The "Perdition" affair

Submitted by martin on 10 May, 2012 - 11:45

When the Royal Court Theatre decided at the last minute not to go ahead with its scheduled production of Jim Allen's play about the massacre of the Jews of Hungary in 1944, 'Perdition', a flood of discussion, polemic and recrimination was unleashed in the press. It had already been the subject of protests by various prominent Jews and of publicity in the press.


The "Perdition" Affair

There are at least two issues involved in the 'Perdition' affair: artistic freedom and its limits; and whether or not 'Perdition' is anti-Jewish.

Allen and the director, Ken Loach, immediately raised an outcry against 'censorship', alleging that they were victims of a coordinated Zionist conspiracy. 'Perdition' was being crushed under the 'Zionist juggernaut', as Jim Allen put it when he told his side of the story to the Irish Times.

They have received immense publicity for their assertions about the 'Zionist' campaign to kill 'Perdition'. Predictably the anti-Zionist left, eager' for evidence of Zionist conspiracy and Zionist power, rushed to defend 'Perdition' and echoed the charges.

Now, according to the Jewish Chronicle, the Board of Deputies of British Jews did decide to try where possible to prevent the play from being performed. There was an outcry, and no doubt private lobbying too.

But, given the subject of 'Perdition` and the nature of Allen's treatment of it, that is not surprising, nor necessarily very sinister. The charge of being anti-semitic is still one that inhibits, and Allen's script does not (as we'll see) offer the honest reader who is not wearing blinkers much ground on which to build a convincing case that it is not anti-Jewish.

Allen, in that vainglorious, boastful tone which also infects some of his work, told Time Out: “Without any undue humility I'm saying that this is the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist. I know what I'm doing and I stand by my research and my analysis. I've had to get this right because I know how serious a subject it is".

Now I think 'Perdition' should be produced. Those Jews who have campaigned against its being produced are wrong in principle and short-sighted in practice. Ultimately their campaign, which has already boosted 'Perdition', will prove self-defeating and even self- wounding.

That said, the ballyhoo about the 'suppression' of 'Perdition' is disingenuous and no more than a 'smart' political campaign. It has not been banned or 'censored' - in fact it has been assured a greater audience when it is produced, as it surely will be, and not only in Britain.

There is a corollary to the idea of freedom of artistic expression and to the idea that censorship is to be rejected and opposed: the corollary is that those who disagree with the work also have the right to free speech - that they have the right to protest, denounce, clamour against it and picket it. At a certain point such an outcry may convince some of those involved in the enterprise to abandon it. The 'freedom' to produce 'Perdition' does not include the right to demand that those who feel badly stung by it should be quiet and passive.

I have read a late draft of the play. It takes the form of a libel case brought by a surviving Hungarian Jewish leader, Yaron, against the author of a pamphlet accusing him of collaborating in the destruction of the nearly one million strong Hungarian Jewish community in 1944. By virtue of the libel-case mechanism, the usual not-guilty-until- proven rule is reversed. Yaron has to prove his innocence.

The play alleges that 'Zionism', with something like 5 million Jews already dead, needed the corpses of a million more Jews in Hungary to help it strengthen the moral case for setting up Israel after the war. Allen argues that Zionism shared the racist assumptions of Nazism from 'its own' side, and that that was the basis of a collaboration even to the extent of sacrificing the Jewish millions in Europe. Zionism was concerned only with sawing the notables and the rich.

Basing himself on the well-known 1950s Kastner libel case in Israel, Allen depicts the Jewish leaders as saving their own skins and the skins of a few rich people at the cost of agreeing to the killing of 800,000. Somehow the picture of events in Hungary is also part of the Zionist conspiracy, though it is not clear how it all fits together (at least to this reader).

Yaron is an agent of Zionism, and his 'collaboration' is said to be Zionist collaboration. Yet most references to his motives in the play put it down to the desire to save his own skin.

Allen's play is admittedly 'based on', or mainly based on, the work of Lenny Brenner, 'Zionism in the Age of the Dictators'. This book is a narrow-minded polemic aimed at laying part of the blame for the Nazi massacre of the Jews, on the international Zionist movement of the time and by extension on Israel now. Grotesquely unfair, narrow and tendentious readings are made of every incident that can be construed against Zionism and Israel. The argument is developed as if Zionism were something that developed completely outside the Jewish communities, or at most through the machinations of a small and alien minority. This alien force then 'betrayed the Jews'. It is a lawyer's-brief style indictment, intent not on 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth', but on indicting Zionism and Israel.

Allen is far more incoherent than Brenner because Allen is far less in control of his material. His 'aim' strays far more often than Brenner's from the 'Zionist' demon to non-Zionist Jews caught up in the horror of the Nazi ghettoes. Allen is Brenner's epigone.

Brenner argues his theme seriously though very unconvincingly. Allen does not argue anything seriously, and this diminishes the quality of the play. You could have an intellectually serious debate, a discussion of the issues, and you could have a dramatic representation of the experience of the Jewish victims of Nazism. Allen gives neither.

As a discussion, the play suffers from utter one-sidedness, from the rigging of the element of discussion by the author in favour of his own case. The case against his own thesis is simply not put, beyond a rudimentary comment here and there. The demonology of present-day Israel, read backwards into history as the demonology of Zionism, wipes out everything else.

At first, I could not understand why, but the script reminded me of the transcripts of the Moscow Trials of the '30s, those stage- managed affairs in which the old Bolsheviks, broken and morally destroyed, mouthed the scripts that had been prepared for them. I eventually understood why; the heavy hand of the author of the script is always obtrusive. You can see the strings being pulled. The dialogue does not develop naturally, but according to the needs of a one-sided polemic. Yaron breaks down at the end and 'confesses', for himself and for Zionism, but not because of anything the author in his guise as provider of arguments for his opponents has done to him.

Did Jewish leaders in Hungary do 'deals' with the Nazis? Yes, they did. Did those, as it turned out, help the Nazis to massacre the Jews? Perhaps, probably. If in the conditions after the Nazis took over Hungary in 1944, the Jews en masse had refused all compliance, and gone on the run, then tens of thousands would certainly have been killed immediately, but probably a far greater number would have survived.

Did the Jewish leaders intend to help the Nazis? No, they intended the opposite: to salvage something, or to delay until the advancing Russian armies arrived. Did the Jewish leaders offer the Nazis to help them kill off the rest of the Jews if they let the leaders go? It is at grotesque libel to say so. The Nazis tricked the leaders into thinking that they could save all Hungary's Jews if the Allies could be persuaded to trade a certain number of trucks for their lives.

Did the Jewish leaders at this point in history do anything with the Nazis, or fail to do anything against them, because they were Zionists? There is no reason to think so: assimilationist Jewish leaders responded in much the same way as Zionists. One of the blatant pieces of historical falsification by the Brenner/Allen school is the way that they link hopes and delusions of certain Zionists in the 1930s, when they had no idea what the Nazis would do, that they could do deals with the Nazis to their advantage, with events in the war when certain Zionist (and non- Zionist) leaders 'collaborated' literally at gunpoint. Allen's entire picture of events is a vicious travesty.

There is no real history in Allen, and very little in Brenner. Nor is there any sympathetic consideration of what was done by men and women living in almost unimaginable conditions and confined to terrible and limited choices.

Because 'Perdition' is not a serious exercise in discussing whether or not the behaviour of the Jewish leaders, including the Zionists, needlessly made things worse for the victims of Nazism, Allen's play is also very bad drama - as stiff and wooden a thing as you would find in an Edgar Lustgarten-style reconstruction of a 'famous crime'.

One of the most striking and classically tragic things about the history of the Zionist movement is the way the Zionists misunderstood the nature of Nazism. They thought they were dealing with a worse but basically similar version of the age-old anti-Semitism, and that they could perhaps get some accommodation, terrible but liveable, with it. Maybe they could even use it to the advantage of their project of setting up a Jewish state. As we now know, in fact they were in the grip of men committed to a lethal strain of anti-semitism and intent on reducing them, all those millions of human beings, to dust and ashes. None of this registers with Allen, who has knowledge of the massacre and has had over 40 years to reflect on it - there is nothing but the anti-Zionist demonology. And, as I've said. he does not even make a coherent case for that.

In both Brenner and Allen the whole way they see, depict and understand the issue they concern themselves with is simply anachronistic. They take the ideas and assumptions of a certain sort of Trotskyism - or vulgar Trotskyism - and apply it to the Jews under Nazism. The idea that the crucial problem is the 'crisis of leadership' is applied to the Jewish community, with the implication that 'the masses' needed only the signal to revolt. Allen interprets the events in Hungary in terms of 'the leaders' keeping secret the fact that the Nazis were planning to kill the Jews. If only they had blown the whistle... But Lucy Davidowicz's description of the political life of the Warsaw ghetto chronicles the experience of the socialist Bund and others who could not get themselves believed - in that hell-hole - when they told the truth about the Nazis.

Many other examples of the same sort of vulgar-Trotskyist political fantasy read backwards into history could be culled from the play. This is not a serious way to deal with history. But of course neither Allen nor Brenner are really concerned with history. They are concerned with politics now.

I think it is a pretty vile play, and a bad one too. Writing in defence of the play in the New Statesman, Ken Loach and Andrew Hornung describe Allen as the 'best socialist playwright of his generation'.

Perhaps the key word is generation, and even then it depends on what generation you place writers like Arnold Wesker and David Edgar in, to mention only two others. What is unique about Allen's work is that he writes usually from the viewpoint of a strain of Trotskyism. He glorifies the class struggle and direct action and working-class people involved in it. This is what makes him important and worthy of special respect. Plays like

'The Big Flame' (about a stay-in strike at Liverpool docks) are extremely good, and wonderful - though limited - revolutionary socialist propaganda.

But the basic political content of everything Allen has done (everything I know anyway) is pretty primitive, root-basic syndicalist-'Trotskyism'. Beyond that he is as good as his 'storylines'. Thus, 'Days of Hope', about the years from World War l to the defeat of the General Strike, plainly draws on the Trotskyist analysis of that period of British history, and on the memoirs of pacifist war resisters like Fenner Brockway - and it is very good indeed.

Allen's problem in 'Perdition' is precisely his 'storyline' - derived from Brenner and the present-day public opinion on the would-be Trotskyist left, on whose fringes he has remained for the last 25 or so years. In a way Allen can be used as a symbol of that Trotskyist left. For what has happened to mainstream Trotskyism over the decades has been the loss of its own class politics and the absorption of alien politics, especially Third World nationalism of various sorts.

Whereas at the time of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Trotskyist movement did not take sides, calling on Arab and Jewish workers to unite, today the Trotskyist movement is typically Arab nationalist and bigotedly against the Jews of Palestine. Allen's best work glorifies and promotes the bedrock ideas of Trotskyism; this wretched play glorifies and promotes the anti-Jewish (and 'anti-Zionist') accretions to those politics over the years.

It is highly improbable that Jim Allen is himself hostile to Jews, but that is not the issue here. He embraces politics which by demonising Israel are in their logic inescapably hostile to Jews, most of whom identify with Israel. The theme Allen puts forward - and disclaimers here and there in the play do not counterbalance it as he wants them to - is that Zionists, i.e. Jews, and today the dominant political current among Jews, share responsibility with the Nazis and their East European collaborators for the massacre of the Jews.

This is a vastly enlarged version of the blood-libel of Christian anti-semitism against the Jews. In the old version the Jews were accused of murdering Christian children and using them in religious ceremonies to ingratiate themselves with their God. In this version the Zionists are accused of helping to murder millions of Jews to ingratiate themselves with the Nazis and thus - mysteriously - to gain the state of Israel. Only the abandonment by the people who live in that state and their sympathisers outside of the original sin of 'Zionism' can save them; and if they do not do that, then their defeat and the 'smashing of the Zionist state' is a legitimate and a holy political cause.

Both Allen and Brenner (in 'Zionism in the Age of the Dictators') deny that they are indulging in the obscenity of blaming some of the victims of Nazism for the killing of the European Jews, for what religions Jews have named the Holocaust. But listen to Brenner himself when he recounts a controversy he was recently in. Someone in the US reported that Izvestia, the USSR daily, had favourably reviewed 'Zionism in the Age of the Dictators' under the headline 'Zionist collaboration: a journalist unmasks dirty deals with Nazi chiefs'. A special summary of the book was placed in libraries all over the USSR. (Remember that the thesis that Zionism is a twin of Nazism originates in the USSR, where Jews have been for decades and are still today in various ways penalised.) Brenner explains that he sent a copy of the article to the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, “remarking that I saw nothing improper about it. [The reviewer] had said, among other things, that 'during the world war, Brenner points out, Zionism showed its real meaning: for the sake of its ambitions. It sacrificed the blood of millions of Jews'. Kiliko had taken the book very seriously...". ('Jews in America', p.172).

Neither the poisoned politics, nor the history, nor the drama of these 'anti-Zionists' are of any use or help to socialists who want to champion the cause of the Palestinian Arabs and to advocate their right to an independent state alongside Israel.


* It comes out in paperback in April under the imprint of AI Saqi books and reportedly with an introduction by Maxine Rodinson, the scholar and anti-Zionist polemicist (who in fact does not support the 'destroy Israel' camp, believing in the right of the Palestinian Jews to maintain a Jewish state there).

** The play has received a wide circulation in manuscript form. The Royal Court sent copies of it to all the London theatre critics.