Nov 2009 Journal
Letters to the Editor
‘BRITISH FIRST, JEWISH SECOND’
Sir - Peter Phillips’s article ‘British First, Jewish Second’ (October) is based on a delusion - that Jews can ever be anything other than Jews. What, after all, does ‘diaspora’ mean other than that we are if not temporary, then at best tolerated, residents of the country in which we have come to live? We may be fully assimilated, we may be indistinguishable from the average native, we may have contributed to the arts, sciences and Nobel Prizes, but we are and remain Jews - which gives us, all things being equal, a tenuous existence in all countries (apart from Israel), an existence which can at any time be threatened by the vagaries of so-called public opinion.
It is, after all, this delusion which persuaded hundreds of thousands of German Jews to believe that their assimilation into German society - often going back centuries - had some sort of meaning. The 150,000 who fled Germany before 1938 knew that it did not. Those who stayed realised too late that even wearing their grey uniforms, earning their iron crosses and contributing immeasurably to the social, cultural and political life of their adopted country had no meaning at all. Loyalty to the country in which we live is a fine and honourable thing, but it cannot protect us from prejudice, persecution and expulsion when the day comes that we are no longer wanted.
Sir - Although I no longer live in the UK, I heartily endorse Peter Phillips’s article. What he says about combating anti-Semitism is, of course, valid for many other parts of the world.
I would just like to add one point to his list of things that might help: the name of Holocaust Day. Having lost much of my family in the Holocaust, I would be the last to wish to belittle its memory. However, I feel strongly that this memory, and the Jewish cause, would be better served by calling it Genocide Day. This would be a more appropriate, inclusive and effective title and encourage awareness of all the other atrocities and mass exterminations, which still continue.
Peter Phillips writes about extolling Jewish achievements, but I think that his point about becoming closer to other denominations is far more important, especially with moderate Muslims. This requires a show of sympathy and not standing apart. Concentrating on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, instead of regarding it as another genocide, does not help the cause of fighting anti-Semitism.
Sir - I was pleased to see some reference in Anthony Grenville’s article ‘Jews in Double Jeopardy’ in your September issue to the many Jews (and certainly others) who left Germany originally for political reasons. They left because they were well-known active members or sympathisers of left-wing parties and/or trade unions. This made them the very first targets of the Nazi regime immediately after Hitler came to power. Many went to Paris, where, from early 1933 onwards, there assembled a large German, predominantly Jewish, radical exile community. Among them were Hannah Arendt, Ruth Fischer, one of the leaders of the German Communist Party, Walter Benjamin, Norbert Elias and Gisela Freund. Also there for similar reasons were my parents. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was the Liberal rabbi in Frankfurt. My mother and her sister had been known in Frankfurt as ‘die zwei roten Töchter des Herrn Rabbiners’ (the Rabbi’s two red daughters).
Hearing that a warrant had been issued for their arrest, and at a few hours’ notice, my parents left Germany within days of Hitler’s seizure of power. They went via Strasbourg to Paris, where I was born. In addition to my parents, other political émigrés included two of my aunts and an uncle. It was a difficult time, with considerable anti-German feeling, only 15 years after the end of the First World War. Moreover, it was the height of the Depression and, with millions of French people unemployed, German refugees, many with less than fluent French, had great trouble in finding work. For a while, some were supported by the Comité pour les réfugiés allemands (financed, I believe, by the Rothschilds), but this came to an end. My mother got some intermittent badly paid work as a freelance bookbinder. Nevertheless, we scarcely had enough to eat. My mother told me I had been named Pierre because, knowing we would have to leave but unsure where we could go next, the name translates easily into virtually every European language.
Most extraordinarily (to me), my parents and I returned to Germany, I think with false papers, late in 1934 or early 1935. At first, we lived with my grandparents back in Frankfurt but later, and for rather longer, in Berlin. In late 1937, with considerable difficulty, my parents obtained the papers enabling them to come to England. Walter Benjamin died attempting to escape to Spain (there is a moving memorial to him in the cemetery of the French frontier town Port Bou). Norbert Elias came to England. Others, like Hannah Arendt, found refuge in America. Some went to Palestine. Gisela Freund spent the war in the Argentine.
I would be interested to hear from any of your readers with similar experiences, especially those who spent time in France before coming to England.
‘MY VIENNA IS DEAD’
Sir - I had an experience similar to Mrs Holden’s (September) last July. I hadn’t been in Vienna for 40 years and then had gone only to visit my father in hospital when he fell ill on holiday.
My friend and I took a river cruise to Budapest and the boat stopped for a day in Vienna. Here we met a friend for dinner. The time spent at dinner was the only pleasant experience we had. The city was ‘cold’, the people the usual unfriendly, unsmiling and miserable lot. Culturally and socially Vienna seemed dead, with the possible exception of the Opera and Burgtheater, which I loved so much when I left Vienna, aged 16, in June 1938. Even the Konditoreien were bad and served by sulky staff, mostly Croats and Slovaks. So far as I am concerned, I will never return to Vienna or Austria again.
I also read Peter Phillip’s ‘Last Trip to Vienna?’ in the July issue. If he has any pride, he won’t go back. The true Austrians never had any liking for Jews - they made the country judenfrei and so it should remain. The Jews there now are almost exclusively immigrants from the Eastern countries and only a handful of pre-1938 Austrian Jews are still alive. I note that Mr Phillips’s father was a member of Hakoah. So was I, as was my late wife Ruth Langer, who with her two friends didn’t go to Berlin’s Olympiad in 1936. The three girls were Austria’s best swimmers and were appointed to represent Austria (this story is well known). I objected strongly to the resurrection of Hakoah. There are very few Hakoahners left in Vienna and the millions spent on the building should have been sent to Israel and the building erected there. We don’t want to have Jews living in a country that doesn’t want them.
ILLUSION OF GRANDEUR
Sir - The letters to the journal praising the food and fabulous eating places in Vienna take up many columns. The Griechenbeisel and Rauchfangkehrer (Peter Phillips, July) take us on a globe-shrinking journey of discovery. Great shame no one mentioned the Café Landtmann!
The Wiener Schnitzel is praised to heaven. It is good food, but not exactly Cordon Bleu! Field Marshal Radetzky enjoyed the army food during his Italian campaign, particularly the thin brown and crusty veal. On his return to Vienna, he instructed his cook to serve this whenever he had visitors. It became known as a local dish – Wiener Schnitzel. The Austrians are accredited with the creation of the dish and the original name, Piccata Milanese, ended in the dustbin of history.
‘GOD ON TRIAL’
Sir – Mrs Stern, who is so ready to dismiss Peter Phillips’s ‘feeling of belonging’ as ‘worthless sentimentality’, would exclude from the Jewish people some of the finest minds who have seen themselves indelibly part of the Jewish people without ‘observance of the mitzvot such as, for example, Kashrut’. Here is what Sigmund Freud said in his preface to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo (1930):
No reader of this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional condition of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers – as well as from every other religion – and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: ‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but someday, no doubt, it will become accessible to scientific scrutiny.’
In other writings, Freud described some of the elements that sustained his Jewish consciousness – including the independence of judgement it gave him. It would be very interesting to hear how some of your non-Orthodox readers define their sense of belonging to our people.
Sir - I was saddened by the tone of the letter from Mrs Margarete Stern in a journal whose readers are mostly German and Austrian refugees, together with Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Yes, of course, Jews are not a race. This is a Nazi concept, which has all too readily been accepted by many, including, it seems, some Jews. A more accurate description in my view would be a ’people’, bound together by religious descent and collective suffering. So what justified the outpouring of contempt by Mrs Stern for the Jewish stature and Zionist beliefs of Liberal and Reform Jews?
Shouldn’t everyone who is Jewish and feels Jewish be celebrated? Did those Jews in their concentration camp bunks care that Leo Baeck (who tried to get them to uphold their Jewish faith in appalling circumstances) was a Reform rabbi? And have anti-Semites ever in history stopped to ask Jews the level of their religious observance before unleashing their outpourings of murderous violence?
As for Zionism and Israel, what view does Mrs Stern’s brand of religion take regarding theft and violence towards their neighbours by many of the glatt kosher adherents, who believe that land has been given to them by God? I can assure her that this is one Zionist ‘bandwagon’ that no one of a Reform or Liberal persuasion would ever wish to join.
Will these pious Jews be isolated as immoral or are they excused because they keep Kashrut and are therefore ‘proper’ Jews, unlike the reformist enemy within?
It should be a given that everyone who feels Jewish and is descended from a Jewish family is Jewish whatever the level of their observance. The problem is, of course, that Orthodox Judaism seems to depend on keeping adherents under a blanket of thought control so that anyone who doesn’t follow their form of religious observance is regarded with hostility.
Independent and tolerant people who can think for themselves are, in my view, infinitely preferable to those who stick to old-fashioned Orthodoxy, which inevitably breeds extremism.
Sir - Mr Schragenheim (October issue) is correct in stating that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a ‘staunch defender of Orthodoxy’. However, in his time he was also open to attack for the reforms he introduced. In his book Happiness Outside the State, the late Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum points out that Rabbi Hirsch was regarded by some other Orthodox as a ‘reformer’. For example, he wore a frock coat rather than a fur-lined long cloak, delivered sermons in German, and even (chas vechalil) conducted marriages inside rather than in the open air.
Perhaps one man’s reformer is another’s bastion of orthodoxy.
Sir – Peter Phillips says he finds the word ‘goyim’ ‘most offensive’ (October). That ‘poor deluded creature’ has got it wrong again: ‘yid’ is always offensive, whereas ‘goy’ is not. But of course it depends on the context, and the way Margarete Stern put it is not pejorative. For instance, the word ‘Jew’ is harmless, but ‘he Jewed me’ is insulting.
In fact, the term ‘goy’ as such is innocuous: it stands in Hebrew for nation or people, other than Jews, just as the term Gentile excludes Jews. According to Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, the designation was used in the Bible for the Israelites as well. There is no other word for a non-Jew in the Old Testament - nor in modern Hebrew for that matter, apart from Notzri (Nazarite) i.e. Christian. Gentile is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible at all.
The feminine for ‘goy’ is goya. This brings to mind the one about a wealthy Jew who acquires a Rubens which he later decides to exchange for a Goya!
JEWS AND ARABS
Sir – Re the letters in your August issue from Ros and Jane Merkin and Peter Prager, do the Arabs really want a state alongside Israel? They could have had one when the UN voted for partition in 1947, but turned it down. And in 1948-67 the Jordanians occupied the West Bank and the Egyptians Gaza, but no Palestinian state was established then.
Jews had a state in Palestine and east of the Jordan 2,500 years ago and Jewish kings sat on the throne in Jerusalem. There never was an Arab state in Palestine. Israel withdrew from Gaza for nothing in return to promote peace. After the IDF had withdrawn, Hamas launched thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians.
Have the Merkins and Peter Prager ever considered what would have happened if the Arabs had defeated Israel? Would they have returned any territory? And how would they have treated the citizens of occupied Israel? After the Jordanians captured East Jerusalem in 1948, they destroyed synagogues and used tombstones as paving stones. And doctors and nurses on the way to a Jewish hospital in East Jerusalem were massacred.
Sir - Rubin Katz’s statement (September) that Arabs do not tend to take pride in their surroundings reminded me of my experiences in El Djem in Tunisia. A friend and I used to visit an extremely hospitable Arab acquaintance. Every time we visited him, he had added more rooms to his villa for his growing family. Outside, however, the street was just a dirt track and it was clear from what was lying on and around it that the owners of the adjoining villas were interested only in maintaining their own properties.
Sir - I was watching the news on the internet and there, at long last, the BBC had something to cheer me up - or at least the headline did. A Saudi cleric has suggested that the call for the destruction of all unbelievers be omitted from the end of Friday prayers as contrary to Islamic sharia. Peace at last? Well, not really. The small print explains that praying for the destruction of unbelievers should be allowed if the unbelievers harm the interest of Muslims. Since the very large Muslim world has always perceived the very tiny Israel to be harming its interests, rockets can be expected to continue to be fired from Gaza and suicide bombers to continue their grisly acts, all with the blessing of the clerical establishment. Pity really.
Sir – I am pleased that Peter Prager wrote to you (August). I am a member of Jews for Justice to Palestinians and share his views. Coincidentally, as I was writing this letter, I received a copy of the document ‘52 Reasons to Be Proud of Israel’, published by the New Israel Fund, established in 1979, in which they reaffirm their commitment to working to strengthen Israel’s democracy – to promote freedom, justice and equality for all Israeli citizens.
After the Second World War, my mother worked for a number of years as a midwife in the Israeli health service. At that time, many pregnant Arab-Israeli women in need of services felt inhibited or subtly discouraged from using them. Although my mother’s Hebrew was excellent, she felt it important to learn Arabic in order to communicate more effectively with these women and to encourage them to use the facilities to which they had, in fact, the same entitlement as their Jewish-Israeli counterparts. My mother died in Israel in 1967.
Sir - Whilst Mrs Shefer-Vanson (Letter from Israel, August) is trying to save water because of the current water shortage, she might spare a thought for the plight of the occupied West Bank’s Palestinians. Since March this year many houses have had no water in their taps. Israel takes for itself most of the water of the West Bank.
LITTLE BLUE BOOK
Sir – I refer to Mrs Saville’s letter in the October issue. What arrogance! Her education etc would have done her a lot of good if, instead of people like Lady Reading opening their doors to us for whatever reason, two Gestapo men stood at her door. Instead of complaining after 70-odd years, she and all the other people who use this magazine to slander people who after this time have no way to defend themselves, should remember that they are still alive. I suggest they talk to concentration camp survivors – they will be able to tell you all about being mistreated.
‘DUET FOR ONE’
Sir - I should like to thank Anthony Grenville (August) for helping to explain why my parents and my wife’s parents - all Jews - might have come from different planets! My parents - Viennese refugees - believed in Bildung. My father, a doctor in Vienna, though a Zionist, had adopted, as Anthony Grenville puts it, ‘an almost religious veneration for German high culture and education’. His natural habitat was, indeed, the coffee house or the opera house rather than the synagogue. The family of my parents-in-law came to England at the turn of the previous century, fleeing Tsarist Russia and the Cossacks. Inevitably, they were not as well educated, still had the shtetl mentality, were not ‘cultural’ folk and, by necessity, made Mammon their god. Also, they were on different sides in the First World War - the winning side, as my father-in-law never failed to remind my father. Little wonder all they had in common was my wife, myself, and, eventually, our children.
Sir – Anthony Grenville’s article ‘Duet for One’ made very interesting reading. However, how come he keeps referring to Dr Alfred Feldmann as a psychologist when he so obviously must have been a psychiatrist? There is a vast difference between the two. I wonder if any other reader spotted it.