Saturday, 30 April 2016

Anti-Semitism in British Politics

Ken Livingstone (who should always be referred to by the prefix ‘controversial’), the former mayor of London, has been suspended by Livingstone’s old rabble-rousing pal, Jeremy, who now heads the British Labour Party.
A Labour MP from Bradford (a piss-poor Northern town in England), called Naz Shah (I hope I won’t be called racist for mentioning, here, that Ms Shah is a Muslim, whose parents were migrants to the UK from that cradle of democracy and secularism in South East Asia, called Pakistan, and she herself spent her teen-age years in that country, no doubt imbibing liberal attitudes and tolerance towards all faiths), before she became an MP in the UK general elections of 2015, shared on her Facebook page (with dozens of people) a poster that suggested that Israel should relocate to America as the transportation cost would be worth it. The poster further commented that Americans would welcome the Israelis with open arms and it would also bring peace to Middle East by ending foreign interference.  Alongside the poster Ms Shah posted her own comment: “Problem solved.” And, in order not to leave any doubt in the minds of the people with whom she shared this poster on her Facebook page about how she felt about this proposal, Ms Shah added a smiley face. (Was Ms Shah ironic when she posted ‘problem solved’, the renowned British irony which the Americans don’t get because they are not very clever? Did she mean exactly the opposite of what she posted and the smiley face represented an emotion exactly opposite of that which she was experiencing at that time (anger, despair, sadness)? Impossible to say. It is not easy to express irony effectively when you are posting on Facebook.) Ms Shah's Facebook poster was unearthed by a right-wing blogger with a ridiculous sobriquet, in April 2016, almost two years after Ms Shah posted it (I am guessing this is the full time job of the right wing blogger with the ridiculous sobriquet—not obsessively following Naz Shah on Facebook, as that would be stalking—but blogging). Predictably politicians whipped themselves into a frenzy. Naz Shah issued several apologies, including one in a Jewish rag, which, if you are of a gullible nature, you would say were sincere and from the heart of her bottom—I mean the bottom of her heart—and not a last-ditch attempt by a desperate politician to save her skin. It did not work. Pressure mounted on Jeremy Corbyn, the man who exudes the charisma of a Batchelor soup packet, to do something about it, and eventually Ms Shah was suspended from the Labour party for bringing it into disrepute; but not before Jeremy’s spokesperson provided some unintended entertainment to public. This is what the spokesperson said: “We are not suggesting that she [Naz Shah] is anti-Semitic. We are saying she’s made remarks she does not agree with.” How is that possible? There are a few instances when someone says things they do not agree with. For example, people might be forced to say things they secretly do not agree with. Since this post is about Jews and anti-Semitism, I shall follow Ken Livingstone’s example and give a historical instance to illustrate this point. On the eve of the Second World War, the Nazis finally allowed Sigmund Freud to leave Vienna and go into exile in England, but not before they fleeced Freud off his wealth. And that was not enough. Freud had to sign an affidavit before he left Vienna that he had been treated very fairly and with courtesy by the Nazis. Freud signed the affidavit (I suspect he did not have a choice). After he signed the affidavit, Freud added a comment: "I recommend the Gestapo to everyone." (Now that is irony for you). Another example: people might say things they do not actually believe in because they feel that saying such things will bring rewards. Like the Tory Prime-minister of the UK, Cameron, saying that he deeply cares for the poor people of his country, even though he knows (he does; don't ask me how; he just does) that they are a bunch of selfish, boorish, stupid people who have not done an honest day’s work in three generations. David ("Call me Dave") says these things which he probably does not believe in himself because he also believes that that is the thing to say to project an image of compassionate Tories. Sometimes people might say things they do not agree with just to irritate the other person (I have done this many times). However, I can’t think of a single instance when someone would knowingly say things they don’t agree with without a reason or motivation, when they are in full control of their faculties. So the explanation given by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokes-person to explain Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was strange at best, disingenuous at worst, and ridiculous at all times.

You would have hoped that that would be the end of it; the nutters on the Labour’s left would keep their traps shut and let the controversy die, which is what, you will remember, the Tories did when Boris Johnson made comments about the ancestry of the American President, Barak Obama.

However, to expect the lefties to act and talk sensibly, when there is an opportunity to embarrass everyone with their deranged wittering, is like expecting a raging bull to ignore the China shop as it charges down the high street.  Ken Livingstone decided to come out in support of the suspended Naz Shah. The nicest thing one can say about Ken is that he is unbearable; his very existence is an affront to everything that is decent. The man does not have many sensible ideas in his head, and, to compound the problem, little to no control over his mouth: there is no filter between the muscles of his brain and mouth.

Never shy of offering his opinion, Ken went round giving interviews the day after Ms Shah was finally suspended from the Labour party. What did Ken say? He was dismissive of the claims that there was anti-Semitism in Labour. Never in his 47 years in the Labour party did Ken hear “anyone saying anti-Semitic.” Ken had “heard a lot of criticism of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians”, but he had “never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”  You hear that, and you think to yourself, well, that’s is, like, Ken’s view. If Ken never heard anyone in the Labour Party say anything anti-Semitic, that could be because either no one in the Labour party said anything anti-Semitic, or because what they said was not deemed to be anti-Semitic by Ken because—some might argue; indeed, John Mann, another Labour MP with impulse-control issues, has suggested this publically—Ken himself is an anti-Semite and (to quote John Mann, again) a “disgusting Nazi apologist.” On a general note, I have come across hardly any racists who accept that they are racists; it’s others who think they are racists. Most racists are shocked and deeply offended when it is suggested that they are racists. Anyway, coming back to Ken’s interview, you might say that so far what he said might be interpreted as denial, lack of insight etcetera, but not in itself deserving of suspension from the party. Next, Ken offered his insight on Naz Shah’s Facebook comment. Ken gave Naz Shah the moral X-ray and concluded that everything was ship-shape. “It [Naz Shah’s Facebook comment] is over the top but it is not anti-Semitism,” declared Ken, in his nasal tone. (To say that Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was just ‘over the top’ is a bit like saying Jeremy (Clarkson) was a bit over the top when he threw punches at the producer of Top Gear and inflicted ABH on the poor Irish man, because there was a 4 minute delay in the steak or the curry or whatever disgusting food Clarkson shoves down his gullet, after a day's filming of the Top Gear.) Back to Ken and his interview. To emphasize his point that Naz Shah was not an anti-Semite, Ken obviously believed what he needed to do was to bring Hitler to the discussion (thereby revealing his magnificent grasp on the fabric of the universe). “Let’s remember,” Ken reminded, “when Hitler won his elections in 1932, his policy, then, was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism—this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” It was this comment which landed Ken in hot waters and left his mate Jeremy (Corbyn) with no choice but to suspend him. Ken made a few more comments in the interview, which, interestingly (though not surprisingly) enough, sought to support Corbyn: Ken saw deep conspiracy in all this to smear Corbyn and “his associates” (presumably Ken included himself in this group, though he did not say this explicitly) as anti-Semite, neglecting to mention, somehow, that Corbyn himself had suspended Naz Shah, and Shah had issued grovelling apologies. (This suggests that Ken questioned the judgment of his mate, Jeremy, or else, he was suggesting that Jeremy did what his spokesperson said Naz Shah did, when she posted her comment on the Facebook: took an action he did not agree with.)

Coming back to Ken’s comment about Hitler and the Jews, it must strike those amongst us who have got a shred of decency as offensive and wrong on so many counts. Even George Galloway thought Ken’s comments were poorly judged (which is saying something; when it comes to making poorly judged insane remarks Galloway is the world-leader). Taking at face value, Ken seems to suggest that in 1932, when Hitler was elected, he was this nice, sensible, humane person, who was deeply compassionate towards the Jews; he supported Zionism, and was supportive of their wish to be relocated to Israel (which did not exist then, and would not come into existence for sixteen more years); until, regrettably, a few years later, he was struck down by mental illness (what was it? Schizophrenia? Bipolar Disorder? Adult ADHD?), and somehow ended up killing six million Jews. (Perhaps, Corbyn's spokesperson, if asked for a comment, will say Hitler did things he did not agree with.) If Hitler had not blown his brains away in 1945 and was captured instead, continuing with Ken’s logic, all that the man would have needed was a good barrister who would have put in a successful plea for manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. Leaving aside all this, I fail to understand the logic of bringing in Hitler when Ken, for all outward appearances, was bleating about how Naz Shah’s comment was not anti-Semitic, not even offensive, but just “over the top”. Ken’s logic seemed to be as follows: “Look, even uncle Adolf, that paragon of humanity (before he went mad, of course), was supporting Zionism and doing what he could to “transport” the Jews to Israel, so what’s the problem with Naz Shah’s support to the suggestion that Israel should be relocated to America?

Here is a suggestion: if you are a public figure and are trying to defend your friend against the accusations of anti-Semitism, it is advisable not mention Hitler. Leave Hitler out of the debate. Chance are your comments will be misconstrued (or worse, people might see you as a racist); you will get suspended from the party; and you will end up dragging the party you purportedly hold so dear into unnecessary and wholly avoidable controversy.

Ken shows no signs of regret or repentance (which is entirely in keeping with the man's character: he has no insight) and is saying that everything he said about Hitler and Jews is a historical fact, which he can prove (Ken has George Galloway's support in this, which, if you ask me is a kiss of death). John Mann, the aforementioned Labour MP, publically confronted Ken after Ken's interview, and, when he managed to take a breather from hurling abuses at Ken, suggested that Ken needed help. (The consensus seems to be that Mann did not stage this performance; he just lost the plot, something which, ironically enough, he declared Ken had lost when he shouted at Ken. It was, to say the least, an unedifying spectacle.) My assessment is that Ken cannot be helped. (Come to think of it John Mann is beyond help, too. I think that both Mann and Livingstone have lost the plots. The kindest thing for them, and for the British public, is to throw both of them in a deep dungeon (and leave them to fight it out between them (with George Galloway as the referee)), and then throw the key in the sea.

Are Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah anti-Semite? The problem, here, is that racism, like most prejudices, is mostly subconscious for most people. What you are left with is a deep dislike for a group or people, which you try to rationalise using a variety of means. It is also worth keeping in mind that a racist person need not be prejudiced against all races. You may go on marches with the Africans and the Asians and the Arabs; and could be racially prejudiced against the Jews or Americans or Europeans or Russians or Scandinavians (either singly or in combination).

To paraphrase Brecht, when the Labour dies by its own hand (the next general election, in 2020) Corbyn, Ken Livingstone (I am sure he will be reinstated) and John McDonnell will be that hand.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Book of the Month: The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)

Steve Sem-Sandberg’s Emperor of Lies was a huge success in his native Sweden when it was published. It won Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, the August Prize. Since then the novel has gone on to become an international bestseller, and has been translated into 25 languages.

Emperor of Lies is a Holocaust novel; it can also be described as historical fiction. It gives the reader a view—that is panoramic and intimate at the same time—of the Jewish ghetto the Nazi established in 1939 in Lodz, a Polish city 70 miles from Warsaw (which the Nazis renamed Litzmannstadt, after Karl Litzmann, a German general who defeated the Russians near the city in the First World War). The ghetto, at one time, had a quarter of a million Jews—both Polish and those deported from other parts of Europe—living in it. It was liquidated in August 1944.

A dominating figure in the novel is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the eponymous emperor of lies, the ‘eldest of the Jews’ and the ‘Chairman’ of the Lodz ghetto, who presided over it and its inhabitants (with the conniving eye of the Ghetto’s civilian German administrator, Hans Biebow, the real power in the ghetto), in the four years of its existence, in a manner that ensured that he (Rumkowski) would, forever, remain, a controversial figure in the history of the Holocaust.

Rumkowski, it should be noted, is only one of the many real life (and fictional) characters that populate this behemoth of a novel (640 pages). Indeed there are so many that after a while you lose track of them, especially those who make periodic appearances and zoom in and out of the narrative.

Rumkowski might be the central, even pivotal, character, but the novel is—despite its title—not about him; or not only about him. There are large sections of the novel where he is completely absent, as Sem-Sandberg goes into the minutiae of the lives of other characters. What Sem-Sandberg has attempted here, for the best part with great success and panache, is to create for the reader the day-to-day existence—if it could be called that—of its benighted Jewish residents. In his endeavours Sem-Sandberg was no doubt helped by the extensive records (more than 3000 pages) of the life in the Lodz ghetto, created, bizarrely enough, at the behest of Rumkowski, which survived the liquidation of the ghetto (and which, in addition to the accounts of the survivors of the ghetto, made him a villain, a Nazi collaborator, in the eyes of some). It is clear that Sem-Sandberg has painstakingly researched the novel. One of the consequences is that on several occasions the dividing line between facts and fiction gets blurred. Indeed there are instances when the writer makes it clear that he is telling a fact within the fiction (by quoting references). Some of the speeches delivered by Rumkowski—for example, his now infamous speech to the first departing families when the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto in 1943—and Biebow seem to have been quoted directly and are printed in a font that is different from that of the rest of the novel.  

There are so many characters in the novel, each with his own riveting story, that it is difficult to do justice to all of them in a single review. As the reader reads the travails of the ghetto’s denizens, their daily struggle for survival, and the unspeakable misery that pervaded what passed for their lives in the Lodz ghetto, the overriding feeling you are left with is of numbness. Sem-Sandberg’s achievement is that with only very occasional tendency towards melodrama, he depicts the full horror of the ghetto life. Indeed at times Emperor of Lies reads less like a novel than an account of the daily lives of Jewish families living in the Lodz ghetto. Some of the stories, like that of Adam Rezpin, are dealt with in some detail, whereas stories of some others, like that of Vera Schulz, the daughter of a Czech Jewish doctor, who is plucked out of Prague and deported to Lodz, are left without a closure. As a result the novel does not have an organized, concise feel to it. Only those readers with interest in and knowledge of the Lodz ghetto would be able to tell whether the wide cast of characters in the novel were true historical figures (who lived through those times) or whether they are the products of the writer’s creativity. Does the distinction matter? The answer is yes, but probably not a great deal. The stories of the several characters in the novel are variations of a single theme: the depredations of the human mind (in this case the Nazis) that make people commit abominable crimes against fellow human beings. If one assumes that the characters in the novel are purely imaginary (with the exception of the obviously historical characters such as Rumkowski and Hans Biebow to name just two; Heinrich Himmler, too, makes a guest appearance), then one wonders whether the theme couldn’t have been conveyed as powerfully with a smaller cast of characters. Their stories, however, are told extremely well, and have a kind of appalling fascination about them. Sem-Sandberg has created some bravura characters, such as the fat Jewish smuggler in the ghetto who is nick-named ‘The Belly’ in reference to his overhanging gut ‘between his flabby arms’, and Princess Helena, the highly eccentric bird-loving sister-in-law of Rumkowski. 

Sem-Sandberg goes in and out of the minds of the novel’s myriad characters with great ease. The exception is Rumkowski. Strangely enough he does not come alive for the reader the way many others, even the German administrator, Biebow, do. Sem-Sandberg does not attempt to enter the head of the man who presided over the lives of a quarter of a million Jews in a manner that—you are encouraged to conclude by the end of the novel—was autocratic to say the least. The inner world of Chaim Rumkowski does not lighten up for the reader. The reader is left to draw his own inferences about the character of the man from what he sees of his action through the prism of Sem-Sandberg’s prose.

The Rumkowski that emerges from the novel is a mixture of vanity, grandiosity, ruthlessness, perversion and pathos. Not a great deal of information is provided about his past. He is a failed businessman, and a ruthless and unscrupulous seller of insurance certificates. He is childless. When his first wife dies in 1937 (Rumkowski was 60 by this time) he has a kind of religious conversion, and he opens an orphanage for Jewish children, which, at its peak, houses several hundred children. The novel depicts Rumkowski as a paedophile, who sexually abuses his son whom he adopts in 1943.  (The son, along with the rest of Rumkowski’s family, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and was murdered on arrival.) I do not know whether the paedophilic element introduced in Rumkowski’s character is based on historical evidence or is a product of the author’s imagination. If the latter is the case, one wonders whether it was necessary to make the man a paedophile in addition to his other myriad character defects—for which there is historical evidence is a-plenty. Rumkowski is chosen by the Nazis to run the ghetto (which lasted the longest, although all but 900 of its 230,000 inhabitants—Rumkowski included—were eventually murdered by the Nazis. When the Russians ‘liberated’ the Lodz ghetto there were only 877 inhabitants left in the ghetto.) Rumkowski has his own Jewish police force, headed by the wily and corrupt Dawid Gertler (who, the novel’s Afterward informs the reader, incredibly and unlike Rumkowski, survives the liquidation, and emerges in 1961 to testify against Fusch, the German commander in charge of ghetto). The Jewish police force is scarcely less ruthless than the Germans and, when the deportations begin, goes to great lengths to ferret out the hiding Jewish families so that they could be sent to their deaths. Corruption is rife (as are infectious diseases), and those in the good books of, or are close to, the ‘Chairman’ are higher in the pecking order. The ghetto has its own currency, called ‘Rumki’, and even postage stamps that bear the face of Rumkowski! There is no doubt that Rumkowski is a man fully convinced of his importance in the order of things.

When the novel opens, the ghetto has been ‘functional’ for almost three years. The war is turning against the Germans, although they will not accept it, at least not outwardly, and certainly not to the Jews. As Biebow informs Rumkowski matter-of-factly, Germans have to feed their own first. The dictate has come from Berlin that 20,000 of the ghetto’s Jews will have to be deported to the incinerators of the concentration camps. It is Rumkowski’s job to do that for them. Rumkowski gives a speech to the ghetto denizens and tells them that the only way to ensure that the ghetto exists is to give the Germans what they want. That means the old and the infirm and the children will have to go. In a speech (quoted in the novel verbatim from Rumkowski’s original) that is an odd mixture of pathos and grandiosity (“For 66 years I have lived and not yet granted the happiness of being called Father, and now the authorities demand to me that I sacrifice all my children”) Rumkowski ‘demands’ that the parents volunteer their children younger than 9 years to the German administration. That, he says, is the price the ghetto has to pay if the rest want to survive.

This seems to have been Rumkowski’s position all along. He would appear to have convinced himself that if only the Jews made themselves indispensable to the Germans by their ‘hard work’ and ‘production’, they would be allowed to survive in the Third Reich. Indeed he even imagined—so the novel tells you—that the Nazis would allow an autonomous Jewish state (of which of course he would be the ruler, the satrap of the Nazis) in their Reich. Hence perhaps his acquiescence to the German demands, and his constant mantra that only labour and hard work would save the Jews. Hence also perhaps his insistence that children as young as nine should do hours of back-breaking work to support the Nazi war-machine. That, he probably felt, was the only way to make sure that they did not end up on the transport carriages to incineration camps.  In this, as in his many other suppositions, Rumkowski was tragically wrong. While the Lodz ghetto survived longer than other ghettos (and made profits for the Nazis worth millions of deutschmarks), the Nazis liquidated it eventually, and Rumkowski’s life (as also the lives of his family members) ended like hundreds of thousands of Jews: in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, since the Nazi civilian administrator Biebow—who fought an increasingly desperate battle to keep Himmler’s SS from taking control of the ghetto—put Rumkowski and his Jewish police in charge of what he euphemistically put as organizing transport, it meant that the once-failed businessman was deciding who amongst the denizens of ghetto would stay back and have hopes of surviving and who would be transported to the death camps. And the novel suggests that he was ruthless about it.

In the Afterward to the novel Sem-Sandberg asserts that he has not taken any ideological position as to whether Rumkowski was a monster, a corrupt administrator who collaborated with the Nazis, or whether he—despite his character faults—did what he did with the genuine belief that that was the best way to ensure the survival of his people. That said the novel drops large hints that Sem-Sandberg belongs to the ‘Rumkowski is a monster’ camp (clue is in the title of the novel). His distinction lies in the fact that at no stage does he forget (and does not let the readers forget) who were the real villains: the Nazis. Rumkowski might preen as much as he wants, presiding over the fates of his fellow Jews, but the Nazis step in whenever they choose and put him in his place, such as the instance when Biebow slaps Rumkowski publically. They were the ultimate monsters who reduced a race to sub-human level.

As one finishes reading this absorbing, if somewhat rambling, account of a Jewish ghetto in Poland and its elderly Jewish administrator, one is left with indescribable feelings of sadness for the human condition. A remarkable novel on a tragic episode in the twentieth century European history, translated in faultless English by Sarah Death.