Why must the noble rose
bristle before it blooms, and why
must the frost declare
allegiance to the dew?
Don't tell me the robin's
could not be denied.
I've heard the magpie's lies.
Outside my window,
consort in a cedar tree,
fat and happy to be free
of all desire--ah, but
that's not true! See
how they dance and turn
when I throw out the seed.
Had Samuel Beckett written the script for a mud-wrestling contest, to be performed by the Pina Bausch dance troupe, the result might have looked like the scenes of warfare in Kippur. Co-written and directed by Amos Gitai, based on his experiences in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kippur is a vision of rain and smoke hanging above a scarred earth, and of men who are either dead or else staggering about in physical and moral exhaustion.
The picture might almost be encapsulated in the indelible episode--shot in a single, seemingly endless take--in which four members of a rescue team struggle to carry an unconscious soldier out of a sucking, oozing wasteland. The rescuers move forward from an utterly void background, inching their way toward the camera by means of a progressive collapse. They heave the wounded man over their heads, take half a step, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another trying to pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another, pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher, fall, pick up the stretcher, fall. At some point, the wounded man dies; and still the rescuers labor on with their mortal burden, open-mouthed, reeling, streaming with muck. You might wonder whether they're melting back into the earth or are trying to rise from it, to assume human form.
Kippur is long minutes of futile slogging, interrupted by bursts of terror.
Confronted by the film's pitilessly long takes, which are usually shot from the viewpoint of a participant in the action, I'm tempted to say that Kippur tosses the viewer headlong into a direct presentation of war. There's a little more to it than that. First, Gitai provides the buffer of a framing device; at the beginning and end, you see Weinraub (Liron Levo) engaged with a friend in lovemaking, in a ritual that involves their pouring paint onto a white sheet and rolling naked in the goo. Before the war, this pastime seems like a mildly kinky, Israeli knockoff of Yves Klein. After the war, it's more like a re-enactment of that struggle in the mud--which means the image is meaningful and memorable, besides reeking of art. Gitai also provides some respite in the middle of the film by having the rescue crew's helicopter pilot (Yoram Hattab) and its doctor (Uri Ran Klauzner) deliver monologues about their families. You fall back on the comforting illusion, which Gitai seems provisionally to accept, that people can explain themselves.
But these brief diversions are hardly enough to distance you from the principal action, which is conveyed as if through a fixed stare. Most viewers, having been stunned by the impact, will therefore want some context for Kippur. I can offer two frameworks: biography and filmography.
Biography: Amos Gitai, whose middle name is Weinraub, was studying architecture in his native Haifa when the Yom Kippur War erupted. He went off to serve in a rescue team; and after several days' worth of missions, his helicopter was hit by a missile above Tel Ahmal, in Syria. The date was October 11, 1973, Gitai's 23rd birthday. The co-pilot was killed and four other crew members severely wounded. The downed pilot who had been the goal of the rescue effort was never reached; he was to spend five years in Syrian prisons. Gitai, almost unharmed in body, walked away from the field hospital as the survivor and witness.
He completed his degree in Haifa, continued his architectural studies in Berkeley and then, upon returning home, launched a career as the most challenging documentary filmmaker of the Israeli left. After his early projects were funded and then censored by Israeli television, he went into self-imposed exile in Paris, where he circulated among the headiest film intellectuals and decided to expand his prolific output into features. He returned to Israel in 1993. Kippur is (more or less) his twenty-ninth film, and to my mind is the feature he's needed to make.
Filmography: Gitai's early documentaries had a stark, confrontational vigor. House (1980) exposed the various levels of society that overlapped, without meeting, at a house in Jerusalem: from the Palestinian laborers who were bused in from the West Bank each dawn to expand the building, to the present Israeli owner, to the elderly Palestinian doctor who had owned the house and been driven from it by war. Field Diary (1982) took the viewer into the occupied West Bank, in defiance of military authorities; its most common image, repeated throughout the film, was of a soldier's hand clamping down on the lens.
The features, beginning with Esther (1985) and Berlin-Jerusalem (1989), were far more studied. At the time, Gitai was devoted to the slow-moving, anti-illusionistic, playing-dress-up style that was then fashionable in certain art-film circles. I recognized that the style fit his subjects--a low-key restaging of the Book of Esther, using a Palestinian and Israeli cast; a reconstruction of the experiences in Mandate Palestine of the German Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuler--and I admired the ambition and intelligence of the work; but I didn't feel I was watching a movie. It was more like hearing about one, after I'd been heavily medicated for a cold.
The fog started to lift with Gitai's three-cities trilogy. In 1995 he brought out the first in the series, a version of Yakov Shabtai's extraordinary novel Zichron Devarim (Past Continuous). The book is impossible to film, and in a sense Gitai didn't try; in effect, he staged a number of tableaux from the story, as if to remind viewers of what they had read. But in doing so, he allowed his actors (including himself) far more freedom than in the past, and he also permitted himself the freedom of looking at Tel Aviv through a fictional lens. He went on to make features set in Israel's two other principal cities. Yom Yom (1998) was an entropic comedy, in which things fell apart around (and in) a Muslim-Jewish man in Haifa. Kadosh (1999), Gitai's first film to achieve commercial release in the United States, was a tragedy about women who struggle to escape--or don't escape--the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem.
Gitai was still practicing a long-take, medium-shot style, with the occasional camera movement (sometimes motivated, sometimes not) used for variety. The effect was distanced, even when (as in Kadosh) a woman was being raped and beaten by her husband. But to look at it the other way around, Gitai was now dealing explicitly with violence (and with explicit sex as well). His association with cinematographer Renato Berta was giving his films a richer, moodier look; and he was assembling a stock company of actors who were brilliantly naturalistic. (Hattab, Klauzner and Juliano Merr all worked with Gitai before their appearances in Kippur.) He had brought himself to the verge of a breakthrough; and I think he's achieved it in Kippur, the first feature with the urgency and immediacy of his best documentaries.
The slog through the mud is not the only scene in Kippur to come off the screen with straightforward power. First comes the approach to the war zone, as Weinraub and his comrade Ruso (Tomer Ruso) make their way north to join their unit. It's slow going in Weinraub's old junker of a car--he won't buy anything flashy or new, having read Marcuse--and it gets slower still when the reservists get caught in a mammoth traffic jam. You get your first view of war as chaos, shot in part from inside the car, in the manner of Abbas Kiarostami.
Then there's the first rescue mission, in which no one is left to rescue. Dropped into a still-smoking entrenchment, the crew discovers that all the bodies are dead--although this fact escapes one member of the team, who rushes about ordering charred corpses onto the helicopter. Much later in the film, after you and the crew have seen a lot of this kind of thing, Gitai provides your only comprehensive view of the war: a long, circling shot from Weinraub's point of view, as he looks down from the helicopter onto a ruined, rutted world, where the dominant life form seems to be the armored tank.
Nor are you spared the aftermath of the war: triage. The drama reaches its matter-of-fact conclusion in the field hospital, where one crew member after the other is examined and then sent off for someone else to deal with.
This is tough-minded, uncompromising filmmaking: the maximum action within the minimum framework. I believe that's always been an ideal for Gitai, as it is for certain other figures of international cinema--meaning the vital (though commercially minor) field of co-production and festival-based distribution that's generally known as "the art film." Now the art film has ventured strongly onto the terrain of the war movie--Gitai specifically credits as an influence Sam Fuller, who was among his mentors--which means that Kippur confirms the vigor not only of Gitai's filmmaking but also that of an entire segment of international cinema, which he represents.
So much for Kippur as art object. As testimony, it is beyond price--and unfortunately without time. Though utterly specific in its details, the film would have been relevant if shown anytime after 1914 and will remain all too meaningful into the foreseeable future. Its release at the present moment is telling, of course; but what it tells us is awful in its simplicity. "Do you plan to settle things by armed conflict?" asks Kippur. "Then this is what you get."
In their 1996 book The Next War, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweitzer concoct some troubling scenarios they imagine could confront the United States. One is with Mexico: It's 1999, and a radical nationalist comes to power with the assistance of drug traffickers, resulting in a flood of migrants and drugs across the US boundary. In response, the Pentagon sends 60,000 troops to the border region. Tensions between the two countries mount over the next few years, leading to a full-scale US invasion of Mexico that restores law and order within six months. In constructing this nightmare scenario, the authors draw on a long history of depicting undesired immigrants as invading hordes and the international boundary as a line of defense. Peter Andreas recounts this hawkish vision in his provocative and highly persuasive Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide. He argues that predictions of an inevitable march toward greater levels of militarization in the region--of which the Weinberger/Schweitzer vision is the most extreme--ignore the necessity of maintaining a porous boundary because of the significant and intensifying levels of economic integration between the United States and Mexico.
Still, as part of the US government's war on drugs and "illegal" immigrants in the border region, the enforcement regime has grown dramatically over the past two decades, as chronicled by Andreas. The antidrug budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, rose 164 percent between fiscal years 1990 and 1997, while the overall budget for the INS nearly tripled between FY 1993 and 1999, from $1.5 billion to $4.2 billion, with border enforcement the biggest growth area. At the same time, transboundary trade has reached unprecedented heights because of the 1994 implementation of NAFTA. This exacerbates the challenge of "enforcement." As a 1999 government report cautioned, "Rapidly growing commerce between the United States and Mexico will complicate our efforts to keep drugs out of cross-border traffic." With a daily average of 220,000 vehicles now crossing into the United States from Mexico--and only nine large tractor-trailers loaded with cocaine required to satisfy annual domestic demand in the United States--the task facing US authorities is daunting.
Given such practical contradictions, it's the creation of an image of boundary control that has been most significant. As Andreas explains--and this is his well-written book's central point--the escalation of border enforcement is less about deterring drugs and migrants than it is about symbolism. In other words, state elites are more concerned about giving a good performance for reasons of domestic political consumption than they are about realizing the stated goals of boundary enforcement. In fact, the political-economic costs of too much success serve to limit enforcement. As one high-level US Customs official cited in Border Games stated, "If we examined every truck for narcotics arriving into the United States along the Southwest border.... Customs would back up the truck traffic bumper-to-bumper into Mexico City in just two weeks--15.8 days.... That's 1,177 miles of trucks, end to end."
To the extent that there is an appearance of success, however (statistics showing more interdiction, for example), it helps to realize a variety of political agendas. As Andreas contends, "Regardless of its deterrent effect, the escalation of enforcement efforts has helped to fend off political attacks and kept the drug issue from derailing the broader process of economic integration."
Thus, in the case of NAFTA, the deceptive image (one carefully crafted with the Clinton White House) that Mexico under Carlos Salinas de Gortari was having significant success in the binational war on drugs facilitated a reluctant Congress's passage of NAFTA. Moreover, the Administration promised that NAFTA would bring even greater levels of transboundary cooperation in the drug war and lead to more resources for boundary enforcement.
NAFTA also intertwined with the Administration's offensive against unauthorized immigration (a matter Andreas does not discuss), which was, in part, the US answer to massive disruption in Mexico's rural and small-business sectors brought about by growing economic liberalization. While Administration officials promoted NAFTA as a boundary-control tool (by creating better, high-paying jobs in Mexico, went the argument, NAFTA would lead to less immigration from Mexico to the United States), they also understood that NAFTA would intensify pressures to migrate among Mexicans displaced in the name of economic efficiency. As INS Commissioner Doris Meissner argued to Congress in November 1993, "Responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border."
For Andreas, specific developments are often the "unintended feedback effects of past policy choices" as much as the result of particular bureaucratic incentives and rewards. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), for example, led to the legalization of large numbers of unauthorized immigrants as a way of ultimately reducing unsanctioned immigration. IRCA's main effect, however, was "to reinforce and expand already well-established cross-border migration networks" and to create a booming business in fraudulent documents.
These "perverse consequences" laid the foundation for the anti-immigrant backlash that emerged in the early 1990s--most vociferously in California, a state especially hard hit by the recession and feeling the effects of a rapidly changing population due to immigration. In advancing this argument, Andreas cautions that his goal is "not to provide a general explanation of the anti-illegal immigration backlash." Rather, he seeks to show how political and bureaucratic entrepreneurs partially whipped up public sentiment and channeled it "to focus on the border as both the source of the problem and the most appropriate site of the policy solution." While there is much merit in such an approach and the explanation that flows from it, it is insufficient.
First, as many have argued, the backlash of the 1990s was not simply against "illegal" immigrants but, to a large degree, against immigrants in general--especially the nonwhite, non-English speaking and the relatively poor. Moreover, as Andreas shows in a stimulating chapter that compares and contrasts similar developments along the Germany/Poland and Spain/Morocco boundaries, the seeming paradox of "a borderless economy and a barricaded border" is evidenced along boundaries that unite and divide rich and poor in other parts of the world. Given the locales of these developments and their uneven impacts on different social groups, there is need for another type of explanation.
How does one explain the differential treatment of the interests of the rich (enhanced trading opportunities) and those of the poor (those compelled by conditions to migrate and work without authorization)? It is in this area that Grace Chang is of great help. Disposable Domestics offers a refreshingly new perspective on immigration control. Chang's tone is overtly political and more polemical than that of Andreas, but her approach is equally rigorous. Her goal is to make poor immigrant women visible, to humanize them, to highlight their contributions and tribulations, and to show them as actively trying to contest their conditions of subjugation.
Chang argues persuasively that poor immigrant women--largely Third Worlders--have become a central focus of "public scrutiny and media distortion, and the main targets of immigration regulation and labor control" in the United States. To show the continuity between past and present, she provides an overview of the long history of imagery portraying immigrant women as undeserving users of welfare services and hyperfertile breeders of children. In doing so, she makes an invaluable contribution, showing how the regulation of immigration and labor is inextricably tied to matters of gender, as well as to those of class, race and nationality.
The author effectively challenges mainstream assumptions that surround the immigration debate. For example, she argues that studies attempting to measure the costs and benefits of immigration--regardless of their findings or the agendas behind them--ultimately reduce immigrants to commodities or investments. Chang sides with an emerging consensus among immigrant advocates that sees such studies as missing the point, and instead emphasizes the human and worker rights of all immigrants. In this regard, she criticizes immigrant advocates who have fallen into the trap of dividing immigrants between good ("legal") and bad ("illegal").
Chang highlights the folly of this approach in recounting the trials of Zoë Baird, Clinton's first nominee for Attorney General. When it came to light that she employed two undocumented immigrants as domestic servants--a common "crime" among two-career, professional couples--her nomination was sunk. What led to public outrage, according to Chang, was more the "resentment that this practice was so easily accessible to the more privileged classes while other working-class mothers struggled to find any child care," rather than the flouting of the law per se.
Throughout, Chang gives us moving accounts of gross exploitation of immigrant women working as domestics or caretakers, showing that relatively well-off households often look specifically for "illegals" to save money and to facilitate their privileged lives. Indeed, "the advances of many middle-class white women in the workforce have been largely predicated on the exploitation of poor, immigrant women." For Chang, this explains why "the major women's groups were conspicuously silent during Baird's confirmation hearings"--a manifestation of the racial and class privileges their members enjoy.
Recent antiwelfare efforts in the United States, which Chang explores in another provocative chapter, also rely on the exploitation and scapegoating of immigrant women. She compares representations of poor women--native and immigrant--used both in the promotion of welfare "reform" and in efforts to regulate undocumented working women. In both cases, poor women are portrayed as exploiters of the system (to facilitate their hyperfertility) and as criminals--either as welfare cheats or as "illegals." For welfare mothers, the resulting backlash is "workfare"--a program that forces them to work (outside their homes, under the assumption that raising children is neither work nor a benefit to society), but not for a wage. They work for their welfare benefits instead, a remuneration usually far below what they would earn as employees. Meanwhile, government officials, corporate spokespersons and household employers mask their exploitation of low-wage employees as beneficence, purportedly providing them with opportunities, training and preparation, and the ability to assimilate into respectable society.
The war on the poor (welfare reform) and that against unauthorized immigrants are also sometimes functionally tied. Virginia's state office of social services, for example, cooperated with the INS to open up jobs held by "illegals" for workfare participants. This, along with INS raids of workplaces in the midst of unionization drives, according to Chang, is a growing trend. It is far from clear, however--at least on the basis of the anecdotal evidence Chang presents--that such events indicate a long-term, upward trend. Indeed, while anti-union employers have long used the INS to undermine immigrant-worker organizing, with a number of especially outrageous incidents taking place in the late 1990s, those appear to have diminished over the last couple of years, apparently due to the outcry from union, immigration and human rights activists. In part, the discrepancy reflects the fact that Chang wrote the book--more a collection of essays stitched together--over several years, with some of the chapters having appeared in previous publications.
Chang tends to see the factors that create and drive immigration and the mistreatment of low-wage immigrant workers as derivative of an overarching economic logic and a resulting set of intentional, goal-oriented practices. Thus, the workfare/INS-raid nexus illustrates the "true function" of the INS: "to regulate the movement, availability, and independence of migrant labor." More generally, immigration "is carefully orchestrated--that is, desired, planned, compelled, managed, accelerated, slowed and periodically stopped--by the direct actions of US interests, including the government as state and as employer, private employers, and corporations." United States elites keep Mexico and other countries in "debt bondage" so that they "must surrender their citizens, especially women, as migrant laborers to First World nations." And the purpose of California's Proposition 187, which would have eliminated public health, education and social services for unauthorized immigrants, is "perhaps" to mold immigrant children into a "category entirely of super-exploitable workers--those with no access to language or other skills and, most of all, no access to a status even remotely resembling citizenship that might allow them the safety to organize."
Such contentions imply a level of unity within the state and coherency in thought among economic and political actors (who are seemingly one and the same) that simply do not exist. They also downplay the agency of immigrants--who appear to be mere pawns of larger forces--and factors internal to their countries of origin driving immigration. Finally, such economic reductionism is puzzling given Chang's emphasis on race, gender and nationality. It seems at times, however, that she thinks that these are mere tools for highly rational, all-knowing and all-powerful economic elites.
This is why we need to appreciate the autonomous roles of race-, class-, gender- and nation-based ideologies in informing much of the anti-immigrant sentiment--factors that do not always dovetail with the interests of capital. Indeed, those elements are frequently at cross purposes. More than anything, anti-immigrant initiatives over the past thirty years have been the work of opportunistic and/or entrepreneurial elected officials, state bureaucrats and the cultural right--often small grassroots organizations and right-wing think tanks--rather than the business sector. Historically, capital has been generally pro-immigration. As the New York Journal of Commerce gushed in 1892, "Men, like cows, are expensive to raise and a gift of either should be gladly received. And a man can be put to more valuable use than a cow." Today, the Wall Street Journal advocates the elimination of border controls for labor. While this probably does not represent the view of most capitalists, it is significant nonetheless. And in the case of Proposition 187--as Chang reports--California employers, while collectively failing to take a public stand on the measure, generally opposed it for fear that they had much to lose if it passed. That said, the author is undoubtedly right to castigate employers for doing little or nothing to stand up for the rights of immigrants from whose labor, and from whose politically induced marginalization, they profit.
Given the divergent emphases and approaches of Andreas and Chang, very different solutions emerge from their arguments. Andreas criticizes the overemphasis on the supply side of unauthorized immigration and drugs. In terms of immigrants, for example, he observes that among wealthy countries, the United States "imposes the toughest penalties on the smuggling of migrants and related activities yet is among the most lenient with those who employ them." Similarly, he criticizes the scant resources available for enforcing existing workplace rules, which would undermine the ability of employers to exploit unauthorized workers, and he chides Congress for failing to develop a forgery-proof identity card system. (His stand on continued drug policing in the border region is less clear, although he calls for framing the drug problem as one of public health rather than law enforcement.)
Andreas seems resigned to the continued emphasis on border controls, too, despite demonstrating their brilliant failure. As one INS official he quotes explained, "The border is easy money politically. But the interior is a political minefield." Ending the border buildup is also a political minefield--one Andreas seems unwilling to enter. He is decidedly critical of the border status quo and aware of the hardships it causes (a topic to which he gives insufficient attention), but he critiques it on its own terms. In this regard, he does not stray outside the mainstream confines of debate.
A law-enforcement approach to unauthorized immigration is destined to fail. The ties between the United States and Mexico (and increasingly much of Latin America) are too strong, migrants are too resourceful and creative, and Americans are too resistant to the types of police-state measures that would prove necessary, to reduce unsanctioned immigration significantly. A far more effective and humane approach would be to work with progressive sectors of Third World societies to address the breakdown of political, economic and social systems and/or institutionalized injustice that often leads to immigration.
De-emphasizing boundary policing will likely reduce the deaths of unauthorized migrants (almost 600 in the California border region alone since 1994). But increased internal enforcement will create other difficulties, such as increased discrimination against those who do not look "American." It will also cause greater hardships in immigrant households, many of which contain people of different legal statuses. Should the US deport a principal breadwinner (an "illegal") from such a household, for example, leaving behind his or her US citizen children and "legal" spouse to fend for themselves?
Although Andreas argues that "the state has actually structured, conditioned, and even enabled (often unintentionally) clandestine border crossings," he discusses this matter in narrow terms, focusing on how previous "solutions" to the putative problems had an exacerbating effect. Meanwhile, he neglects the role played by the government and US-based economic interests in creating the conditions that fuel immigration. Thus, no issues of moral or political responsibility enter the analysis.
Grace Chang, on the other hand, puts a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the United States in fueling outmigration; it benefits from immigrant women's labor and wreaks havoc in Third World countries through the likes of military interventions and the imposition of structural adjustment programs. For Chang, the question is not one of trying to devise the best policy to control the unauthorized but of bringing about the changes needed to realize the rights of immigrants as workers and as human beings. In making this case, Chang correctly calls upon those of us who benefit from an unjust world order to stand in solidarity with immigrants--especially low-wage, Third World women who enable our privileged lifestyles--in their struggle for social justice at home and abroad.
It was curled on the pavement, forehead to knees,
as if it had died while bowing. Its stripes
were citrine-yellow, and the black of a moonless
starless, clear night. It did not
belong on a street, to be stepped on, I picked it
up in a fold of glove, and in the taxi
canted it onto a floral hankie,
a small, thin, cotton death-glade--
and the bee moved, one foreleg,
like an arm, feebly, as if old. It seemed
not long for this world, and it seemed I could not
save it, and had been saved, by its gesture,
from smothering it all day in my bag. I would have
liked to set it in a real glade,
but I thought that it might still, right now,
be suffering, yet I could not kill it
directly--I shook it, from the hankie, out the window,
onto West End Avenue,
hoping that, before a tire
killed it, instantly, it would hear
and feel huge rushes of tread and wind,
like flight, like the bee-god's escape.
One of the most remarkable--but unremarked, other than superficially--aspects of globalism is its erosional effect on the role of the state as we've known it since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Indeed, as Nation editorial board member Richard Falk notes in opening Human Rights Horizons, "The sovereign state is changing course due primarily to the widespread adoption of neoliberal approaches to governmental function.... There exists a broad cumulative trend toward the social disempowerment of the state," and "market forces operate as an impersonal agency for the infliction of human wrongs." Advancing their cause despite the privatizing of government functions--the ultimate in deregulation--may be "the most pressing framing question for human rights activists," Falk asserts in this scholarly meditation.
Falk moves between the specific and the general, whether geographically (from Rwanda to Kosovo to the Gulf War) or institutionally (the UN, NATO, World Bank, IMF), to try to tease out the foundations and implications of a new world moral order. He eschews easy answers--"it remains premature at this point to set forth 'the lessons of Kosovo'"--and is skeptical, yet he presents signs of hope: Global media provide "vivid images...of popular activism and makes the struggles in one setting suggestive...in another," for instance, and in one of its dynamics, globalization "is creating a stronger sense of shared destiny among the diverse peoples of the world."
In the more trying period ahead, a modest internationalism would fare best.
Crow light: I call it that at dawn
when one wing, then this other, bursts in flame,
catching the sun's rising. The stupid bird,
dipping his hunk of bread into the water,
doesn't know the Mississippi is my friend:
it disgorges in the gulf the frozen states I came from.
Mississippi! She was a grade school spelling word
in Detroit for me. I spelled well. Now, forty years later
I jog beside her interchange of gold and silver lustres,
always too much in love with any surface of the world.
But the crow: I know it's not the same bird
morning after morning. Still, the dipping of his beak
into this water, softening a breakfast for his gullet
demanding, like mine, daily satisfactions
lets me pretend every day's the same.
On one chunk of that bread some day up ahead
my last day is written, clear as the printing
on my birth certificate on file in Michigan.
Crows dip their bread. Daily, I run for breath,
hoping to extend my distance, even a little.
The Mississippi muddies, clears, according to the factories
up North, the local, snarled measures against its dying.
Slowly, even the river is passing from us while I run.
You have "little trace," exclaimed Gershom Scholem in a letter he sent to the great Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, of "love for the Jewish people." It was the early 1960s, and Scholem, one of Israel's most prominent intellectuals, was responding to her analysis of Adolf Eichmann's trial. Scholem's attack was spurred by several assertions Arendt had made, including her allegation that the Jewish officials in the ghettos--the Judenrat--expedited the extermination machine; if they had not collaborated with the Nazis, Arendt wrote, fewer Jews would have been killed.
Scholem's criticism expressed the prevailing view held by Israel's elite. Not surprisingly, Arendt was censored in Israel, and it took thirty-six years before an Israeli press agreed to translate her writings. Although the recent appearance of Eichmann in Jerusalem in Hebrew has rekindled an age-old debate, it seems that Israelis can now relate to the Holocaust in a more mature way.
Corners of the Jewish establishment in the United States may not be ready to cope with similarly forceful criticism, though, judging from the response to Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry. A review put forth in the New York Times tossed it aside as "an ideological fanatic's view of other people's opportunism, by a writer so reckless and ruthless in his attacks that he is prepared to defend his own enemies, the bastions of Western capitalism, and to warn that 'The Holocaust' will stir up an anti-Semitism whose significance he otherwise discounts." There are two major problems with this line of criticism. First, it summarily dismisses Finkelstein's arguments without any attempt to engage his disturbing accusations. Second, instead of concentrating on the book, the reviewer goes after the author, implying that Finkelstein, the son of survivors, represents a neoteric breed of anti-Semite. In this way, it resembles the assault on Arendt.
On the book's first page Finkelstein distinguishes between the actual historical events of the Nazi holocaust and "The Holocaust," a term denoting an "ideological weapon." He notifies the reader that The Holocaust Industry deals only with the ideological component, which is used to cast both Israel and "the most successful ethnic group in the United States" as victims. Victim status, in turn, says Finkelstein, enables the Zionist state, which has "a horrendous human rights record," to deflect criticism, and US Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and others) to advance dubious financial goals.
Others have already shown that the holocaust has served to justify pernicious acts. Tom Segev, a leading Israeli journalist, said as much over a decade ago in his book The Seventh Million. In the early 1980s, Israeli scholar Boaz Evron observed that the holocaust is often discussed by "a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but the manipulation of the present." Thus, Finkelstein's contribution to the existing literature involves his concentration on US Jewish organizations. He attempts to go beyond Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life [see Jon Wiener, "Holocaust Creationism," July 12, 1999], which focused in part on abuses committed by Jewish organizations and intellectuals, by providing a much more radical critique. Finkelstein strives to show how the organizations have "shrunk the stature of [Jewish] martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo casino."
The major claim of the first chapter, "Capitalizing the Holocaust," is that until the 1960s "American Jewish elites 'forgot' the Nazi holocaust," their public obliviousness induced by a fear of being accused of "dual loyalty." Finkelstein urges the reader to keep in mind that the United States opposed Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt and did not become an ardent champion of the Jewish state until the mid-1960s. Accordingly, he avers, Jewish elites were apprehensive about accentuating the holocaust for fear that this would be interpreted as favoring Israel over the United States.
The reader is also reminded that after World War II, Germany became "a crucial postwar American ally in the US confrontation with the Soviet Union." It was, I believe along with the author, a sad moment in Jewish history when organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League "actively collaborated in the McCarthy-era witch hunt." The crux of Finkelstein's argument in this context is that Jewish organizations "remembered" the holocaust only after the United States and Israel had formed a strategic cold war alliance. They suddenly realized that "The Holocaust" (in its capitalized form) could be employed as an ideological tool.
Finkelstein does not hesitate to use blunt language rather than euphemism; and although he usually applies words in a precise manner, at times he gets carried away in his analysis. For instance, at the very end of the first chapter, after discussing the dissolution of the longstanding alliance between American Jews and blacks, he claims that "just as Israelis, armed to the teeth by the United States, courageously put unruly Palestinians in their place, so American Jews courageously put unruly Blacks in their place." The book offers no support for the sentence's second clause; the analogy it sets up, too, is erroneous and can easily be used to discredit Finkelstein and thus his more serious charges.
The book's principal weakness, however, develops in its second chapter, "Hoaxers, Hucksters and History." Finkelstein dedicates this portion of the book to undermining two "central dogmas" that "underpin the Holocaust framework: (1) The Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event; (2) The Holocaust marks the climax of an irrational, eternal Gentile hatred of Jews."
My criticism has nothing to do with Finkelstein's analysis of the second dogma, whose paradigmatic example is Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The main thesis underlying Goldhagen's book--which has been acclaimed in some quarters but derided in many others--is that ordinary Germans were no less anti-Semitic than National Socialist Party members. Goldhagen's theory serves the notion that Jews can always fall prey to Gentiles, which makes them the quintessential and eternal victims. And if "'all people collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Jewry,'" then, as Boaz Evron points out, "everything is permissible to Jews in their relationship to other people." Together with Ruth Bettina Birn, an international expert on Nazi war crimes, Finkelstein examined Goldhagen's references one by one, and in their book A Nation on Trial they concluded convincingly that Hitler's Willing Executioners is not worthy of being called an academic text.
My problem, rather, lies with Finkelstein's attempt to demonstrate that the holocaust was not a unique historical event. I disagree with Elie Wiesel, who for a "standard fee of $25,000 (plus a chauffeured limousine)"--in Finkelstein's aside--insists that "we cannot even talk about it," and I follow Finkelstein's admonition that it's helpful to compare it with other historical events. Yes, Finkelstein is right that Communists, not Jews, were the first political casualties of Nazism, and that the handicapped were the first genocidal victims. He is also correct that Gypsies were systematically murdered. But these facts do not prove that the holocaust was unique only "by virtue of time and location," in his formulation. Even though mass genocide has occurred elsewhere, death trains, gas ovens and Auschwitz have not. The holocaust, including the horrific experience of European Jewry, was unique.
Finkelstein's error is in conflating two issues: the uniqueness of the holocaust, on the one hand, and how this uniqueness is interpreted and put to use in manipulative ways, on the other. He fails to recognize that one need not debunk the uniqueness of an event in order to compare it and criticize its use and abuse.
Nonetheless, when it comes to analyzing how "The Holocaust" has been employed to advance political interests, Finkelstein is at his best. He shows how "The Holocaust" demagogues draw a link between "uniqueness" and "Jewish chosenness" and demonstrates how both are used to justify Israel's rightness, regardless of the context. His most notable contribution is in the third chapter of his book, "The Double Shakedown," where he couches as an exposé his view that "the Holocaust industry has become an outright extortion racket." The chapter deals with a few specific cases but mainly focuses on the circumstances leading to the compensation agreement between Switzerland and a number of Jewish organizations. In this disturbing affair the devil is in the details, and Finkelstein has done his homework.
The empirical evidence he supplies is alarming. He documents how Jewish organizations have consistently exaggerated numbers--of slave laborers or the amount of "victim gold" purchased by the banks--in order to secure more money. This sort of inflation was recently repeated in an October 23 letter written by Burt Neuborne--the lead counsel in the Swiss banks case--to The Nation. Neuborne claimed, for instance, that if one takes into account that there were "more than 2 million wartime accounts" whose records have been destroyed, then the $1.25 billion compensation provided by the Swiss "barely scratches the surface of the stolen funds." Neuborne fails to mention the findings published by the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, also known as the Volcker Committee, in its Report on Dormant Accounts of Victims of Nazi Persecution in Swiss Banks (1999). The committee established that approximately 54,000 dormant accounts had a "possible or probable" relationship to Holocaust victims, and of these only half had any real likely connection. Considering that "the estimated value of 10,000 of these accounts for which some information was available runs to $170-200 million," even Raul Hilberg, author of the seminal study The Destruction of the European Jews, infers that the "current value of the monies in the dormant Jewish accounts is far less than the $1.25 billion paid by the Swiss."
Hilberg himself has accused some Jewish organizations of "blackmail," and Finkelstein describes in detail how this economic strong-arming was carried out. While the high-powered lawyers representing the organizations haggled with the Swiss, the Jewish lobby launched an extensive campaign. This drive included the publication of studies--supported by the Simon Wiesenthal Center--that accused Switzerland of "knowingly profiting from blood money" and committing "unprecedented theft," and claimed that "dishonesty was a cultural code that individual Swiss have mastered to protect the nation's image and prosperity." Using its leverage, the lobby utilized these allegations in the House and Senate banking committees in order to orchestrate a "shameless campaign of vilification" against Switzerland, in Finkelstein's words. Simultaneously, it convinced officials in a number of states, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois, to threaten the Swiss banks with economic boycott. Finally, the banks bent in response. Call it what you will, ingenious lobbying or conspiracy theory, Finkelstein manages to disclose how this well-oiled machine has utilized abhorrent methods to fill its coffers.
The World Jewish Congress has amassed "roughly $7 billion" in compensation moneys. One reads that former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger earns an annual salary of $300,000 as chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, while ex-Senator Alfonse D'Amato is paid $350 an hour plus expenses for mediating Holocaust lawsuits--he received $103,000 for the first six months of his labors. Most of the attorneys hired by the Jewish organizations earn around $600 an hour and their fees in total have reached several million. One lawyer asked for "$2,400 for reading Tom Bower's book, Nazi Gold." These attorneys might be demanding a smaller fee than is common to such litigation, but even a small percentage of a billion dollars is a lot of money. One should keep in mind that Finkelstein's mother received $3,500 for spending years in the Warsaw ghetto and in labor camps--the same amount D'Amato made in ten hours' work. These numbers plainly suggest that the "struggle," as much as it may be about paying damages to victims, has elements of an out-and-out money grab.
Finkelstein's analysis here boils down to three major criticisms: First, US Jewish organizations have been using shady methods to squeeze as much money as they can from European countries; second, while these organizations "celebrate" the "needy victims," much of the money gained in the process does not reach the victims but is used by organizations for "pet projects" and exorbitant overhead salaries; and third, that Jewish organizations' ongoing distortion of facts and emotional manipulation foments anti-Semitism. While his arguments are convincing, his attempt to be provocative leads to carelessness. His claim that the "Holocaust may turn out to be the greatest theft in the history of mankind" is preposterous, especially considering the history of imperialism. And yes, the "Holocaust industry" probably engenders some anti-Semitism; but Finkelstein should also clearly state that any misbehavior by Jewish organizations does not, and never can, provide an excuse for it.
Finkelstein does not spend all of his ire on his critique of Jewish organizations; he forcefully condemns US double standards as well. Why, for example, was a Holocaust museum built on the Washington Mall while there is no similarly high-profile museum commemorating crimes that took place in the course of American history? "Imagine," he says, "the wailing accusation of hypocrisy here were Germany to build a national museum in Berlin to commemorate not the Nazi genocide but American slavery or the extermination of Native Americans." Along the same line, the United States pressures Germany to pay compensation for its use of slave labor, but few in government dare mention compensation for African-Americans. Swiss banks are asked to pay back money taken from Jews but are allowed to continue profiting from the billions of dollars deposited by tyrants like Mobutu and Suharto at the expense of indigenous populations.
Informing Finkelstein's analysis is a universal ethics, which echoes Arendt's important claim that Eichmann should have been sentenced for his crimes against humanity rather than his crimes against the Jews. His book is controversial not entirely because of his mistakes or his piercing rhetoric but because he speaks truth to power. He, and not the Jewish organizations he criticizes, is following the example set by the great Jewish prophets.
George Washington takes place in a small, weedy, rusty city in the American South, where children conduct their affairs with adult responsibility and adults behave like kids. The grown-ups had fought wars and built machines, explains Nasia (Candace Evanofski), the little girl who narrates the film in voiceover, so "it was hard for them to find their peace." By contrast, the children dwell on problems of friendship, love and the care of small animals. These subjects lead not to turmoil but to the contemplation of "mysteries...all the mistakes God had made."
Nasia doesn't name these errors; but a moviegoer might draw up quite a list. God has allowed George Washington to be set in a city of empty storefronts, derelict factories, junkyards, railyards and tumbledown houses: places of abandonment and failure, which are lovingly photographed in warm sunlight and deep colors. Presiding over this America (at least in Nasia's mind) is her friend George (Donald Holden), whose skull God forgot to fuse. George's brain lies so near the surface that he has to go about wearing a football helmet. But despite his vulnerability--or because of it--George wants to be a hero, and Nasia sees him as one. The marvel of the movie is that you see George almost as she does, even while knowing that he's a poor, scared, guilt-burdened kid.
On the level of knowledge--of meanings that can be paraphrased--George Washington is a mounting pile of disasters. Parents are dead, imprisoned or crazy; pets are candidates for slaughter; friends are one slip away from a violent end. The survivors, while not yet old enough for high school, ache with a secret conviction of sin, or else go numb and blame themselves for it.
But the movie doesn't play at the paraphrasable level. As written and directed by David Gordon Green in his remarkable feature debut, George Washington is a languid series of impressionistic glances, many of them cast at subjects that seem lovely or droll. Scenes often fade to black, so they occupy their own little space. The performers (all of them nonprofessional) play-act with a sincerity (sometimes an abandonment) that makes each moment a piece of eternity. Music is used sparingly; and when it does come up, it's generally in the form of a slow, two- or three-chord pattern that isn't planning to go anywhere. Maybe a couple of the children want to skip town after their friend Buddy abruptly dies; but the sounds are content to cycle in the air, as if they feel what George and Nasia feel. The goodness that the kids hope to find, the love and heroism they seek, must be present here and now, if they exist at all.
Do they exist? The answer might be yes, if you smile when George puts on his superhero outfit--the football helmet, a uniform from the school wrestling team and a white sheet, tied around his neck as a cape--and pretends to direct traffic. Never mind that the traffic doesn't need direction. George apparently believes he's saving lives; and though his need for this belief is terrible, though circumstances have made the wrestling uniform a token of guilt, the camera nevertheless gazes up at him, admiring rather than belittling his solemn arm-waving.
This is irony reversed: a demonstration of the moral and imaginative strength of a character who is, in his material condition, weaker than the viewer. I might even say (to compare small things with great) that George takes on the role of Father of His Country much as Leopold Bloom assumes the mantle of Ulysses. For all we know, George's ancestors were owned by the Father of His Country. (Like most of the film's characters, George has African blood.) But in his own eyes and Nasia's, there's still freedom and glory to be found on Independence Day--though the parade, to us, may look comically shabby, though the city's grown-ups doze off before the fireworks begin.
"Smile," someone says to George as the film concludes. When a picture's this good, that's easily done.
By coincidence, October has brought another outstanding first feature about the sudden death of children in a garbage-strewn city. The setting of this picture is a slum in Glasgow, where a foul canal runs past row houses of brick, near the concrete towers of a housing project. The period is the recent past, when Tom Jones was the latest singing sensation, and a garbage strike had left the streets and lots heaped with vermin-infested rubbish. The title of the film is Ratcatcher; and the writer-director, Lynne Ramsay, promises to be a major talent.
She's had the courage to make the worst happen within the first five minutes of the film. Young James (William Eadie) is tussling playfully with his friend Ryan Quinn when the latter goes down in the canal and doesn't come up. James runs off in fear; and from then through the end of the film, he lives with his secret. You might even say that he walks around in the secret. Ryan's mother gives him the shoes she'd been buying for her son at the very moment of his death. James accepts the gift, having no alternative, then slashes the uppers with broken glass.
As that action suggests, Ratcatcher is a far less dreamy film than George Washington. While Green chooses a vibrant rust as his predominant color, Ramsay calls up all the shades of mud. While George Washington takes place in sunshine--even the most awful setting is shot through with shafts of light--Ratcatcher is so muted that it might have been shot underwater. The world is drained of sensual pleasure; when James's father brings home a can of pale blue house paint, which seems to have fallen off a truck, closer inspection proves he's got industrial gray.
Don't even think about seeing Ratcatcher if you dislike knowing that the film conforms to its title. But don't stay away if the prospect of unrelieved grimness is what's putting you off. The good news is that Ramsay has the idiosyncratic eye and mind of a young Jane Campion. She's always picking out odd but telling details--a wedge of nylon stocking between the mother's toes, a trickle of saliva along the slumbering father's cheek--and showing them from punchy angles. She also has a talent for opening windows in the daily grind, to reveal sudden vistas of the wondrous. Ratcatcher is hardly the work of a whimsy merchant; and yet, at one point, James discovers a green field that's as perfect as a picture on the wall, and is framed like one. At another moment, while witnessing one of the film's many rodent deaths, he imagines a pet mouse's trip to the moon.
Most important of all, Ramsay chooses to dramatize characters who are loving as well as damaged. James may have the low, dark hairline and bat ears of Franz Kafka (perfect attributes for a lad serving time in this penal colony); the young girl he falls for, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), may be used as common property by a gang of toughs, whose preferred love nest is an outdoor privy; and yet, in a scene at the film's heart, James and Margaret Anne can share a frolic in the bath, innocently enjoying one another and a rare body of nonlethal water. Even the grown-ups are granted such a measure of grace. Mother (Mandy Matthews) is at wit's end, coping with the chaos and dangers of poverty; Father (Tommy Flanagan) is a philandering drunk. But late in the picture, after a rough night, they put on a Sinatra record and dance in a single shaft of light, surrounded by utter blackness; and for that long moment, while they clutch each other, the screen is suffused with unembarrassed warmth.
Ratcatcher is about the surprises that crop up and the hopes that remain alive after the worst has occurred. Tough, dour and open-spirited, it's a welcome new entry in the smallest genre of cinema: pictures that become more interesting as they go on.
Noted with pleasure: My colleagues say that Bedazzled--Harold Ramis's remake of the 1967 comedy--is not a masterpiece, and surely my colleagues are right. This tale of a sniveling schlep who sells his soul to the Devil, having despaired of getting laid in any other way, was far more theologically sound in the original. For one thing, the 1967 version was written by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were known to have read books, and starred the innately sadistic Cook as the Devil and the innately floundering Moore as the schlep. For another thing, the original included a full-scale parade of the seven deadly sins, featuring Raquel Welch as Lust.
The new version dispenses with such medieval apparatus and casts today's Raquel, Elizabeth Hurley, as the Devil. She's a sport (as you know if you've seen the first Austin Powers movie) and seems to enjoy wriggling all relevant parts of her anatomy; but once you get past the sight gag, you realize she does most of her acting with her teeth. Hurley is a great biter and clacker.
But then there's the schlep. He's played by Brendan Fraser, who has become the pre-eminent big lug of contemporary American comedy. Bedazzled gives him the opportunity to play a computer nerd (the basic character), a Colombian drug lord, a New Age California simp, a loofah-brained basketball star, a hyperarticulate novelist in a great tuxedo and Abraham Lincoln, all of which roles he carries off with the ease and aplomb of George of the Jungle swinging smack into a tree. No, Bedazzled isn't a masterpiece. But it's a Brendan Fraser vehicle, and for that I'm grateful.