The Public Jew

Lisa Lieberman

My colleague Meyer used to stand up at the first faculty meeting of the year and announce the dates of the Jewish holidays. “Rosh Hashanah falls on September 10 and 11,” he would intone, his voice taking on a sepulchral cadence. I would have to resist the impulse to bow my head. “Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown on September 19. Some of our Jewish students may choose to observe these Holy Days at home with their families. Please be considerate of the beliefs and traditions of the Jewish members of the college community when scheduling exams and assignments.”
    Meyer’s performance always made me uncomfortable. And I was not the only Jew in the room who felt this way. I would look around and notice the reaction of other Jewish colleagues to the yearly speech. Some looked embarrassed. Others smirked. One made a show of not listening, nudging his neighbor to whisper some (no doubt) irreverent comment in her ear. I do not know exactly why Meyer’s announcement made us squirm. It may have been merely the fact that it was Meyer who delivered it. As director of Judaic Studies, a position he had held for some twenty years by the time I was hired, he was certainly entitled to serve as spokesman for the Jewish community. That he played the part with gusto was only to be expected. And yet, I never felt that Meyer spoke for me. For whom, then, did Meyer speak? For the handful of Jewish students who observed the High Holy Days? I do not think so. Meyer spoke on behalf of all Jews, living and dead, when he reminded the non-Jews in the audience of their obligation to honor our Holy Days. He spoke especially for those who could not speak: the silent victims of persecution. Meyer spoke in the name of Jews who had perished in the Holocaust.
    The solemn tone was the giveaway. On public occasions, Meyer put on his public persona. He was The Jew, after all; it was his job. Whenever a Jewish opinion was needed, a Jewish member required to serve on a college committee, a Jewish presence deemed politic at a gathering of alumni donors, Meyer was there. The rest of us were free to define our identities for ourselves, choosing to be political scientists or evolutionary biologists, Shakespeare scholars or Marxist-oriented economists who happened to be Jewish. Our faith was our own business; in the studiously tolerant environment of the liberal arts college, religious differences are not supposed to matter. And for the most part, they do not. Having a Jewish last name is no guarantee that you are an observant Jew. For many of us, embarking upon an academic career meant drifting away from the faith of our mothers and fathers. I still remember the thrill of discovering Plato during my sophomore year in college. The Phaedrus satisfied my metaphysical yearnings more profoundly than any of the Jewish texts I had studied in religious school. Montesquieu, Zola, Camus: in the company of these writers, I have probed my soul and acquired my sense of moral responsibility.
    For Meyer, being Jewish mattered, and being different was not beside the point. It was the point. Meyer personified difference; he was the outsider, par excellence, the visible exemplar and devotee of a minority creed. His faith was not entirely his business, and he was not at liberty to define his own identity. Meyer’s Jewishness was defined by others, by non-Jewish others, and it was defined in broad strokes so as to give the others something to get a fix on. But looking back on Meyer’s performance, I realize that it contained an element of self-parody. At the very moment he was summoning his authority to announce the dates of the Jewish holidays, Meyer would pause to make jokes, stupid jokes that undermined the seriousness of his message. “Jewish history dates back to 3760 BC. The Chinese trace their civilization to 1122 BC,” I recall him saying. “This means that Jews had to wait 2,638 years for Chinese food.”
    I have no idea what prompted Meyer to tell such jokes. Did he feel a need to soften up his audience before reminding them of their obligations? Or were the jokes evidence that Meyer himself was uncomfortable in the role of Public Jew? The fact that his wife was a practicing Catholic would surely have given devout Jews pause; I know Meyer was troubled by the contradictions that intermarriage entailed. On a personal level I suspect he felt conflicts about his Jewish identity, but these conflicts could never be shown in public. In public Meyer was required to maintain an unambiguous front. His credibility depended on it. Perhaps it was Meyer’s hearty assertion of his Jewishness in the face of his doubts that made the rest of us Jews uneasy.

My first teaching job was at a small college in the Midwest that had not wholly succeeded in shedding its Baptist past. Jews there kept a low profile, not through fear of anti-Semitism but out of a kind of modesty that seemed in keeping with the Midwestern ethos. I remember being buttonholed by a Christian colleague at a cocktail party in 1988, during the height of the intifada. “What’s Shamir doing, sending soldiers to kill children?” I was asked. In a roomful of Jews, I might very well have raised the question myself. My college roommate, a woman who had flirted with the idea of making aliyah in the 1970s, stopped speaking to me after I criticized the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Standing in the kitchen of my department chairman’s home, clutching a plastic cup of Chardonnay, the only Jew in the room, I hesitated to express my true opinion. “How should I know?” I retorted. “Do you think every Jew in America has a hotline to the Israeli prime minister?”
    Why did I say that? I could have told him the truth: that I was as shocked as he was by Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. In all honesty I ought to have confessed that I was upset by Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and dismayed, too, by the military occupation of southern Lebanon. I didn’t like to see Israel in the role of aggressor, hated the evidence that Israel was behaving like a colonialist oppressor. The events in Lebanon and the occupied territories were forcing me to confront my assumption that a nation founded by victims of persecution would be more righteous than other nations. It might have been difficult to admit these doubts to my colleague,although I could have tempered my criticism by pointing out that the policies of Israel’s ruling coalition did not represent the attitudes of all Israeli citizens. Liberal Jewish Israelis were demonstrating against the Shamir government precisely because of its heavy-handed response to the intifada, I might have said. An answer along these lines is most likely what my colleague expected; I don’t think he viewed me as a hard-line Zionist. Why did I respond in anger?
    At the time I believed my resentment was due to the hostile undertone of my colleague’s question, with its implication that American Jews ought to answer for the misguided policies of the Israeli government. I see now that there was more to it. I was unwilling to play the role of Public Jew at a cocktail party. And yet my refusal to express my doubts about Israel’s handling of the intifada in front of my non-Jewish colleague suggests that I was all too conscious of myself as The Jew in his mind. A Public Jew despite myself, I could not show anything less than a united front with my people.
    My dilemma at that party cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Public Jew, the costs and benefits of letting others define you. The costs are clear: it is difficult to maintain your integrity when someone else is writing the script. But there are undeniable benefits to being The Jew, temptations that few among us can resist. Public Jews have power. Centuries of persecution have invested Jews with authority, a tragic nobility born of the suffering we as a people have endured. In a predominantly Christian culture that glorifies suffering, Jews occupy the moral high ground. We are presumed to have learned wisdom or, at the very least, humility. We have much to teach—lessons drawn from our pain, truths steeped in our sorrows—and since the Holocaust, we have not lacked for pupils. But ours is a fragile authority, entirely contingent on the needs and expectations of our non-Jewish audience. In fact, these expectations cannot fully be satisfied because they are irreconcilable. At one and the same time, the Public Jew is required to prick the conscience of his listeners and to confer forgiveness, to stand in perpetual judgment over the others while absolving the guilty from blame. I would like to explore this contradiction by looking at two examples of Public Jews created by non-Jews prior to the Holocaust, when it was still possible to believe in the progress of civilization and the humanitarian reforms this would inevitably entail.

During the Enlightenment, the German critic and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing based his play Nathan the Wise on his dear friend Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher who translated the Torah into German, easing the passage of German Jews into the mainstream culture. Probably best known as the grandfather of the Christian composer Felix Mendelssohn (all but one of Mendelssohn’s six children converted to Christianity), Moses Mendelssohn was an outspoken champion for the cause of Jewish emancipation; his argument supporting freedom of conscience so impressed the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great, that he granted Mendelssohn the status of Protected Jew, enabling him to live outside the ghetto in Berlin.
    The play is set in eighteenth-century Jerusalem and tells the story of Nathan and his adopted daughter, Rachel, who falls in love with the Christian Knight Templar who saves her life. Initially the knight denies his feelings for Rachel because of her Jewish upbringing, but after meeting her father and realizing what a good man he is, the young man overcomes his reservations and asks to marry the girl, promising to save her for all eternity by bringing her into his faith. Nathan is not offended in the least by this proposition. “Disdain my people, as much as you like. For neither you nor I chose his heritage,” he tells the knight. “Are we our people? What is a people? Are Jew and Christian sooner Jew and Christian than man?” Although he lost his wife and sons in a massacre perpetrated by Christians, he bears no malice toward members of this religious group. On the contrary he endures the hatred of his enemies without a trace of resentment, serving throughout the play as a symbol of acceptance and forbearance, a poster child for the cause of religious toleration. Nathan is above the anti-Semites: nobler, gentler, and more astute. By never descending to his adversaries’ level, he succeeds in rekindling their better instincts and restoring them to virtue.
    The function of The Jew in Lessing’s play was to reconcile diverse religious traditions, to efface difference rather than to preserve it. Nathan’s wisdom—and ultimately his moral power—resided in his ability to transcend bigotry and remind the audience of the essential oneness of all human beings, regardless of their religious heritage. His example served to inspire Christian and Moslem characters alike to a new appreciation of their own most cherished values, but Nathan’s victory was achieved at the price of his own survival as a Jew. At the end of the play, Rachel and the knight are revealed to be siblings, and Muslims to boot: lost offspring of the Sultan’s brother. There will be no children to carry on Nathan’s teachings, no heirs to preserve his traditions. Lessing’s Public Jew was created expressly to disappear; though representative of a liberal strand within eighteenth-century thought, a progressive statement for its time, the play makes the case not for accepting religious difference but for removing the barriers to assimilation, for making everybody the same. This realization explains the high regard in which Nathan the Wise was held in a nation not renowned for its love of Jews. The illustrious Goethe, a great admirer of Lessing, was openly anti-Semitic, as were many cultivated Germans throughout the nineteenth century. It was possible to appreciate Nathan, the magnanimous Jew who belied all the negative stereotypes, precisely because he was an exception to the rule. One could even hope that more of his fellow Jews would become like him, which is to say, that they would cease to cling so stubbornly to those vestiges of their faith that made them different and kept them aloof from non-Jews, let bygones be bygones, and get on with the business of accommodating themselves to the codes and conventions of the gentile world.
    A similar paradox emerges out of the Dreyfus Affair, the morally righteous cause célèbre in late nineteenth-century France. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army captain accused of selling secrets to Germany in the early 1890s. Evidence was manufactured to prove his guilt, and in 1894 he was convicted of treason by a military court and sent to Devil’s Island. Four years later the writer Emile Zola defended Dreyfus in a famous pamphlet, “J’Accuse,” portraying the Jewish officer as a victim of a corrupt system of justice, a martyr to the forces of anti-Semitism. “France, the great and liberal cradle of the rights of man, will die of anti-Semitism if it is not cured of it,” proclaimed Zola. In a provocative passage he portrayed Dreyfus’s conviction as an assault on truth and freedom and showed himself willing to risk his own freedom in order to ensure that the truth be told. “I have but one goal: that light be shed, in the name of mankind which has suffered so much and has the right to happiness. . . . Let them dare to summon me before a court of law! Let the inquiry be held in broad daylight! I am waiting.”
    Zola turned Dreyfus into a Public Jew and rallied liberal France behind him. In the process the real Dreyfus ceased to exist. The real Dreyfus, in fact, was not up to the part that Zola had written for him and ended up disappointing his supporters when he accepted the state pardon granted in 1899 instead of holding out for his complete exoneration. Not that it mattered; by this time he had served his purpose. The Third Republic was purged of anti-Dreyfusards, and liberal French people congratulated themselves on having seen justice done. Barely forty years later, however, France interned 75,000 Jews and deported them to Auschwitz, and none of the outrage that Zola had stirred up on Dreyfus’s behalf was summoned in their defense. Even as the Dreyfus Affair continues to stand as a hallmark in the struggle to achieve the civil rights enshrined in the French Revolution, anti-Semitism remains alive and well in France today. To the personal costs entailed in being The Jew must be added the likely prospect of seeing one’s cause embraced in the abstract and forgotten in reality.
    I do not think this forgetting is incidental. Admittedly, it is difficult to sustain the soul-searching that Public Jews provoke. The demands are great, on performer and audience alike. The same questions asked repeatedly, the same stories told over and over again: with time, even the most horrible events lose their power to disturb. The monstrous becomes conceivable, familiar, unexceptional, if not quite mundane. From here it is but a short step to forgetting. Then, too, the conciliatory role that The Jew is expected to play—which is, after all, a condition of his employment—erodes his edge over time. All of this is only natural, I realize, but is it acceptable? In taking on a symbolic role and exercising the moral power that being a Public Jew requires, do we not betray our cause as well as ourselves?
    I am reminded of the ethical conundrum that is the focus of Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower. Wiesenthal was pulled out of a work detail in a Polish concentration camp and brought to hear the confession of a dying SS soldier, a young man tormented by guilt over the murders he had committed. “This dying man looked on me as a representative, as a symbol of the other Jews whom he could no longer reach or talk to. And moreover he showed his repentance entirely of his own accord,” Wiesenthal acknowledged, and yet he could not bring himself to bestow forgiveness, despite knowing that by this refusal he was depriving the SS man of peace. Later, he asked his comrades in the Lager if he had done the right thing. “Believe me, it was right,” the most thoughtful among them hastened to reassure him. “You have suffered nothing because of him, and it follows that what he has done to other people you are in no position to forgive.” It was fitting that the SS man died in torment, the memory of the crimes he committed festering like an open wound, fitting that absolution was withheld, Wiesenthal’s comrade asserted. Forgiveness cannot be granted by proxy, nor should the deep wound of the Holocaust be permitted so easily to heal. The year after Meyer retired from my college, an important lecture series was scheduled on Yom Kippur. In dismay I complained to the administrator responsible for the decision; I would have liked to participate with my students in the events surrounding the lecturer’s visit to our campus. Fully expecting an apology for what I continued to believe was an honest mistake, I was unprepared for the insensitive response I received. The administrator informed me that the lecture dates had been proposed by the speaker herself. The key address of the series had actually been rescheduled to begin half an hour later, at the close of services on Yom Kippur, a concession for which the administrator clearly believed I should have been grateful. In vain did I point out that observant Jews would be breaking their twenty-four hour fast at the conclusion of the holiday. The administrator was neither concerned nor embarrassed over her ignorance of how Yom Kippur is celebrated. As for the events scheduled on the Day of Atonement itself, I was asked to understand that rescheduling these would “disappoint others.”
    Not long after my exchange with the administrator, I ran into Meyer, who was back in town for a visit. Together we shook our heads over the fiasco. Hadn’t they learned anything after twenty-eight years of hearing his announcements? Meyer wondered. He seemed genuinely surprised that his message had not gotten through. For my part I wondered if our non-Jewish colleagues had not felt released of the obligation to learn about our traditions, as long as Meyer was around to tell them what they needed to know. Lessing’s audience could be moved by Nathan’s plight, sharing the playwright’s hope that an era of religious toleration would someday come about, while continuing to hate Jews in their day-to-day lives. The generation aroused by Zola’s words to fight for the rights of a single Jew who had been unjustly punished for a crime he did not commit, along with subsequent generations of French citizens, could take pride in belonging to a nation that stood for human rights while closing their eyes to the tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children who were being sent to death for no other reason than because they were Jewish. In each case it seems to me that a symbolic involvement with the fate of a Public Jew took the place of a sincere engagement with the situation of real Jewish people.
    Half a century after the devastation of Hitler’s Final Solution, the role of the Public Jew has become both easier and more problematic. On the one hand his position is officially sanctioned. With the establishment of Holocaust Studies as a domain of inquiry, the victim has been given a voice; never have audiences been more willing to listen and to examine their responsibility for the wrongs committed against the Jews. But at the same time that he is invited to express grief and outrage against the Nazis and all those whose activity or passivity caused the deaths of six million innocent people, today’s Public Jew is still expected to confer forgiveness, to reconcile himself with the past, thereby helping his listeners to achieve closure. Balancing these two functions is no small feat; it seems to me that they are mutually exclusive. Yet even those of us who would prefer to relinquish the power that comes with our historical status cannot evade our responsibilities. “Whatever he chooses to do,” Elie Wiesel writes in A Jew Today, “the Jew becomes a spokesman for all Jews, dead and yet to be born, for all the beings who live through him and inside him.” To identify oneself publicly as a Jew today means that others will expect you to take on the burden of Jewish victimhood, a burden made all the more cumbersome by the need to address the tremendous injustice of the Holocaust.

Holocaust studies came of age in the 1970s, its legitimacy confirmed by a spate of scholarly conferences devoted to the subject, the creation of endowed chairs and programs of study at universities across Europe and North America, and an explosion of published memoirs, histories, and documentary reconstructions of the destruction of European Jews. Survivors’ accounts had begun to appear as soon as the war ended, with some, such as André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just and Elie Wiesel’s Night immediately attaining the status of classics. These works stood out as isolated events, however; in the first two decades following the liberation of the camps, there was little attempt to compile these tales into a coherent literature, no synthetic effort on the part of critics or scholars to see the whole. Perhaps the stories were too recent, the atrocities they described too appalling, to be taken in all at once. Or it may have been that readers were not ready to listen to what survivors had to say, particularly when the readers themselves felt implicated in the narration. Critical testimonies, including Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and the accounts of French deportees returned from Dachau or Ravensbrück, fell on deaf ears, published in limited editions and soon forgotten, while works that skirted the full horror of the Holocaust, works described as “uplifting”—Anne Frank’s diary being the prime example—attracted inordinate attention.
    The creation of a Holocaust Studies field meant that interpreters, some survivors themselves, others who had narrowly escaped the fate of their fellow European Jews by emigrating to the United States, England, or Palestine, and an increasing number of scholars, both Jewish and non-Jewish, now assumed responsibility for telling the story of the Holocaust and compiling the data to explain exactly how it happened. Experts by virtue of their own suffering, or through the hard work of reading and thinking about the subject, these people were imbued with a singular mission: to ensure that the Holocaust would always be remembered and that such a crime against humanity would never happen again.
    It has not been easy. In the first place the Holocaust is not readily understood, least of all by those who survived it. Indeed, Elie Wiesel has maintained that the meaning of the Holocaust is and should remain unfathomable. But Primo Levi attempted to explain the incomprehensible. His writings lay bare the rationale behind the Final Solution, pursuing the logic of its implementation in the camps and furnishing the context within which even seemingly gratuitous violence against Jews makes sense. Why were Jewish bodies subject to medical experiments in the camps, experiments whose results in many cases could have been deduced from tables? Why was the hair of Jewish women destined for cremation sold to German textile companies for use as stuffing? Why were the old and sick rounded up with the young and healthy for deportation to Dachau? Wouldn’t it have been more “efficient” to leave them to die where they were? In an essay entitled “Useless Violence,” one of the very last things he wrote, Levi explains with terrifying lucidity the reason for inflicting such pointless indignities upon the Jews: “Before dying the victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt.”
    Levi’s reflections on the meaning of the Holocaust are profoundly disturbing. The truth, here, does not set us free. The truth is unbearable, and the dispassionate tone in which Levi delivers his truth makes it worse. “May I be forgiven the cynicism,” he says in the midst of justifying, in Nazi terms, the extermination of Jewish men, women, and children; “I am trying to, reason with a logic that isn’t mine.” Levi’s answers raise larger questions in the reader’s mind, questions that cannot be resolved without painful self-examination. Why were Nazi doctors so eager to carry out those medical experiments? Why did German textile companies buy that hair? Why did ordinary citizens, Germans, French, Poles, Ukrainians, Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Dutch, Greeks, and Italians, stand by while their Jewish neighbors were rounded up and sent to their deaths? Why did the world collude in the deaths of millions of people?
    In posing these questions, Levi does not spare himself from blame. On the contrary, his reflections open a window onto the survivor’s world of tormented memory and self-hatred. If Levi and other survivors, victims all, were unable to prevent the deaths of their fellow victims, neither can they escape responsibility for those deaths. To their eternal shame they managed to secure extra rations or indoor work: small advantages, to be sure, but advantages nonetheless. Advantages that made the difference between life and death. What Levi and other survivors had experienced, the sins they committed unwillingly but in order to survive, could never be cleansed or forgotten. If there a lesson to be learned from suffering, it is not the life-affirming message of Anne Frank or the film Life is Beautiful. Rather it is the somber realization “[that] the human species—we, in short—were potentially able to construct an infinite enormity of pain; and that pain is the only force that is created from nothing, without cost and without effort.”
    The conclusion of the essay in which these words appear pertains not to the past, but to the present. The Holocaust, in Levi’s view, was not so singular an event as other survivors have insisted. To the question of whether Auschwitz will return, “whether, that is, other slaughters will take place, unilateral, systematic, mechanized, willed, at a governmental level, perpetrated upon innocent and defenseless populations and legitimized by the doctrine of contempt,” Levi replies in the affirmative. “These factors can occur again and are already recurring in various parts of the world,” he tells us. It is our unwillingness to see, to listen, and to act that allowed Pol Pot to carry out his reign of terror in Cambodia. This is the shame of the world, and Levi the survivor, the reluctant spokesman for the dead, would not allow his readers to forget it, would neither heal nor forgive in the name of others.
    Mussolini’s racial laws and Auschwitz made Levi a Jew—“they sewed the star of David onto me, and not only onto my clothes,” he once said—but when Levi chose to be a Public Jew, he did so on his own terms. Reading his published interviews, I have the impression of a man who never spoke off-the-cuff, so conscious was he of the use to which an unguarded remark might be put. The same statements, a turn of phrase here, an anecdote there, keep turning up again and again. Not surprisingly he preferred to work from a list of questions submitted in advance of the interview and would revise the transcript if given the chance. On those rare occasions when he spoke out politically, as he did in the summer and fall of 1982 following the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, Levi voiced his conflicts and doubts, as an individual, while also drawing upon his authority as an internationally famous writer and Holocaust survivor to criticize Israeli policy. “I am torn apart, also,” he said in a newspaper article calling for Prime Minister Begin’s resignation,

        because I know very well that Israel was founded by people like me, who were less lucky
        than I was. Men with the Auschwitz number tattooed on their arms, without homes or
        countries . . . who found a home and a country over there. I know all this. But I also know
        that this is Begin’s favorite argument. And I do not recognize that argument as valid.

    The care he took to maintain his personal integrity and to avoid turning the Holocaust into an abstract object lesson is also apparent in Levi’s commentary on the Sunflower story. Wiesenthal should not have forgiven the SS soldier, Levi contends; to do so would have been dishonest. Leaving aside the larger ethical question of whether the survivor has the right to speak in the name of the dead, Wiesenthal himself did not feel that the dying man was innocent. And what of the SS man? “Everything would lead one to believe that, had it not been for his fear of impending death, he would have behaved quite otherwise: he would not have repented until much later, with the downfall of Germany or perhaps never.” Indeed, the act of having a Jew—any Jew—brought to him, under circumstances that he must have known would endanger the life of his confessor, suggests that the soldier did not truly regard Wiesenthal as a human being. “Once again, the Nazi was using the Jew as a tool,” Levi asserts. “His action, examined in depth, is tinged with egoism, since one detects in it an attempt to load onto another one’s own anguish.”
    Given his vigilance in defending his own identity, and his bravery in challenging symbolic renderings of the Holocaust that served either to distort its meaning or to obscure the relevance of the issues it raises, I am uncomfortable with the legend that has grown up around Levi in the fourteen years since his death. There is the ambiguity of the death itself: was it an accident or a suicide? Despite recent attempts to prove, through painstaking calibrations of the ratio between upper- and lower-body mass, that a man of Levi’s size could easily have lost his balance when leaning over a stairway railing, I do not think we can ever know for sure whether he fell or jumped from his third-story landing. But the possible suicide of a Holocaust survivor, like that of any artist or intellectual, imbues that person’s work with significance, a poignancy that publishers and reviewers of Levi’s books have found difficult to resist exploiting. The blurb on the back cover of the British edition of The Drowned and the Saved, for example, encourages readers to join an unnamed “some” who argue “that [Levi] killed himself because he was tormented by guilt—guilt that he had survived the horrors of Auschwitz while others, better than he, had gone to the wall.” In Italy commemorating Levi has taken on a ritual aspect. I wonder how he would have felt when demonstrators against neo-Nazism brandished banners bearing the number of Levi’s Auschwitz tattoo, whether he would have been flattered or dismayed by the founding of a Primo Levi University for Senior Citizens in Bologna and the schmaltzy all-night television special on the tenth anniversary of his death. The film version of The Truce, Levi’s account of his difficult journey home from Auschwitz, opened that same year with a burst of publicity, though it did not play in theaters long. I cannot help thinking that Levi’s death turned him into the kind of Holocaust symbol he most detested: a hollow memorial of no value except to those who would appropriate it for their own use.

The Public Jew who is a Holocaust survivor is engaged in a constant struggle to defend his identity. One lapse and his moral authority is compromised, along with the legitimacy of the cause he represents. Helene Flanzbaum captures the difficulty quite well through an illustration she provides in the introduction to the collection of articles she edited, The Americanization of the Holocaust. “What does it mean, for instance,” she asks, “when Elie Wiesel receives the honor of throwing the ceremonial first pitch of the New York Mets’ 1988 home season? Is it a tribute to Wiesel’s suffering? Or does it naturalize the Holocaust in an absurd fashion?” Wiesel has always been wary of allowing others to co-opt his memories, insisting that only those who were present at the end of the world have the right to speak of the ordeal. At the same time he has resisted all efforts to draw comparisons between other tragedies and the Holocaust, hoping in this way to preserve its searing truth. “The Holocaust no longer evokes the mystery of the forbidden; it no longer arouses fear or trembling, or even outrage or compassion,” he has written. “For you, it is one calamity among so many others, slightly more morbid than the others. You enter it, you leave it, and you return to your ordinary occupations.” Wiesel’s task has been to keep the pain of the Holocaust alive, to counter what he views as the cheapening of the event, to prevent us from turning the page on this terrible chapter in human history. And so he has persistently refused to permit the suffering Jews experienced to be subsumed within the Christian concept of redemption, refused to let Catholics and Protestants forget the historic part they played in murdering six million Jews. “In Auschwitz all the Jews were victims, all the killers were Christians,” is his uncompromising verdict.
    Wiesel is clearly averse to being the kind of Public Jew who confers forgiveness. Nevertheless, in ways both large and small, he has conceded ground to those who would trivialize the event, effectively bringing about the reconciliation he has worked so diligently to withhold. It is not merely the gesture of throwing out the first ball at a Mets game, although I join with Flanzbaum in wishing that Wiesel had declined this particular invitation. But when Wiesel moves beyond his self-defined role as survivor and witness to speak out about matters unconnected to his Holocaust experience, affixing his imprimatur to causes—however worthwhile—about which he lacks intimate knowledge, when he brings his moral weight to bear on Israeli politics, say, or America’s role in world events, he gives others the right to challenge his jurisdiction over his proper domain. As the preeminent spokesman for Jewish victims of the Holocaust, his status confirmed by a Nobel Prize, he has become trapped in the role of Public Jew, his slightest move fraught with significance, his every utterance bearing meanings he may not intend. Such is the plight of all celebrities, to be sure, but Wiesel’s celebrity is of a different order because it is composed of so many facets. Witness, judge, victim, Jeremiah, the moral conscience of his century: certainly it is not possible to be all of these things at all times, nor is it fair of Wiesel’s audience to expect so much of one man. And yet, for all his efforts to protect the memory of the Holocaust, to control the manner in which the event is represented by guarding against inappropriate readings and facile comparisons, it seems to me that Wiesel has lost control over his own identity. The man whose mission has been “to make the world more human” has inadvertently relinquished his own right to show human weakness.
    Sadly I see no escape from the dilemma. The impulse to look away, to heal, or to forget the trauma of the Holocaust is so strong. How can the Public Jew keep from becoming an agent in this process? How can The Jew—the others’ creation—remain true to himself? In the preface to the 1977 reissue of his book of essays, At the Mind’s Limits, the Austrian writer and survivor Jean Améry announced his unwillingness to close the moral chasm between the victims and perpetrators of Nazi crimes. “My book is meant to aid in preventing precisely this,” Améry asserted. “For nothing is resolved, no conflict is settled, no remembering has become a mere memory. What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be so easily accepted.” Ten years earlier, when At the Mind’s Limits first appeared, Améry was not so pessimistic. The preface to the first edition ends with the hope that the painful self-examination he chronicles will help his readers, among whom he pointedly includes non-Jews and Germans, “to live together as fellow human beings.” What caused him to give up this hope was the reemergence of the familiar vice of anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere in a new form: the anti-Zionism of the Left. Against this evil Améry chose to fight as a Jew, to wage what he knew to be a losing battle in the spirit of the Warsaw ghetto fighters “who took death into their own hands and, though powerless and unarmed, became avengers.” Their heroism lay in their willingness to turn death into a form of revolt, he argued. The lesson of the Warsaw ghetto, as he made clear in his essay “In the Waiting Room of Death,” was revenge. “What makes it so singular and irreducible was the freedom of choosing death, which was opposed to death as a decree by the enemy and made into reality.”
    Améry chose revenge as well. “The impossibility of being a Jew becomes the necessity to be one, and that means: a vehemently protesting Jew,” he wrote in the preface to the 1977 edition of At the Mind’s Limits. “I rebel,” he went on to proclaim. “I rebel: against my past, against history, and against a present that places the incomprehensible in the cold storage of history and thus falsifies it in a revolting way.” A year later, Améry killed himself. In his discourse On Suicide: A Disclosure on Voluntary Dearth, published after a failed attempt at taking his life in 1976, he had presented suicide not as an act of self-annihilation, a passive succumbing to grief or despair, but as an active assertion of self. Améry chose death because it was the sole means of reclaiming his dignity in the face of the world’s indifference to what he and his fellow Jewish victims had suffered in Auschwitz. His suicide was intended to fix permanently his identity as a Jew who had lost his trust in the world, a Jew who forgot nothing and denied for all time the possibility of reconciliation.
    Primo Levi saw much of himself in Améry and was shaken by the other man’s death. “The Intellectual in Auschwitz” was his attempt to refute the argument of Améry’s suicide and to defend himself from the charge leveled against him by Améry in a letter to a mutual friend: the accusation that Levi was a forgiver. “I don’t consider this either an insult or praise but an imprecision. I am not inclined to forgive, I never forgave our enemies of that time,” Levi insisted, but he himself was unable, he said, “to trade punches or return the blows.” By nature, he was not a fighter. Even in the Lager, where Améry was apparently preoccupied by thoughts of death and revenge—his proudest memory was of punching a Polish Kapo in the face—Levi found ample distraction in the daily battle to stay alive. “The aims of life are the best defense against death: and not only in the Lager,” is the note on which “The Intellectual in Auschwitz” concludes.
    Consoling words. I will admit that I have allowed myself to be consoled by Levi’s words. And yet, Levi did have dark moments when he doubted himself and wished he were stronger. Like Améry he deplored the ceremonies and celebrations, monuments and flags that had come to take the place of real mourning and commemoration. Where he diverged from his fellow survivor was over the ends to which each thought his protest should be put. Améry’s death was meant as a statement—a closing argument, in effect—to which no rejoinder was possible. “The world, which forgives and forgets, has sentenced me, not those who murdered or allowed the murder to occur. . . . Time did its work, very quietly,” he accused in the essay he titled “Resentments,” an essay that still has the power, after many readings, to make me uncomfortable. “Soon we must and will be finished. Until that time has come, we request of those whose peace is disturbed by our grudge that they be patient.”
    Primo Levi fought not for revenge, but for accuracy and honest remembrance. His objective, as he confessed in the preface to The Drowned and the Saved, was to resist the stylization that hardened memory, the “excessive simplifications” that turned commemoration into an empty ritual, a symbolic gesture that obscures truth. Believing that Auschwitz could return, that similar atrocities were, in fact, occurring, he turned to his audience and asked, “What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this threat will be nullified?” Levi’s answer was dialogue, a give and take between equals who enter into the exchange not to preach, but to listen. In his brave willingness to acknowledge his doubts in public and his refusal to deny his human complexity for the sake of his Jewish identity, and above all in his effort to engage readers to think for themselves, I see a way out of the impasse, a solution to the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the role of Public Jew.

Last semester, Yaron Svoray, Israeli commando and author of In Hitler’s Shadow, an exposé of the growing neo-Nazi movement in Germany, was invited to speak at our college by a Jewish student organization. I was not involved in the decision to bring Mr. Svoray to campus and chose not to attend the lecture. My reasons were political: it troubled me that the organizers of the event did not consider the implications of inviting an Israeli commando to speak in the midst of the current intifada, given the Israeli army’s history of injustice toward the Palestinians. The publicity for the event praised Svoray’s book for revealing “the vast network of middle-class citizens who subscribe to the Nazi platform of racial hatred and superiority, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.” Certainly the neo-Nazi movement in Germany merits concern, but invoking the Holocaust, I believe, feeds a paranoia that justifies right-wing Israelis in portraying themselves as an embattled minority who are entitled to employ any means in order to ensure their nation’s security. Still, I respect the right of student groups to choose their own speakers and would have been content to keep my protest private, had I not learned, in conversations with colleagues who were present at the lecture, of the intolerant nature of Mr. Svoray’s remarks. The speaker apparently felt no hesitation in attributing to Germans in general the anti-Semitic attitudes he observed among the members of the neo-Nazi groups he infiltrated. What is more, the sensational thrust of his presentation, which elicited audible gasps from the audience at several points, made it impossible for anyone to express a dissenting opinion in the question and answer period following the lecture.
    I found myself in the same predicament I faced at that cocktail party years ago, but this time I felt compelled to speak out, to oppose Mr. Svoray’s invective, and to do so from my insider’s position. I felt compelled, that is, to protest as a Jew. In a letter addressed to my friends in the German Department, I explained why I was personally offended by the ethnic stereotyping in which Mr. Svoray indulged and invited them to share their reactions to the event. My objective was not to speak on behalf of others, and least of all to protest in the name of Hitler’s victims; far from presenting a unified front with my fellow Jews, I sought to dissociate myself from the anti-German sentiment that so often accompanies the tendency to define ourselves against the Holocaust. If there is any justification for taking on the symbolic function of the Public Jew, it is to open a dialogue between Jews and non-Jews by acknowledging the conflicts within my community and within myself. This is my acknowledgment.

Lisa Lieberman is the author of Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide (Ivan R. Dee), a portion of which originally appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue of The Gettysburg Review.

“The Public Jew” appears in our Summer 2001 issue.