It was Meryl Streep who said: “Disney, who brought joy, arguably to billions of people, was, perhaps, or had some – racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby. And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot”. Disney, like so many talented and celebrated individuals, had a lot to give to the world. And like so many gifted and otherwise worthy people he was anti-Semitic and bigoted.
Does this mean we should boycott all the delightful Disney movies made in his lifetime? By extension, should we ban the publication of anti-Semitic writings by famous novelists, not quote Shakespeare because of Shylock, boycott Dickens because of Fagin? What about those brilliant anti-Semitic musicians, like Wagner, philosophers like Voltaire, artists like Renoir and Monet? And the list goes on in every field of human endeavour.
It’s an ongoing debate that still divides Jews and non-Jews alike. In Israel the Wagner debate has been long and bitter. Just today Haaretz published an article entitled: ‘What More Can be Said About Playing Wagner in Israel?’ (It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth). Wagner was an outright anti-Semite – his essays include vitriolic attacks on Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn, he called Jews “the evil conscience of our modern civilisation”. What makes Wagner a lightning rod for debate is the warm embrace and promulgation of his works by Hitler. For many, if not most Shoah survivors, hearing Wagner played by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra is especially painful. At a 1981 performance from “Tristan and Isolde” conducted by Zubin Mehta, (after giving the audience an opportunity to leave) a Holocaust survivor, bared his scarred stomach and shouted: “Play Wagner over my body”.
While the battle over Wagner in Israel is political and goes beyond the diminishing population of survivors and while Wagner’s actual influence over Hitler is debatable, the question is still relevant. Ironically Herzl once recalled that his only recreation while writing “The Jewish State” was listening to Wagner’s music in the evening…
The controversy over anti-Semitic artists and writers is not just a Jewish one. Late last year a prestigious French publishing house announced it would be reprinting the violently anti-Jewish writings of Louis – Ferdinand Celine, one of France’s greatest novelists. Between 1937 and 1941 he published a series of searing anti-Semitic pamphlets in which he railed against Jewish-Bolshevic vermin, sees Jewish conspiracies everywhere and praises Hitler: “A dead million stinking Yids was not worth the fingernail of a single Aryan”, he wrote in 1937 and called the arrival of the Germans in France “a necessary tonic”. Despite the fact that these writings are accessible online, the renowned Holocaust survivor Serge Klarsfeld (famous for bringing Nazi war criminals to justice) warned that the texts were still “dangerous and murderous” and could inflame the “new antisemitism” rife among young Muslims. Public antisemitism is widespread in France and the comedian Dieudonné and writer Alain Soral have openly challenged French laws on Holocaust denial. The French government was also worried by the publication and ultimately the works were not published.
Notwithstanding this, the question remains: can we embrace the good and noble works of anti-Semitic creators? One answer from Jewish tradition comes from this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Balak. In it the non-Jewish prophet, poet and publicist, Balaam sings the praises of the Jewish people:
“As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights
They are a people that live apart
Not reckoned among the nations,
Who can count the dust of Jacob
Number the spaces of Israel
May I die the death of the upright
May my fate be like theirs …
How wonderful are your tents oh Jacob
Your living places, oh Israel
Like palm groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river”
(Numbers 23:9-10; 24:5-6)
Balaam’s poetry is both beautiful and profound and has pride of place in both the Torah and our tefillot. Yet Balaam was no friend of Israel – his intention was to curse, not bless them. In fact, if not for God’s intervention, each of these blessings, say our sages, would have been expressed as a malediction.
In both the Torah and rabbinic texts Balaam is portrayed as a man of malice notwithstanding his brilliance. Despite the negative portrayal and perception of Balaam his words are still studied and sung. Despite his malevolence we recognise his talent, insight and the lyrical touch of his poetry. No less a scholar than Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Chai writes: “His blessings have great purpose because they were recorded in the Torah; so when the righteous people study them every year while learning the Parasha, all of Israel will be blessed through the merit of this study”.
Although you could argue that there’s no comparison between a Torah-sanctioned approval and a human one, the principle does seem reasonable: we can learn and take even from those who are compromised in their views and morals. This has relevance in the debate not only over the anti-Semitic Wagner or Celine but over Jewish figures like Carlebach and Harvey Weinstein. They were both compromised in their sexual morals, yet nevertheless Carlebach’s evocative tunes transformed contemporary tefillot and Weinstein was responsible for some cracker movies.
It was the famous Bruriah who suggested that we need to distinguish between the “sinner” and their “sins”. The Midrash and Talmud (Brachot 1Oa) relate how Bruriah, appalled by her husband’s prayers that a bad neighbour die, taught him to pray for the repentance of the wicked rather than their destruction.
Finally, even though there is a strong argument to learn from the good works of anti-Semites, it is debatable whether we should promote their overtly anti-Semitic works. We may need to know what our enemies say about us and even read their awful depictions of us, but we do so at the cost of further disseminating their poison. I, for one, will continue to draw on the wisdom of these flawed human beings, read their majestic writing and listen to their music, but I won’t be party to spreading their toxic output. I will try and focus on the light within the cracked vessel, extract the shards of truth and beauty from the broken pieces.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Ralph