Dining at a fashionable restaurant on New York’s chic Upper East Side, I noticed a Holocaust survivor at the next table. A man of sixty or so was showing his companions a number tattooed on his arm while I overheard him say he had gotten it at Auschwitz. He was graying and distinguished—looking with a sad, handsome face, and behind his eyes there was the predictable haunted look. Clearly he had suffered and gleaned deep lessons from his anguish. I heard him describe how he had been beaten and had watched his fellow inmates being hanged and gassed, and how he had scrounged around in the camp garbage for anything—a discarded potato peel—to keep his corpse-thin body from giving in to disease. As I eavesdropped I wondered: If an angel had come to him then, when he was scheming desperately not to be among those chosen for annihilation, and told him that one day he’d be sitting on Second Avenue in Manhattan in a trendy Italian restaurant amongst lovely young women in designer jeans, and that he’d be wearing a fine suit and ordering lobster salad and baked salmon, would he have grabbed the angel around the throat and throttled him in a sudden fit of insanity?
Talk about cognitive dissonance! All I could see as I hunched over my pasta were truncheons raining blows on his head as second after second dragged on in unrelieved agony and terror. I saw him weak and freezing—sick, bewildered, thirsty, and in tears, an emaciated zombie in stripes. Yet now here he was, portly and jocular, sending back the wine and telling the waiter it seemed to him slightly too tannic. I knew without a doubt then and there that no philosopher ever to come along, no matter how profound, could even begin to understand the world.
Later that night I recalled that at the end of Elie Wiesel’s fine book, Night, he said that when his concentration camp was liberated he and others thought first and foremost of food. Then of their families and next of sleeping with women, but not of revenge. He made the point several times that the inmates didn’t think of revenge. I find it odd that I, who was a small boy during World War II and who lived in America, unmindful of any of the horror Nazi victims were undergoing, and who never missed a good meal with meat and warm bed to sleep in at night, and whose memories of those years are only blissful and full of good times and good music—that I think of nothing but revenge.
“Let’s play for two cents,” I’d say, my eyes waxing wide and innocent like a big-time pool shark’s. Then I’d lose the first game deliberately. After, I’d move the stakes up. Four cents, maybe six, maybe a dime. Soon the other kid would find himself en route home, gutted and muttering. Dreidel hustling got me through the fifth grade. I often had visions of myself turning pro. I wondered if when I got older I could play my generation’s equivalent of Legs Diamond or Dutch Schultz for a hundred thousand a game. I saw myself bathed in won money, sitting around a green felt table or getting off great trains, my best dreidel in a smart carrying case as I went from city to city looking for action, always cleaning up, always drinking bourbon, always taking care of my precious manicured spinning hand.
After all, you know by ten years old there’s nothing bloodier or more phony than the world’s religious history. What could be more awful than, say, Protestant versus Catholic in Northern Ireland? Or the late Ayatollah? Or the expensive cost of tickets to my local synagogue so my parents can pray on the high holidays? (In the end they could only afford to be seated downstairs, not in the main room, and the service was piped in to them. The smart money sat ringside, of course.) Is there anything uglier than families that don’t want their children to marry loved ones because they’re of the wrong religion? Or professional clergy whose pitch is as follows: “There is a God. Take my word for it. And I pretty much know what He wants and how to get on with Him and I’ll try to help you to get and remain in His good graces, because that way your life won’t be so fraught with terror. Of course, it’s going to cost you a little for my time and stationery…”
Incidentally, I’m well aware that one day I may have to fight because I’m a Jew, or even die because of it, and no amount of professed apathy to religion will save me. On the other hand, those who say they want to kill me because I’m Jewish would find other reasons if I were not Jewish. I mean, think if there were no Jews or Catholics, or if everyone were white or German or American, if the earth was one country, one color; then endless new, creative rationalizations would emerge to kill “other people”—the left-handed, those who prefer vanilla to strawberry, all baritones, any person who wears saddle shoes.
So what was my point before I digressed? Oh—do I really want to contribute to a magazine that subtly helps promulgate phony and harmful differences? (Here I must say that Tikkun appears to me as a generally wonderful journal—politically astute, insightful, and courageously correct on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.)
I experienced this type of ambivalence before when a group wanted me to front and raise money for the establishment of a strong pro-Israel political action committee. I don’t approve of PACs, but I’ve always been a big rooter for Israel. I agonized over the decision and in the end I did front the PAC and helped them raise money and get going. Then, after they were off and running, I quietly slipped out. This was the compromise I made which I’ve never regretted. Still, I’d be happier contributing to Tikkun if it had a different line, or no line, under the title. After all, what if other magazines felt the need to employ their own religious perspectives? You might have: Field and Stream: A Catholic Critique of Fishing and Hunting. This month: “Angling for Salmon as You Baptize.”
So that leaves Job’s wife. My favorite woman in all of literature. Because when her cringing, put-upon husband asked the Lord “Why me?” and the Lord told him to shut up and mind his own business and that he shouldn’t even dare ask, Job accepted it, but the Missus, already in the earth at that point, had previously scored with a quotable line of unusual dignity and one that Job would have been far too obsequious to come up with: “Curse God and die” was the way she put it. And I loved her for it because she was too much of her own person to let herself be shamelessly abused by some vain and sadistic Holy Spirit.
“How can you criticize a place you’ve never been to?” a cabbie asked me. I pointed out I’d never been many places whose politics I took issue with, like Cuba for instance. But this line of reasoning cut no ice.
“Who are you to speak up?” was a frequent question in my hate mail. I replied I was an American citizen and a human being, but neither of these affiliations carried enough weight with the outraged.
The most outlandish cut of all was from the Jewish Defense League, which voted me Pig of the Month. How they misunderstood me! If only they knew how close some of my inner rages have been to theirs. (In my movie Manhattan, for example, I suggested breaking up a Nazi rally not with anything the ACLU would approve, but with baseball bats.)
But it was the intellectuals, some of them close friends, who hated most of all that I had made my opinions public on such a touchy subject. And yet, despite all their evasions and circumlocutions, the central point seemed to me inescapable: Israel was not responding correctly to this new problem.
“The Arabs are guilty for the Middle East mess, the bloodshed, the terrorism, with no leader to even try to negotiate with,” reasoned the typical thinker.
“True,” I agreed with Socratic simplicity.
“Victims of the Holocaust deserve a homeland, a place to be free and safe.”
“Absolutely.” I was totally in accord.
“We can’t afford disunity. Israel is in a precarious situation.” Here I began to feel uneasy, because we can afford disunity.
“Do you want the soldiers going door-to-door and breaking hands?” I asked, cutting to the kernel of my complaint.
“Of course not.”
“I’d still rather you hadn’t written that piece.” Now I’d be fidgeting in my chair, waiting for a cogent rebuttal to the breaking-of-hands issue. “Besides,” my opponent argued, “the Times prints only one side.”
“But even the Israeli press—”
“You shouldn’t have spoken out,” he interrupted.
“Many Israelis agree,” I said, “and moral issues apart, why hand the Arabs a needless propaganda victory?”
“Yes, yes, but still you shouldn’t have said anything. I was disappointed in you.” Much talk followed by both of us about the origins of Israel, the culpability of Arab terrorists, the fact there’s no one in charge of the enemy to negotiate with, but in the end it always came down to them saying, “You shouldn’t have spoken up,” and me saying, “But do you think they should randomly break hands?” and them adding, “Certainly not—but I’d still feel better if you had just not written that piece.”
My mother was the final straw. She cut me out of her will and then tried to kill herself just to hasten my realization that I was getting no inheritance.
The questions for me were not: How could a civilized people, and especially the people of Goethe and Mozart, do what they did to another people? And how could the world remain silent? Remain silent and indeed close their doors to millions who could have, with relative simplicity, been plucked from the jaws of agonizing death? At fifteen I felt I knew the answers. If you went with the Anne Frank idea or the Will Rogers line, I reasoned as an adolescent, of course the Nazi horrors became unfathomable. But if you paid more attention to the line on the cuff links, no matter how unpleasant that caption was to swallow, things were not so mysterious. After all, I had read about all those supposedly wonderful neighbors throughout Europe who lived beside Jews lovingly and amiably. They shared laughter and fun and the same experiences I shared with my community and friends. And I read, also, how they turned their backs on the Jews instantly when it became the fashion and even looted their homes when they were left empty by sudden departure to the camps. This mystery that had confounded all my relatives since World War II was not such a puzzle if I understood that inside every heart lived the worm of self-preservation, of fear, greed, and an animal will to power. And the way I saw it, it was nondiscriminating. It abided in gentile or Jew, black, white, Arab, European, or American. It was part of who we all were, and that the Holocaust could occur was not all so strange. History had been filled with unending examples of equal bestiality, differing only cosmetically.
The real mystery that got me through my teen years was that every once in a while one found an act of astonishing decency and sacrifice. One heard of people who risked their lives and their family’s lives to save lives of people they didn’t even know. But these were the rare exceptions, and in the end there were not enough humane acts to keep six million from being murdered.
I still own those cuff links. They’re in a shoe box along with a lot of memorabilia from my teens. Recently I took them out and looked at them and all these thoughts returned to me. Perhaps I’m not quite as sure of all I was sure of at fifteen, but the waffling may come from just being middle-aged and not as virile. Certainly little has occurred since then to show me much different.
I’m not a political activist. If anything, I’m an uninformed coward, totally convinced that a stand on any issue from subway fares to the length of women’s skirts will lead me before a firing squad.
I prefer instead to sit around in coffee houses and grouse to loved ones privately about social conditions, invariably muttering imprecations on the heads of politicians, most of whom I put in a class with blackjack dealers.
Take a look, for instance, at the Reagan Administration. Or just at the president himself. Or the men hoping to become president. Or the last cluster of presidents. These characters would hardly inspire confidence in the average bail bondsman.
Another reason I’m apathetic to political cross-currents is that I’ve never felt man’s problems could be solved through political solutions. The sporadic reshuffling of pompous-sounding world leaders with their fibs and nostrums has proved meaningless. Not that one is always just as bad as the next—but almost.
The truth is that whenever the subject turns to ameliorating mankind’s condition, my mind turns to more profound matters: man’s lack of a spiritual center, for example—or his existential terror. The empty universe is another item that scares me, along with eternal annihilation, aging, terminal illness and the absence of God in a hostile, raging void. I feel that as long as man is finite, he will never be truly relaxed.
Having said all the above, I should also point out that there have been a few times that I have taken a public stance. Some people may remember that recently I came out vehemently against the colorization of movies without the director’s consent. This is hardly a life-and-death political issue, but it is an ethical one, and I was quite amazed at the lack of support my position received.
Not that everyone was unsympathetic, but the moral indignation and protective legislation I thought would follow was not quite equal to the ire aroused when a person gets in front of you at the bakery. In the end, it was not the artist’s rights that prevailed but rather the “realities of the marketplace.”
Another example was my anti-apartheid stance. So infuriated was I with treatment of blacks in South Africa that I proclaimed I will not allow my films to play there until a total policy change is agreed to. This unfortunately failed to topple the existing regime, and apartheid continues, though I have received grateful letters from Afrikaners who say that while they avoided my films before, now they are prevented from even wandering into one of them accidentally, and for this they thank me with all their hearts.
Still, there was the gesture and the hope that it would stir others. And to a small degree, it has. And now after months of quiet in my own life, an other situation has arisen—a situation that is quite painful and confusing—and a stand must be taken.
As a supporter of Israel, and as one who has always been outraged at the horrors inflicted on this little nation by hostile neighbors, vile terrorists and much of the world at large, I am appalled beyond measure by the treatment of the rioting Palestinians by the Jews.
I mean, fellas, are you kidding? Beatings of people by soldiers to make examples of them? Breaking the hands of men and women so they can’t throw stones? Dragging civilians out of their houses at random to smash them with sticks in an effort to terrorize a population into quiet?
Please understand that I have no sympathy for the way the Arabs have treated the Israelis. Indeed, sometimes you get the feeling you want to belt them—but only certain ones and for very specific acts.
But am I reading the newspapers correctly? Were food and medical supplies withheld to make a rebellious community “uncomfortable”? Were real bullets fired to control crowds, and rubber ones only when the United States objected? Are we talking about state-sanctioned brutality and even torture?
My goodness! Are these the people whose money I used to steal from those little blue-and-white cans after collecting funds for a Jewish homeland? I can’t believe it, and I don’t know exactly what is to be done, but I’m sure pulling out my movies is again not the answer.
Perhaps for all of us who are rooting for Israel to continue to exist and prosper, the obligation is to speak out and use every method of pressure—moral, financial and political—to bring this wrongheaded approach to a halt.