Friday, June 12, 2009

Quote of the Day (Anne Frank, on the Plight of Jews)

"Is discord going to show itself while we are still fighting, is the Jew once again worth less than another? Oh, it is sad, very sad, that once more, for the umpteenth time, the old truth is confirmed: 'What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does is thrown back at all Jews.'"—Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

A great crime of the last century was that teenage diarist Anne Frank never had the chance to live to 70 (which she would be today), and achieve the great promise shown by her journals, for reasons that had nothing to do with what she did and everything to do with her religion.

For years, the Anne Frank we learned about in English class, on stage or at the movies was the one who wrote, "I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” But much of that image is sentimentalized, derived less from the diary itself than from its Pulitzer Prize-winning stage adaptation by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.

There was another Anne Frank—sometimes despairing, more often just angry—the kind on display in today’s quote above. Though I’m glad that her daily record of finding her inner voice even amid the cramped quarters of her family’s Holland annex continues to move readers worldwide, I share her anger over the fate of Jews in the modern world.

In the year 2000, I was fortunate enough to attend, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, a production of The Diary of Anne Frank that was truer to the spirit of the book than the version by Hackett and Goodrich. This revision by Wendy Kesselman included scenes showing the Frank family practicing their faith in private. This acknowledgment of their Judaism would have pleased novelist Meyer Levin, who had fought a losing battle to present them in this fashion over 40 years before that.

A dozen years ago, New Yorker critic Cynthia Ozick offered a thoroughly researched, psychologically acute, and morally probing examination of how the diary was “infantilized, Americanized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly denied.” Aiding Hackett and Goodrich in this process was playwright Lillian Hellman, who persuaded the show’s original producer that Levin’s initial script was subpar.

By the time this trio was finished not only with the play but with the resulting movie, strong references to the Frank family’s faith had been deleted, and Anne Frank—a teenager whose typical teen issues with her mother were multiplied by the stress of daily confinement—had morphed into a mostly “funny, hopeful, happy” girl despite the family difficulties.

Despite his good intentions (he was part of the film crew that visually documented the Allies’ discovery of German death camp atrocities), film director George Stevens, as expert a scene stylist and as decent a human being as ever walked in Hollywood, ultimately did a disservice to the diary, I believe, by accepting the Hackett-Goodrich-Hellman version of the Franks. Without any scene of the family at prayer, America—a country in which freedom to worship as you please is written into the Bill of Rights—might have been forgiving for wondering what the fuss over the German treatment of the Jews was all about.

I’m not going to deny that the diary—and yes, much of the film—resonates at points with its openness to hope. But, if we really believe in the saying “Never again,” we have to recover the forgotten side of Anne Frank, the young woman who flashed with what George Orwell loved about Charles Dickens: a “generous anger” on behalf of the world’s victims.

All day, pondering Anne Frank’s life and death and their meaning for today, I have been angered by the precarious state in which the world’s Jews find themselves now:

* Because many lunatics at home and abroad, ignoring the super-abundant evidence to the contrary, continue to exist that the Holocaust never happened;

* Because these same people, as part of the thriving Holocaust-denial industry, dispute the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diary and its searing eyewitness testimony about man’s inhumanity to man;

* Because an 88-year-old man with a rifle and a diseased mind burst onto the U.S. Holocaust Museum this week and caused mayhem and murder;

* Because the annual Anti-Defamation League report observed that New Jersey topped the nation last year in anti-semitic hate crimes—and Bergen County, where I live, placed a shamefully high third on the list of counties in the state;

* Because millions in the Moslem world cheered wildly over President Obama’s call for a Palestinian state, but sat on their hands in utter silence during his equally strong insistence that the Holocaust was undeniable and that nothing could weaken America’s ties with Israel;

* Because right now, elections in Iran are far closer than they should be, given the unimpressive economic performance—and outright anti-semitic remarks and saber-rattling—of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad;

* Because for the last 40 years, the Arab world has conveniently cited Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territory as the chief obstacle to peace—while ignoring their own previous, unsuccessful attempt to strangle the young Israeli democracy in its crib, and their continuing refusal even to acknowledge its right to exist;

* Because, while running countless stories about the plight of the homeless Palestinians, the media has seldom, if ever, covered an equally widespread and long-term group of refugees—Jews increasingly forced, over the last 50 years, to move out of Egypt and other majority-Moslem lands because of harassment. (See Lucette Lagnado’s account of her family’s move out of Cairo in 1963);

* Because, for six years after establishing the Palestinian National Authority in the Gaza Strip, Yasir Arafat did nothing—nothing—to improve economic viability and political stability in that region, and everything to exploit continuing tensions with Israel—including the 2000 intifada that derailed the peace process.

* Because Arab princes, educated in and financially supported by the West, know that Jews are nothing like the caricatures created by the fundamentalist elements of Islam, but have done nothing to counteract the rise of anti-semitism in their countries’ textbooks, mass media and mosques.

* Because to this day, there has been no equivalent of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, John Paul II or John Hume to lead a mass nonviolent protest against prejudice and injustice in Arab lands.

Anne Frank, her mother and sister died because a gang of criminals and fanatics conspired to engineer the mass murder of Jews, while the West did nowhere near enough to quarantine those who spread the virus of hatred (and all too often abetted it). I can understand perfectly well why this teenager felt frustration and anger over the different yardsticks used to measure the morality of individual Christians and Jews.

For that reason, every one of us in the West bears some responsibility for the fate of Jews in the modern world—from the statesmen who must devise arrangements to ensure freedom from fear for Israelis, down to those like myself who write, who owe it to Anne Frank to express our outrage over the continuing practice and spread of anti-Semitism.

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