Tony Greenstein's second polemic on "Perdition"

Submitted by martin on 10 May, 2012 - 11:32

I would be the last person to complain that the reply to my letter in Workers' Liberty 7 was more than four times the length of the original.

The "Perdition" Affair

However, it might have been helpful, to say nothing of honest, if John O'Mahony had explained that the chunks of Perdition quoted were early drafts that were, as with most plays, articles, etc, discarded, amended, deleted and added to.

For example, the phrase 'Zionist knife in the Nazi fist' does not appear in the play, having been deleted at an early stage. Whatever its dramatic effect, politically it would not have been justified and Allen accordingly cut it.

To quote something that is not in the play itself but in a draft, and this was a common feature of attacks on Perdition, suggests an inability to come to terms with the thesis of the play, still less to prove the horrendous charge of 'anti-semitism'.

It is for the above reasons that I will refrain from commenting point by point on O'Mahony's critique of the draft and will confine myself to one instance. For making a connection between the Jewish religion and Zionism, Allen is guilty of a "Stalinist-type amalgam between Zionism and religion. In fact most of the Zionists in that period were atheists or not especially religious".

The relevant quote in the play is as follows:

Scott: Would you agree that most of those early Zionists were atheists and non-believers?

Yaron: Yes.

Scott: They rejected all religious concepts?

Yaron: Yes.

Scott: Would you say that they were nationalists who directed all their efforts to the settlement of Jews in Palestine?

Yaron: Yes.

Scott: Well, how did the rabbis take it? This sudden rupture with the Jewish religious tradition?

Yaron: There was conflict... but over the years agreement was reached

Scott: A sort of pact?

Yaron: Their aims became complementary.

Scott: Was this because without the stamp of biblical approval, Zionism could never have legitimised its claims to Palestine?... Zionism annexed the Jewish religious tradition.

As this passage demonstrates, Allen's handling of the complex interrelationship between religion and Zionism is far more subtle than O'Mahony's caricature of it, viz. an attack on "Jews in general, or his idea of Jews".

It is even more interesting that the most persistent Zionist critic of the play, David Cesarani, in an article in the Jewish Quarterly, makes the exact opposite point. "Zionism is perceived here as an entirely modern movement without roots in Jewish religion or culture... Such an analysis is simplistic and ignores the role of rabbinical figures like Mohilever and Kook who were ardent Zionists, not to mention the whole stream of Mizrachi, the religious Zionists".

Whilst arguing a diametrically opposite case from O'Mahony, Cesarani still draws the same conclusion, i.e. Perdition is anti-Semitic! Whatever Allen says is anti-semitic. Why?

Because his play looks at the Holocaust from an explicitly anti-Zionist perspective. On this Cesarani and O'Mahony agree. The difference between Cesarani and O'Mahony is that the former at least has a basic understanding and knowledge of Zionism, albeit from a non-socialist perspective, whereas the latter operates through the filter of the left Zionist Mapam.

There are however more general points that O'Mahony makes. The central one is the question, how did the massacre of Hungary's Jews serve Zionism?

Not surprisingly, it is the wrong question. Only a few Zionists were calculating enough to assert that without mass genocide there would be no state and therefore the Zionist movement should act accordingly. To assert that this was the defined policy, acted upon and agreed in tandem, would be to tread dangerously close to a conspiracy theory (albeit of the mechanical left. not the fascist right).

What actually happened was that Zionism, a movement founded on the belief that anti-semitism could not be fought, a movement that sought to influence the powerful and privileged in the time-honoured ways of Jewish leaders, by pleading and interceding, was incapable of doing other than writing off resistance. Further, given the Zionist goal of statehood above everything else, rescue that wasn't seen to be of benefit to Jewish Palestine ('refugeeism') was opposed because it would render Zionism irrelevant. It was this indifference to, if not outright hostility to, rescue from the outside, coupled with acquiescence and yes collaboration inside Europe, e.g. serving on the Nazi-appointed Judenrate and police, that provide the backcloth to Perdition.

One can find all sorts of justifications for collaboration, and of course it was not between equals, but collaboration is nonetheless a class question (and this perhaps is the weakness of Perdition).

O'Mahony may defend the Kastners, but the survivors of Hungarian Jewry whose families were deceived by his 'Rescue Committee' were not so easily persuaded when they testified in Jerusalem in 1954. Such was the attitude to collaboration throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Nor was it merely Kastner as an individual, but his role as representative of the Jewish Agency.

Nor was resistance in Hungary merely a question of hindsight. Those without this gift, like the Swedish diplomat Wallenberg, rescued up to 100,000 Jews. Outside pressure from the United States saved the remaining 500,000 despite Zionist silence.

The saving of the 1,684 leaders was indeed an example of "the cruel criteria of Zionism". Or. as the Attorney General in the real Kastner trial noted, "It has always been our Zionist tradition to select the few out of many in arranging immigration to Palestine".

Maybe, though, O'Mahony can explain away the betrayal of the Haganah parachuters to the Gestapo by Kastner, whose entrance threatened to disrupt the agreement to pacify and deceive Hungary's Jews prior to deportation to Auschwitz? And what of Kastner's appearance after the war at Nuremburg in order to help free, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, Kurt Becher, Lieutenant General in the Waffen-SS?

O'Mahony speaks of the "loathing and hatred" of Allen for not merely Zionists but Jews. Perdition is an anti-semitic play.

Those who, like Erich Fried, lost friends and relatives in the Holocaust and have fought anti-Semitism before and since, can write of Perdition: "I am envious that I have not written it myself... (it) is not anti-semitic... but it correctly quotes and unmasks the terrible attitude of some leading Zionists... To accuse the play of faking history or of anti-Jewish bias is monstrous".

Maxime Rodinson writes: "I have not the least doubt that there is not the slightest sign of anti-semitism in the play. I do not know Jim Allen personally and I cannot say if he is an anti-Semite in his heart. But if so, he has, in a masterly way, hidden this trend in his writing".

Even Dr Levenburg, veteran Zionist and author of the original Institute of Jewish Affairs Report on the same script that quotes from, slates: "The author avoids using anti-Semitic arguments but some viewers of the play will not be able to avoid forming a negative attitude about Jews".

How is it that O'Mahony is able, with such certainty, to brand Perdition as anti-semitic when Jews with a proven record of having fought anti-semitism and racism take the opposite viewpoint. Indeed, how is it that an avowed Trotskyist can become not merely an ardent apologist for Zionism today, but for its past too, even if it does mean lining up with the most reactionary sections of bourgeois opinion? Finally, if going against a bourgeois tide of opinion places on in the 'two-camps left in world politics', so be it. Certainly it is preferable to providing a socialist coat, Militant-style, for imperialism. To O'Mahony it may appear as a third way, to revolutionaries it is merely the old reformist path.

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