Commentary Magazine


Topic: Anna Breslaw

Getting Améry Wrong (along with Everything Else)

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Anna Breslaw’s outrageous essay at Tablet last Friday, which declared that the European Jews who survived Hitler’s war against them were really “villains masquerading as victims.” John Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY (whom I am proud to call my friend), has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, single-handedly exposing Breslaw’s rant for what it is and demolishing Tablet’s non-apologetic apology for the article.

Anyone who has read her essay knows that Breslaw does not merely insult Holocaust survivors but cancer patients too. As someone who voluntarily decided to adopt what Breslaw derides as the “extreme will to live,” I suppose I should be angered by her ignorant and dismissive comments about cancer patients:

If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind.

I’ll just say that I do not recognize my experience in this passage. And the comment “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer,” which was never spoken to me or my wife (and would seem to be a clumsy attempt to suggest the patient is not alone), is hardly the worst breach of cancer etiquette.

No, what pisses me off is what has been little remarked so far. Namely: Breslaw’s misappropriation of the great Holocaust writer Jean Améry as a source and ally in her attack on Holocaust survivors:

Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry — a Holocaust survivor — discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. . . . It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.

Every word of this which is not an outright error is a shallow distortion. Améry would have spit upon Breslaw’s suggestion that some Jews were able to survive the death camps only because their “extreme will to live” led them to do something “villainous,” something they were unwilling to discuss afterwards. The reality of the camp, Améry wrote, was total. It obliterated human dignity, the self, the mind, everything Améry summed up as “the word.” The Jew in the death camp was not even a victim in the usual sense of the word. “The soldier died the hero’s or the victim’s death,” he said, “the prisoner that of an animal intended for slaughter.”

This is the sense in which Améry wrote that “evil overlays and exceeds banality.” Banality is an experience within the normal range of the human; the subjection to evil, which Améry identified with the experience of torture, “is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.” It exceeds the mind’s limits. At the first blow, the prisoner realizes he is helpless. And this changes everything. “The expectation of help, the certainty of help, is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings,” Améry wrote. It is, indeed, one of the defining experiences of the human. To find himself beyond help is to find himself beyond the human experience. He is beyond villainy and victimhood, face-to-face with a reality that has obliterated his will to either. To speak of such a man as a “villain masquerading as a victim” is to display a depthless failure of understanding.

(And by the way, Améry’s suicide, as he himself explained in his 1976 philosophical essay On Suicide, was an act of freedom, an assertion of extreme will, a refusal to fall victim to “the very people he should forgive,” the insistence that he, not they, would decide when he should die.)

Breslaw may have quoted the great Jean Améry, then, but she did not understand the first word of him. And she herself acknowledges as much, although she does not even know her own mind sufficiently to see that she has done so. In her opening paragraph, she attributes her bad opinion of survivors to “gut instinct.” Then, seven paragraphs later, immediately after quoting him, she praises “Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts” — an impulse that, by all appearances, Anna Breslaw entirely lacks.

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Anna Breslaw’s outrageous essay at Tablet last Friday, which declared that the European Jews who survived Hitler’s war against them were really “villains masquerading as victims.” John Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY (whom I am proud to call my friend), has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, single-handedly exposing Breslaw’s rant for what it is and demolishing Tablet’s non-apologetic apology for the article.

Anyone who has read her essay knows that Breslaw does not merely insult Holocaust survivors but cancer patients too. As someone who voluntarily decided to adopt what Breslaw derides as the “extreme will to live,” I suppose I should be angered by her ignorant and dismissive comments about cancer patients:

If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind.

I’ll just say that I do not recognize my experience in this passage. And the comment “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer,” which was never spoken to me or my wife (and would seem to be a clumsy attempt to suggest the patient is not alone), is hardly the worst breach of cancer etiquette.

No, what pisses me off is what has been little remarked so far. Namely: Breslaw’s misappropriation of the great Holocaust writer Jean Améry as a source and ally in her attack on Holocaust survivors:

Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry — a Holocaust survivor — discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. . . . It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.

Every word of this which is not an outright error is a shallow distortion. Améry would have spit upon Breslaw’s suggestion that some Jews were able to survive the death camps only because their “extreme will to live” led them to do something “villainous,” something they were unwilling to discuss afterwards. The reality of the camp, Améry wrote, was total. It obliterated human dignity, the self, the mind, everything Améry summed up as “the word.” The Jew in the death camp was not even a victim in the usual sense of the word. “The soldier died the hero’s or the victim’s death,” he said, “the prisoner that of an animal intended for slaughter.”

This is the sense in which Améry wrote that “evil overlays and exceeds banality.” Banality is an experience within the normal range of the human; the subjection to evil, which Améry identified with the experience of torture, “is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.” It exceeds the mind’s limits. At the first blow, the prisoner realizes he is helpless. And this changes everything. “The expectation of help, the certainty of help, is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings,” Améry wrote. It is, indeed, one of the defining experiences of the human. To find himself beyond help is to find himself beyond the human experience. He is beyond villainy and victimhood, face-to-face with a reality that has obliterated his will to either. To speak of such a man as a “villain masquerading as a victim” is to display a depthless failure of understanding.

(And by the way, Améry’s suicide, as he himself explained in his 1976 philosophical essay On Suicide, was an act of freedom, an assertion of extreme will, a refusal to fall victim to “the very people he should forgive,” the insistence that he, not they, would decide when he should die.)

Breslaw may have quoted the great Jean Améry, then, but she did not understand the first word of him. And she herself acknowledges as much, although she does not even know her own mind sufficiently to see that she has done so. In her opening paragraph, she attributes her bad opinion of survivors to “gut instinct.” Then, seven paragraphs later, immediately after quoting him, she praises “Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts” — an impulse that, by all appearances, Anna Breslaw entirely lacks.

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Tablet Disgraces Itself Anew

A few days after publishing what I and others consider the most egregious piece of anti-Semitic filth in years, the editor of Tablet, Alana Newhouse, has published something or other intended to respond to its critics. It’s not an apology, exactly, even though the words “deeply sorry” appear. It’s more a…I can hardly believe I’m writing these words…tribute to Tablet. Her response is self-referential, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately self-infatuated.

She writes that she is “used to our pieces eliciting strong emotions. But the reactions to Anna Breslaw’s article have been exceptional.” Yes, exceptional, in the sense that most of us who read it were appalled and disgusted in a nearly unprecedented way. And then, in the cowardly fashion of media organizations caught in the midst of a disaster of their own making, she attempts the ludicrous claim that there are two sides to the response.

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A few days after publishing what I and others consider the most egregious piece of anti-Semitic filth in years, the editor of Tablet, Alana Newhouse, has published something or other intended to respond to its critics. It’s not an apology, exactly, even though the words “deeply sorry” appear. It’s more a…I can hardly believe I’m writing these words…tribute to Tablet. Her response is self-referential, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately self-infatuated.

She writes that she is “used to our pieces eliciting strong emotions. But the reactions to Anna Breslaw’s article have been exceptional.” Yes, exceptional, in the sense that most of us who read it were appalled and disgusted in a nearly unprecedented way. And then, in the cowardly fashion of media organizations caught in the midst of a disaster of their own making, she attempts the ludicrous claim that there are two sides to the response.

“For some readers, her piece explored the consequences of growing up in one specific family touched by an enormous Jewish tragedy, and publishing it asserted the message that young people needn’t express only safely held conventional wisdoms to be involved and engaged with Jewish life,” she writes.

Judging not only from the other discussions of the piece in the media besides mine and from the hundreds of comments on her own site, those “some readers” number maybe in the single digits, while everybody else reared in horror. So there is no controversy. What there is is a nearly universal condemnation.

She then goes on to characterize the response as follows: “Others saw in it a blanket condemnation of all Holocaust survivors—an impression that caused many to wonder why Tablet published it. Quite a few expressed extreme hurt.” Actually, no one expressed hurt; people expressed outrage, which is something entirely different. And not because the article was a “blanket condemnation of all Holocaust survivors.” The piece was an anti-Semitic outrage because it suggested that in the act of surviving the Holocaust, survivors had fulfilled the worst stereotypes of the Jews—Nazi stereotypes—as grasping, greedy, and selfish. That is not a condemnation. It is a slander. It is a libel. One might even go so far as to call it a blood libel.

Newhouse then praises herself for her deliberative delay in responding to the explosion of outrage by saying she thought it necessary to spend some time thinking about how Tablet came to publish the article, with some staffers saying it was good and other staffers saying it was blah blah blah. And then she commits herself and Tablet to a more thorough examination of…Tablet. Her staff decided they must commit themselves with even deeper seriousness to answer some deep questions:

What—if any—is the communal responsibility to the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors? Do we have a duty to hear them out, even when their thoughts are—as Breslaw described her own—“unappealing and didactic,” or worse? And what of other writers looking to explore other painful questions about their Jewish identities? What does the intense response to this piece say about what the rules here should be, about what precisely the red lines are in Jewish communal discourse. What we all did agree on is that it is our duty to more vigilantly and responsibly engage with all of these questions, and with our readers’ legitimate concerns.

How nice. So having published something that could have appeared in Der Sturmer, Newhouse now strokes her chin and wonders how she and her team might “responsibly engage” with questions of Jewish identity.

Anything Tablet has to say on “questions of Jewish identity” from now on will fail to take root, as it will wither and die in the black shadow of Anna Breslaw’s foul article—and in the appalling self-justifications of its editor.

 

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The Most Disgraceful Piece of Anti-Semitism Published in Years

I thought quite a while before deciding to write this item, because it deals with an online publication that is kind of a distant cousin to COMMENTARY. But after spending years calling out anti-Semitism committed primarily by paleoconservative publications and anti-Zionism on the part of liberal Jewish publications of a kind all but indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, I decided it would be improper for me to be silent on something published by Tablet. It is, without question, the most disgusting piece of anti-Semitism I think I’ve ever read outside of the arrant lunacy of schizophrenic letter writers, and the fact that it was written by a Jew trumpeting her connection to the Holocaust only makes it all the more repugnant.

You can find it here. I’m not going to quote from it, because to do so would be to provide a forum for words and sentences so noxious they hardly justify description. Suffice it to say that in an article taking off from the cable-TV series “Breaking Bad,” the contemptible author of this article denounces her Holocaust-survivor grandparents for fulfilling the Nazi perception of Jews, libels Elie Wiesel, and likens the survival of Jews in the camps to the behavior of a fictional gangster meth dealer.

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I thought quite a while before deciding to write this item, because it deals with an online publication that is kind of a distant cousin to COMMENTARY. But after spending years calling out anti-Semitism committed primarily by paleoconservative publications and anti-Zionism on the part of liberal Jewish publications of a kind all but indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, I decided it would be improper for me to be silent on something published by Tablet. It is, without question, the most disgusting piece of anti-Semitism I think I’ve ever read outside of the arrant lunacy of schizophrenic letter writers, and the fact that it was written by a Jew trumpeting her connection to the Holocaust only makes it all the more repugnant.

You can find it here. I’m not going to quote from it, because to do so would be to provide a forum for words and sentences so noxious they hardly justify description. Suffice it to say that in an article taking off from the cable-TV series “Breaking Bad,” the contemptible author of this article denounces her Holocaust-survivor grandparents for fulfilling the Nazi perception of Jews, libels Elie Wiesel, and likens the survival of Jews in the camps to the behavior of a fictional gangster meth dealer.

How anyone at Tablet responsible for the acceptance and publication of this piece of evil filth—no other term will do—can look at herself or himself in the mirror today is a mystery that surpasseth understanding.

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