frank discussion of these authors’ pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views in so far as bringing this subject up can cast doubt on their merit as writers and on their character.

I don’t think these are good reasons to shy away from reading this journal, however. The fact that Mihai Sebastian was himself a leading intellectual figure in the country and accepted as a friend by these authors gives us a more personal—and unique–glimpse into the cultural and political atmosphere of the times. This journal is interesting from both a historical and a philosophical perspective. It raises questions about Romania’s alliance with the Nazis and simultaneously explores the relation between morality and intellectuality (in the same way as discussions of Heidegger’s role in anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi discourse does). (See Philip Oltermann’s excellent article on this subject, published in The Guardian on March 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/13/martin-heidegger-black-notebooks-reveal-nazi-ideology-antisemitism).

Mihai Sebastian was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 in a Jewish family in Braila. He managed to survive Fascism, the war years and the Holocaust, only to die, absurdly, in a car accident in 1945. Sebastian studied law in Bucharest and mingled with Romania’s leading intellectual figures. His journal discusses his relatively close relationships with Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, Camil Petrescu and Eugene Ionesco. Of these authors, only Eugene Ionesco was critical of Fascism. Years later, in 1959, he even published a political drama about totalitarianism, Rhinocéros, in which he described his friends’ strange transformations under the pressure—and lure–of history’s dark forces, Communism, Fascism and Nazism.

Being Jewish in an epoch when Judaism was equivalent to a crime punishable by imprisonment, deportation and even death, Sebastian had ambivalent relations with Cioran, Eliade and Petrescu, all of whom expressed anti-Semitic views and were seduced by a combination of Nazi and nationalist ideology. At one point, Sebastian expresses shock in reading an article by Mircea Eliade in support of the Legionary Movement: “Friday, 17 (December). In yesterday’s Buna Vestire (year I, no. 244, dated Friday, 17 December 1937): “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement,” by Mircea Eliade” 133). Numerous times, Sebastian hopes that personal bonds of friendship can shift his friends’ anti-Semitic views. He tries to persuade Camil Petrescu–to no avail–that his anti-Semitism is irrational:

“Thursday, 25 [June] 1936. When we left Capsa we went a few steps down the street and he repeated what he thought of the latest anti-Semitic attacks… He went on to say: ‘My dear man, the Jews provoke things: they have a dubious attitude and get mixed up in things that don’t concern them. They are too nationalistic.’ ‘You should make up your mind, Camil. Are they nationalists or are they Communists?’ ‘Wow, you’re really something, you know?… What else is communism but the imperialism of Jews?’ (60) Disappointed that Petrescu won’t listen to reason, Sebastian notes, perplexed: “That is Camil Petrescu speaking. Camil Petrescu is one of the finest minds in Romania. Camil Petrescu is one of the most sensitive creatures in Romania” (60).

Facing prejudice from one’s peers is one thing; facing the prospect of imprisonment or even death is quite another. Between 1935 and 1941, the political situation deteriorates significantly for Jews in Romania (and most of Europe as well) . In August of 1941, Sebastian finds himself in grave danger of being sent to labor camp for the simple fact of being Jewish. He’s aware of the probable link between deportation and extermination: “The alarm I felt at first is returning. Are we again facing a mass roundup of Jews? Internment camps? Extermination?” (389) Like most Jews from Old Kingdom Romania, however, Sebastian escapes due to a series of unpredictable shifts in government policies. (See my article on the subject of Ion Antonescu’s regime, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/review-ion-antonescu).

Despite its trenchant critiques, however, Mihai Sebastian’s journal shouldn’t be judged only as an indictment of the political ideology of some of Romania’s leading intellectuals and of the country at large. Written in a lyrical and contemplative style reminiscent of an author Sebastian greatly admired–Marcel Proust–the journal also captures the author’s great appreciation of classical music, the cultural activities of the times, as well as his intriguing and often tumultuous love affairs, whom he compares to the vicissitudes of passion described by Proust in A la recherché du temps perdu.

As a memoir with political and ethical implications, Mihai Sebastian’s journal reminds us of the fact that political morality and intellectual merit aren’t necessarily linked. Great intellectuals can and do sometimes espouse immoral or chauvinist views. Does it follow that they they be judged only—or even mostly–in terms of those views? Absolutely not. Just like we shouldn’t judge Aristotle’s great contributions to philosophy only in terms of his “sexist” and incomplete views of women or Thomas Jefferson’s notable contributions to government, political theory and even architecture only in terms of having owned slaves and thus supported slavery, we shouldn’t judge Eliade, Cioran and Petrescu only (or mostly) in terms of their anti-Semitism or Fascist tendencies. Those of us who respect these writers need not fear that the truths expressed by Mihai Sebastian’s journal will diminish the intellectual worth of Romania’s leading authors. This book is important because it offers us a deeper understanding of Romania’s controversial, pro-Fascist years, from the perspective of a Jewish writer caught in the middle of cataclysmic events that he had the opportunity, lucidity and talent to describe exceptionally well.

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

Comments Off on The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944)

Filed under anti-Semitism, Camil Petrescu, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Emil Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Mihai Sebastian, Mircea Eliade, The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944), the Holocaust, The Journal of Mihai Sebastian

Double standards for the United States and Israel?

iran-down-with-usaSteveDennie.com

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Daniel Cristea-Enache, the Director of Romania’s premier culture blog, Literatura de Azi, didn’t mince words in describing the double standards the European media (and, it seems, the public at large) tend to have towards the United States and Israel: “We criticize Israel but not the terrorists that decapitate journalists and put the decapitation videos on the net. We criticize the United States under the Obama administration but not Russia led by Putin. In general, based upon these very “courageous” criticisms, we are led to the conclusion that democracies are guilty of everything bad while totalitarianism, authoritarianism and terrorism are…. What are they, dear critics of the decaying Western culture? Ah, I know: Americans and the Jews are to be blamed for everything!”
My thoughts exactly! Daniel Cristea-Enache hit the nail on the head: there are double standards when it comes to judging Israel and the United States. At least this is my impression too, in reading the media coverage of the anti-Semitic backlash throughout Europe fanned by the recent conflict in Gaza, a subject that I addressed in a previous article on Literatura de Azi:

http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/anti-semitism-today-and-assault-democratic-values

The question is why: Why are Israel and the United States being criticized for human rights violations far more than the authoritarian and fundamentalist leaders and groups that ruthlessly, and very publically, trample upon human rights and life?
I think that, for the most part, the reasons for these double standards differ for different agencies that launch the critiques. The extreme right (racist and neo-Nazi parties) and fundamentalist groups launch this critique based on power politics, rage and openly anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. The sanctity of human life in general doesn’t play much of a role in their rhetoric or actions.
On the other hand, the mainstream and leftwing media have more complex reasons for holding the United States and Israel accountable to higher moral standards than, let’s say, autocratic leaders like Putin or terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Some of these reasons I find valid, others I believe have an element of bad faith.

1. A smaller evil is often criticized far more than enormous crimes against humanity. As the French philosopher and biologist Jean Rostand once said, “Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men and you are a conqueror. Kill them all and you are a God” (Thoughts of a Biologist, 1938). Stalin succinctly explained the logic of mass murder with impunity in the famous quote: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Like Hitler, he practiced what he preached. Those who do the most harm are often also the ones held to the lowest standards of ethics. At times they’re even glorfied as idols who lived and sacrificed others to create a better society or world.

2. Anti-Semitism is sometimes the spoken or unspoken reason for the unilateral attack on Israel for human rights violations that Arab nations or groups commit as well, often on a larger scale.

3. We judge democracies by higher moral standards than autocracies, totalitarian regimes and terrorist groups. I find a lot of validity in this. The United States has long been describing itself as the bastion of Western democracy in the world. Israel describes itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. These nations should be held to a high standard in their respect for human rights and democratic values. But that doesn’t mean that we should focus exclusively on their faults and violations of their own priciples. We should judge every nation and group by the same universal human rights and ethical standards.

4. We tend to focus on the most visible democratic nations. When I did some research for an earlier article about the Western response to the genocide by the Hutus of the Tutsi population in Rwanda, I was appalled to read that the Western media (and governments) largely ignored or downplayed what was happening. A million people were hacked to death and, during the worst period of mass murder, the world did next to nothing about it. France even supported the murderous Hutu faction (see http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/genocide-rwanda-me-against-my-brother-scott-peterson).

How much does the media and the public at large really care about human rights when one African group tramples upon the human rights of another African group (as was the case in the genocide in Rwanda) or when one Arab group or nation violates the human rights of another? The answer is: not much, and certainly not as much as when Israel or the United States happen to be the culprits. We tend to hold the most visible democratic nations responsible for their human rights violations while turning a blind eye to—or at least not caring as much about–what happens in countries ruled by dictatorships, radical extremists or totalitarian regimes. If we truly care about human rights, we should indict any country or group that violates them, not just the United States and Israel.

Claudia Moscovici
Holocaust Memory

Comments Off on Double standards for the United States and Israel?

Filed under anti-Semitism, Claudia Moscovici, Daniel Cristea-Enache, Double Standards for the U.S. and Israel, Holocaust Memory, human rights, Literatura de Azi, Rwanda genocide, the conflict in the Middle East

Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values

AnneFrank

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values

by Claudia Moscovici 

In a recent article published in The Guardian on August 7, 2014, Jon Henley begins with an ominous headline: “Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’”. He cites several sources for this alarming conclusion, including Crif, France’s collective Jewish organizations, which reported that in the last month seven synagogues were attacked, a kosher supermarket looted and crowds gathered to chant with banners “Death to Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats’”. In Germany, Henley pursues, people threw Molotov cocktails into the Bergische synagogue in Wuppertal, the same building that a mob led by the SS attacked during Kristallnacht. Henley goes on to cite that a Berlin imam called on Allah to destroy the Zionist Jews… Count them and kill them, to the very last one”.

These recurring incidents are reminiscent of Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), angry crowds, led by SA paramilitary forces, attacked Jews in Germany and Austria on November 9-10 of 1938, destroying and looting Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues. This anti-Semitic rampage ushered Hitler’s even more drastic economic and racial persecution of the Jews, paving the way for the Final Solution.

Such violent incidents led Dieter Graumann, the President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, to state “These are the worst times since the Nazi era”. In France, Roger Cukierman, the President of France’s Crif, similarly expressed his concern that the severe anti-Semitic backlash goes far beyond opposition to Israel’s current policies in Gaza or even against the state of Israel: “They are not screaming ‘Death to the Israelis’ on the streets of Paris. They are screaming’ Death to the Jews’”. As Henley explains, it’s not only the Jewish communities in Europe that have serious reasons for concern. These hateful anti-Semitic outcries signal a danger for human rights and democratic institutions in general. Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, rightly declared the current wave of anti-Semitism as “an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state”.

As much as these hate-filled actions and demonstrations against European Jews are cause for concern, it’s worth noting that the situation can’t really be compared—at least not yet—to Europe during the reign of Fascism. For one, it’s somewhat reassuring that European heads of government don’t endorse these hate messages and assaults. Second, I’d be interested in finding out more about who is expressing such anti-Semitic violence: if it’s mostly Islamic extremists, sadly, that’s to be expected. It’s not only Jews, but also the United States and Western civilization in general, that are often the target of their rage.

We face a grave danger, I believe, when such attitudes gain ground with the mainstream public: that is to say, when the general population of European countries becomes used to the anti-Semitic rage and remains indifferent to it or, even worse, begins to support it. This can easily happen when legitimate humanitarian concern–for the welfare of the Palestinian population in Gaza, for instance—turns into anti-humanitarian hatred against the Jews. I have described briefly the nature of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza in an article about Yariv Horowitz’s film on the subject, Rock the Casbah:

 

http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/impossible-conflict-gaza-strip-rock-casbah-directed-yariv-horowitz

 

I mention this article here because the most recent outburst of anti-Semitism in Europe was fanned by recent Israeli air strikes in Gaza, in July 2014, which killed over 200 Palestinians (according to Palestinian sources). These strikes were launched in retaliation to over one thousand rockets fired against Israel from Gaza (according to Israeli reports). Most of us have opinions, and many of us have strong feelings, about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. It’s perfectly defensible to disagree on this subject or to disapprove, from a humanitarian perspective, of the violations of human rights that occur on both sides. For as long as our standards of value remain humanitarian—to defend the lives and human rights of all people—I think we will be safe, as civilizations, from the ravages of another Holocaust.

The greatest danger, I believe, occurs when the mainstream public loses sight of democratic and humanitarian values and asks for the annihilation of one people (in this case, the Jews) in the name of defending the human rights of another (in this case, the Palestinians). This violation of the humanitarian standards they claim to support risks destroying not only the Jewish population once again, but also the democratic values which underpin Western societies. It happened to the Weimar Republic and other governments during WWII and it could, indeed, happen again.

Those who protest Israel’s policies in Gaza on universal humanitarian grounds while engaging in Anti-Semitic actions or speech are showing that they don’t really care about humanitarian values or causes in general. They defend only the rights of one group and are prepared to trample upon the rights of another. In my opinion, defending human rights in general—and disagreeing openly yet respectfully about how governments, political parties or individuals violate them—is far more important than being either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. If we don’t want to witness another genocide, first and foremost, let us all be pro-human.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

Comments Off on Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values

Filed under Angela Markel, anti-Semitism, Anti-Semitism today and the assault on democratic values, Claudia Moscovici, conflict in Gaza, Crif, Dieter Graumann, Holocaust Memory, Jon Henley, Kristallnacht, Rock the Casbah, Roger Cukierman, The Guardian, Yariv Horowitz

Hateful words: Nazi propaganda and the freedom of expression

Nazi poster, from USHMM.org

Nazi poster, from USHMM.org

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

 

The freedom of expression is a double-edged sword. Without it, probably no other freedom is possible. Yet this freedom can also lead to the consolidation of totalitarian regimes when groups defined by hatred and discrimination use it to further their political goals. This is exactly what happed with the rise of the Nazi regime. The freedom of expression, which was more or less respected by the Weimar Republic, was turned into propaganda: hateful words and grandiose nationalist promises, used to sway public opinion in support of Nazi ideology.

An inherently manipulative man, Adolf Hitler realized from the start the value of propaganda. His autobiographical treatise, Mein Kampf (1926), includes three chapters on the importance of propaganda in shaping public opinion. Hitler states, quite explicitly: “Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people… The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings…” He continues to argue that these feelings can, and should be, biased as opposed to aiming for the truth: “Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favorable to the other side, present it to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side” (Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Once the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Hitler promptly set up a Reich Ministry of Propaganda under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels. The propaganda machine took over all forms of expression: including art, film, literature, journalism, theater and the educational system. The media became saturated with messages of blame and scorn for the Jews, described as the cause of all of Germany’s problems. Not content with controlling the content and means of expression in Germany, the Nazi regime also actively suppressed other points of view. As early as 1933, they sent to prison and concentration camps their perceived political opponents.

Propaganda, or hateful words, became an essential tool that enabled the gruesome reality of the Holocaust. By labeling Jews as “subhuman”, the Nazi media justified their racial discrimination and oppression. Newspapers such as “The People’s Observer”, “The Attack” and “The Reich” depicted Jews as parasites that depleted the resources of Western civilization and corrupted the Aryan gene pool. Sending contradictory messages didn’t weaken the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda. By describing Jews as, simultaneously, the greediest capitalists and the leaders of Bolshevism, the Nazi media could reach an even broader audience and political spectrum. However, nationalism remained the Nazi movement’s most effective means of manipulation of public opinion in Germany. Blaming the Jews for Germany’s defeat in WWI and for its subsequent economic collapse helped Hitler gain the support of the masses. Sometimes propaganda functioned as a cover that hid, rather than generated, information. The Final Solution plan to exterminate the Jewish people was alluded to in code and not reported to the general public.

The means of communication became as important as the message itself. The Nazis realized the importance of technology in disseminating their message to the general public. In his speech “Radio as the Eight Great Power”, Goebbels declares: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio… “ Each time Hitler invaded a foreign country, he launched a propaganda campaign that turned the facts upside down. For instance, the German media described the invasion of Poland, both in the country and internationally, as an act of self-defense against a belligerent enemy nation. The same distortion of truth took place shortly before and during the war with the Soviet Union, starting with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Although Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a Nazi-Soviet pact (on August 23, 1939) that made them allies, once Germany launched a war, the Nazis justified their actions in the press as a defensive move made against Bolshevik Jews, who aimed to take over and destroy the world.

Propaganda remains a risk today in countries that respect the freedom of expression. Given the way in which the mass media has become accessible to everyone, even the most hateful and extremist groups can propagate their message to the general public in democratic societies. For this reason, the U.S. placed a few limitations to the freedom of speech that may diminish the power of hate groups. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares the freedom of religion, of speech and of the press. During the twentieth-century, however, this freedom of expression became subject to certain limitations: 1. Speech (or writing) that presents “a clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment. 2. Similarly, “fighting words,” or speech meant to incite immediate violence is also not protected. 3. Libel and slander, or making false statements about an individual or a group of people, likewise don’t qualify as “free speech”. Finally, the First Amendment no longer protects “obscenity.”

Although the freedom of expression isn’t absolute in democratic societies, placing some restrictions upon it may not be enough to prevent hate groups from using propaganda to rise to power. What is said and printed is as important as what is censored. Offering quality information in the media—well-verified facts, with intelligent analyses and commentaries–about events that happen all over the world keeps the public informed, so that we’re better judges of the information we’re presented. Ignorance is far from being bliss. On the contrary, it’s the perfect context for manipulation by dangerous groups hungry for power and blood.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

Comments Off on Hateful words: Nazi propaganda and the freedom of expression

Filed under Adolf Hitler, anti-Semitism, Claudia Moscovici, hate groups, literature salon, Nazi Germany, Nazi propaganda, propaganda, Reich Ministry of Propaganda, the First Ammendment