The Perdition affair
John O'Mahony [Sean Matgamna], Workers' Liberty 6, April 1987
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.
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 for 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.
[Note (2019): the author was a member of the Manchester group of the Socialist Labour League, together with Jim Allen, for four years.]
An intemperate attack
John O'Mahony, Workers' Liberty 7, June 1987When
Tony Greenstein praises and justifies 'Perdition' by pointing to some of those who are against it. That's altogether too crude. Yet it is the normal standard of judgement used by the two-camps left in world politics.
Here, as on everything else, the serious Marxist left needs an independent judgement. On a second reading, I think I was too soft on 'Perdition', much too soft.
The factual accuracy of Allen's account of Hungary has been contested on a number of important points. Here I will discuss what Allen makes of what he says are the facts.
A 'Hungarian Zionist leader', 'Yaron', has been accused of 'collaborating' with the Nazis in the mass murder of Hungary's Jews in 1944. He has brought a libel case against his accusers. Towards the end of the play Scott, counsel for Yaron's opponents, asks Yaron about a train on which, after negotiations between Jewish leaders and the Nazis, 1684 Jews escaped. How were the 1684 selected? Yaron says their first choice was to save the children.
Scott: Why didn't you?
Yaron: Eichmann and Wisliceny refused. They thought a children's transport might attract too much attention.
Scott: But 12 trains a day were already leaving for the killing centre at Auschwitz?
Yaron: It was their decision.
Scott: And so naturally you agreed...
Yaron - the Jew facing the mass murder of his community by the Nazis - is presented as a free and equal collaborator with the Nazi leaders.
Or take this exchange.
Scott: In your earlier testimony you said that you were innocent of committing treason against your own people.
Scott: Liar! The evidence presented in this court has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that you... collaborated with the Nazis.
Yaron: We represented the best interests of our people.
Scott: By sending them to the gas chambers?
Yaron (agitated): I explain, but you won't listen!
Scott: The language is unequivocal: betrayal. There was a distinction between the needs of the Hungarian Jews and the dictates of Zionism, and let us not blur that distinction by all this talk about 'representing their best interests'. To save your own hides you practically led them to the gates of Auschwitz. You offered soothing assurances while the ovens were made ready, the transports organised, the deportation orders signed, and the lists already made up.
Yaron: I told you. Our Zionist tradition demanded...
Scott: Dogma before people!
Yaron: Not to save our hides.
Scott: Not from ignorance.
Scott: From conviction then. (Pause). Was it worth it? Was the purchase price of nearly one million Jews worth it?
Yaron (as if reciting): The creation of the Jewish state above all other considerations.
Scott: Coined in the blood and tears of Hungarian Jewry.
Yaron: We had to subordinate our feelings.
Scott (mockingly): The cruel criteria of Zionism!
Yaron: All deeds good or bad must be judged by the final outcome.
Scott: Now at last we are getting down to it.
Yaron: By the consequences and by the historical aims they serve.
Scott: And Zionism is a political movement.
Yaron: Tied to God through its religious faith and sanctioned by the prophets whose ideas gave it birth.
Scott: But why wait 2000 years? If Zionism was only discovered in the late 19th century when Herzl appeared on the scene...
Judge: I do hope that we are not about to enter into a theological discussion, Mr Scott?
Scott (grins): Sorry. (Pause). Would you not agree that the more earthy demands of Zionism are reduced to territory, Dr Yaron? After all, that is what the six day war was all about, wasn't it? Expansion.
Scott: Morally justifiable of course? (Yaron offers a wintry smile). Given that 'the creation of the State of Israel stands above all other considerations', then from the materialist Zionist point of view, was it morally right to betray the Jews of Hungary?
Yaron (snaps): Was it morally right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?
Scott (unsure): No...
Yaron: Then kindly spare me your ethical fainting fits!
The hatred and loathing embodied in this passage, the dramatic climax of the play, is palpable, and I'm not sure it is just loathing of 'Zionism'.
Yaron is characterised as a sneaking, revengeful and vicious ex-victim who collaborated with his oppressors and helped them against his own people for reasons of an unreasoning, absolute, mystical commitment to 'Zionism'. The playwright allows Yaron to offer no real defence: Yaron's answers simply serve to build up the case against him by asserting that his actions are due to 'Zionism'.
There is even a Stalinist-type amalgam between Zionism and religion. In fact most of the Zionists in that period were atheists or not especially religious. This is one of many examples of the way that Allen's target broadens far beyond the present, or the wartime, Zionist movement, to Jews in general, or to his idea of Jews.
Despite all the histrionics, nothing remotely serious is ever said about how it all fits together - how the betrayal of Hungarian Jews (including lots of Hungarian Zionists) served the historical programme of Zionism. The play zig-zags between political assertions and explanations in terms of personal self-serving by Yaron.
Yaron is allowed some spirited lines, for example accusing Britain and the USA of refusing to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, to stop the death trains. But politically and intellectually - and it is a political argument or it is nothing - 'Perdition' never rises above the level of old-style Stalinist or Healyite stock-in-trade polemic. There is a lot more of the same sort of stuff.
Take another comment by Scott:
"They allowed themselves to become Eichmann's Trojan Horse, the Zionist knife in the Nazi fist. The simple, terrible truth is that the Jews of Hungary were murdered, not just by the force of German arms, but by the calculated [sic] treachery of their own Jewish leaders".
All through the play Allen zig-zags between denouncing Zionists and denouncing Jews. The result is that they are more or less identical.
In the following sentence he lapses back to 'Zionists' to avoid open absurdity: "In terms of salvation, the only 'chosen people' left in Budapest were these Zionists".
The use here of the term often favoured by anti-semites is, incidentally, quite representative of the play, which is full of Christian images in inappropriate places.
Or take - in detail - the judge's summing-up, which encapsulates the 'message' Allen wrote the play to convey.
The judge (i.e. Jim Allen) sums up the 'charge' against Yaron" "Miss Kaplan has accused Dr Yaron of collaboration with the Nazis, of fratricide, of helping in the destruction of his own people". The "accusation" has branded Yaron "with the mark of Cain".
How has the judge (Allen) understood the defence made by and for Yaron? "The defence has entered a plea of justification, which simply means an admission that the words defamatory of Dr Yaron... were true". The judge has 'understood' Yaron to say that "he cooperated with the Nazis, but he justifies this cooperation by saying that this was the only way that he and his colleagues could help their community".
'Perdition' makes its account of events in Hungary in 1944 serve for all the Nazi-controlled and surrounded Jewish ghettoes in Eastern Europe. Characters giving 'evidence' garrulously include details of the lives and behaviour of some of the strange satraps who ran the Judenrate (Jewish Councils) in Polish ghettoes. All details and particularities are blurred and blended into one picture.
It may be legitimate dramatic technique to concentrate, distill, and focus material. But it works totally against registering the gradations of experience of the Jewish communities.
For 1944 Hungary, it can be argued in retrospect that refusal to comply with Nazi instructions would have saved more people in the end, though immediately it would have led to mass slaughter of unknowable proportions and scale. Even there, to explore 'bargains' made sense to people whose alternative was to give the signal for mass slaughter to commence. The Jewish community was unarmed, facing the Nazis, and surrounded also by a considerable degree of Hungarian anti-semitism, though compared to the Nazis this traditional Catholic prejudice was almost benign. Jewish leaders hoped to play for time until the Russian army drove the Nazis from Hungary.
But in Hungary, we can say with hindsight that resistance might have saved many lives. No such thing can be said of the Jewish ghettoes in Poland, who were surrounded by the Nazis: all resistance was met with immediate mass murder, whose potential scale at any moment would be unknown.
Yet this is how the judge sums up, supposedly dealing with Hungary but speaking at the end of a play in which Hungary and Poland and everywhere else in Eastern Europe have been indiscriminately mashed together.
The opponents of Yaron, says the judge (Allen), "argued that this was not cooperation but collaboration. That Eichmann needed the support of the Jewish leaders in order to hoodwink the Jews and make it easier for them to get them to participate in their own annihilation".
The judge then picks out bits of the 'evidence' to summarise Allen's case - and he cites the Nazi decree giving the Jewish Council control over all Jews, as if it were the Jewish leaders' fault.
The Council allegedly distributed postcards from Auschwitz inmates written at gunpoint, to reassure the Jews in Budapest.
The judge discusses the train at length. Yaron's opponents had claimed "that the train was filled with privileged functionaries, young Zionists, and wealthy prominents, a fact which Dr Yaron himself did not contend. He... justified the selection by saying that had it been left to Eichmann, 'Palestine would have been flooded with cripples, old people, and socially worthless elements'."
The judge (Allen) continues: "We approach a most difficult and sensitive area, for we are dealing with what Dr Yaron describes as 'the cruel criteria of Zionism... the Zionist tradition that it is right to save the few out of the many'. Now this might appear as heartless", adds the judge, a man of rigorous principle who believes in all or nothing, or maybe that you should not bother with a measly 1684 lives.
With that remark to show his good heart and clear head, the judge (Allen) then discusses the moral question. "Individuals are often praised for their heroism in war after performing deeds which at the time earned condemnation, yet which in the long term appear to have been noble and justified". The other way round, too, says this unusual judge, who is really the Trotskyist Jim Allen - citing the atom-bombing of Japan. He thinks maybe the Hague Convention will have to be "revised to accommodate new concepts of mass murder".
With that warm-up, the judge then says this:
"Looking at it from Dr Yaron's point of view, ruthless measures [i.e. he accepts the allegations in the play] must of necessity accompany progressive aims, and the harsh doctrine of Zionism [sic - i.e. as defined by the 'ruthless measures', identified with and thereby made responsible for Yaron's 'collaboration'] is justified within the historical content of what was necessary to achieve a new Homeland in Palestine. 'When needs must the devil drives'. But here we are back on the shifting sands of morality, of the ends justifying the means, and I don't want to go into that".
But he will, and having asserted that collaboration with the Nazis to save 1684 and kill hundreds of thousands of Jews was a means to the end of achieving the Jewish homeland, he doesn't pause to ask himself how such means, in Hungary or anywhere in Eastern Europe, could possibly serve the ends of Zionism.
He continues, driving home the point to which all the philosophy is leading up. "Nevertheless, it can be argued that Israel exists today as a direct result of the actions of David Ben Gurion and men like Dr Yaron". He means 'actions' like 'collaborating' with the Nazis in killing Jews.
The stuff about necessary ruthlessness and single-mindedness in a progressive and noble cause is in fact tongue-in-cheek, for earlier in the play Israel today has been roundly condemned. The philosophising serves only as a bridge between the allegations against Yaron and the assertion that collaboration with the Nazis lies at the root of Israel - that there is a sort of world Jewish-Nazi conspiracy to replace the old Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy.
In a serious discussion or play, the judge would question and probe all the unproven assertions and unestablished links. Here, even his 'sympathy' for Yaron's side serves to condemn it.
The judge clinches the point, just to make sure you remember it, and works in human consideration and spurious sympathy to disarm resistance to his message. "It is a complex issue with different strands woven into the pitiless tapestry of war, genocide, and the efforts of a group of individuals trying, against all odds" - and by deliberately betraying millions of their own people and helping the Nazis lead them to the slaughter! - "to build a nation, a haven for a people persecuted throughout history.
"If, on the evidence, you decide that Dr Yaron did collaborate" - then, of course, he is damned, and the state which arose "as a direct result of the actions of men like... Yaron" is, at the least, morally tainted. But Allen is engaged in a weaselling wrapping-up exercise, and the sentence switches direction in the middle, going from the vicious political slander to the hypocritical 'sympathy'. The sentence ends: "... then you must also take into consideration the circumstances. You must ask yourself how would the average man behave in that kind of situation. Would he have sacrificed his own life and the lives of his family?"
But hold on a minute! If Yaron is guilty of selfishly saving his own skin at the expense of others, what has that got to do with 'the cruel criteria of Zionism'? Nothing. This passage is an example of the incoherence, and the slipping and sliding from one thing to another, that makes 'Perdition' a bad example even of what it wants to be (though it does help hypocritically to wrap up the poisoned politics).
After the judge makes a few more 'legal remarks', he sends the jury away, telling them to "consider your verdict", and the curtain falls. The pretence is that the audience is the jury. But really the judge has been the jury.
And his verdict is plain and clear: the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in order to help get Israel. Like the judge's summing-up, the final speech by counsel for Yaron is really just part of the political indictment. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek rhetoric which really conveys, and is meant to convey. the opposite of what is said. This, for example:
"Mr Scott went to great lengths prove that Dr Yuron acted as a representative of the Jewish Agency and yet, as we have heard, Dr Yaron never denied this. Throughout his political life he has consistently identified the problem of the Jews with the need to establish a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, a Jewish renaissance in the land of Israel. That was always his primary goal.
"But this of course raises problems for the defence which were never touched on. And with good reason, for if Dr Yaron acted as the official representative of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, then why single him out as a collaborator? Why not go the whole hog and accuse the entire Israeli cabinet of collaboration?"
Accuse the Israeli cabinet, not of doing vile things to the Arabs under its rule (though that is the sort of consideration that 'Perdition' appeals to), but of collaboration in the mass murder of Jews...? Absurd, yes, but one Israeli prime minister, Ben Gurion, is linked elsewhere with Yaron, as we have seen.
I have pointed out that Allen makes Hungary serve for all the Jewish ghettoes, ignoring the different conditions in Warsaw after September 1939 and Budapest just after the Nazis seized Hungary in 1944. He has his characters tell horror stories about the Polish ghettoes and the Judenrate there. Add to this the way that, when supposedly polemicising against Zionism, he often uses 'Zionist' and 'Jew' interchangeably; and add the way he zig-zags in explanation of motives from desire to save himself to Zionist grand design - the fire is forever wobbling away from the Zionist alleged target to include more and more Jews.
The loathing and hatred he spews out targets not 'Zionists’ but Jews. Does Allen mean to do that, or is the effect unintentionally produced by sloppiness and lack of control over his material? At first I thought the latter, but I'm not sure any more.
Certainly the 'balancing' remarks - which are there - and the conventional warning against a revival of fascism put into the mouth of Scott towards the end of the play, do not and cannot offset the anti-Jewish drift of the play, as Allen intends them to. The picture presented by Allen (like Brenner, and like the Stalinist inventors of the thesis of links and identification between the Nazis and Zionists) is, as I've already said, an inversion of the old Nazi idea of the 'Jewish-Bolshevik' world conspiracy. In Allen this is replaced by a sort of 'Jewish-Nazi' conspiracy, made to seem slightly less lunatic by being described as a conspiracy against the Jews, and backed up by examples of Zionist/Nazi contact and of the 'collaboration' at gunpoint of the victims of Nazism with those who held the gun and annihilatingly superior force.
When they come to expound the 'Zionist-Nazi' conspiracy, both Allen and Brenner wind up clawing in the Jewish communities and outlining the lunatic picture of a conspiracy between the Nazis and the leaders of the six million they killed (though they killed the leaders, too). Their 'Zionist-Nazi' version breaks down because there wasn't a sharp division between Zionists and Jews. The Zionists were an organic part of the Jewish communities. not some intervening 'demons ex machina'. Allen's sloppy zig-zags are a mechanism for reconciling his political conscience - what he thinks he is doing, and why - with his rampant prejudices. Even if it is triggered by Israel's dealings with the Palestinian Arabs, the prejudice is retrospective and historically all-embracing: and 'Perdition’ is awash with it.
The Perdition debate
Tony Greenstein, Workers' Liberty 8, October 1987When
I would be the last person to complain that the reply to my letter in Workers' Liberty 7 was more than four times the length of the original.
However, it might have been helpful, to say nothing of honest, if John O'Mahony had explained that the chunks of Perdition quoted were early drafts that were, as with most plays, articles, etc, discarded, amended, deleted and added to.
For example, the phrase 'Zionist knife in the Nazi fist' does not appear in the play, having been deleted at an early stage. Whatever its dramatic effect, politically it would not have been justified and Allen accordingly cut it.
To quote something that is not in the play itself but in a draft, and this was a common feature of attacks on Perdition, suggests an inability to come to terms with the thesis of the play, still less to prove the horrendous charge of 'anti-semitism'.
It is for the above reasons that I will refrain from commenting point by point on O'Mahony's critique of the draft and will confine myself to one instance. For making a connection between the Jewish religion and Zionism, Allen is guilty of a "Stalinist-type amalgam between Zionism and religion. In fact most of the Zionists in that period were atheists or not especially religious".
The relevant quote in the play is as follows:
Scott: Would you agree that most of those early Zionists were atheists and non-believers?
Scott: They rejected all religious concepts?
Scott: Would you say that they were nationalists who directed all their efforts to the settlement of Jews in Palestine?
Scott: Well, how did the rabbis take it? This sudden rupture with the Jewish religious tradition?
Yaron: There was conflict... but over the years agreement was reached
Scott: A sort of pact?
Yaron: Their aims became complementary.
Scott: Was this because without the stamp of biblical approval, Zionism could never have legitimised its claims to Palestine?... Zionism annexed the Jewish religious tradition.
As this passage demonstrates, Allen's handling of the complex interrelationship between religion and Zionism is far more subtle than O'Mahony's caricature of it, viz. an attack on "Jews in general, or his idea of Jews".
It is even more interesting that the most persistent Zionist critic of the play, David Cesarani, in an article in the Jewish Quarterly, makes the exact opposite point. "Zionism is perceived here as an entirely modern movement without roots in Jewish religion or culture... Such an analysis is simplistic and ignores the role of rabbinical figures like Mohilever and Kook who were ardent Zionists, not to mention the whole stream of Mizrachi, the religious Zionists".
Whilst arguing a diametrically opposite case from O'Mahony, Cesarani still draws the same conclusion, i.e. Perdition is anti-Semitic! Whatever Allen says is anti-semitic. Why?
Because his play looks at the Holocaust from an explicitly anti-Zionist perspective. On this Cesarani and O'Mahony agree. The difference between Cesarani and O'Mahony is that the former at least has a basic understanding and knowledge of Zionism, albeit from a non-socialist perspective, whereas the latter operates through the filter of the left Zionist Mapam.
There are however more general points that O'Mahony makes. The central one is the question, how did the massacre of Hungary's Jews serve Zionism?
Not surprisingly, it is the wrong question. Only a few Zionists were calculating enough to assert that without mass genocide there would be no state and therefore the Zionist movement should act accordingly. To assert that this was the defined policy, acted upon and agreed in tandem, would be to tread dangerously close to a conspiracy theory (albeit of the mechanical left. not the fascist right).
What actually happened was that Zionism, a movement founded on the belief that anti-semitism could not be fought, a movement that sought to influence the powerful and privileged in the time-honoured ways of Jewish leaders, by pleading and interceding, was incapable of doing other than writing off resistance. Further, given the Zionist goal of statehood above everything else, rescue that wasn't seen to be of benefit to Jewish Palestine ('refugeeism') was opposed because it would render Zionism irrelevant. It was this indifference to, if not outright hostility to, rescue from the outside, coupled with acquiescence and yes collaboration inside Europe, e.g. serving on the Nazi-appointed Judenrate and police, that provide the backcloth to Perdition.
One can find all sorts of justifications for collaboration, and of course it was not between equals, but collaboration is nonetheless a class question (and this perhaps is the weakness of Perdition).
O'Mahony may defend the Kastners, but the survivors of Hungarian Jewry whose families were deceived by his 'Rescue Committee' were not so easily persuaded when they testified in Jerusalem in 1954. Such was the attitude to collaboration throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Nor was it merely Kastner as an individual, but his role as representative of the Jewish Agency.
Nor was resistance in Hungary merely a question of hindsight. Those without this gift, like the Swedish diplomat Wallenberg, rescued up to 100,000 Jews. Outside pressure from the United States saved the remaining 500,000 despite Zionist silence.
The saving of the 1,684 leaders was indeed an example of "the cruel criteria of Zionism". Or. as the Attorney General in the real Kastner trial noted, "It has always been our Zionist tradition to select the few out of many in arranging immigration to Palestine".
Maybe, though, O'Mahony can explain away the betrayal of the Haganah parachuters to the Gestapo by Kastner, whose entrance threatened to disrupt the agreement to pacify and deceive Hungary's Jews prior to deportation to Auschwitz? And what of Kastner's appearance after the war at Nuremburg in order to help free, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, Kurt Becher, Lieutenant General in the Waffen-SS?
O'Mahony speaks of the "loathing and hatred" of Allen for not merely Zionists but Jews. Perdition is an anti-semitic play.
Those who, like Erich Fried, lost friends and relatives in the Holocaust and have fought anti-Semitism before and since, can write of Perdition: "I am envious that I have not written it myself... (it) is not anti-semitic... but it correctly quotes and unmasks the terrible attitude of some leading Zionists... To accuse the play of faking history or of anti-Jewish bias is monstrous".
Maxime Rodinson writes: "I have not the least doubt that there is not the slightest sign of anti-semitism in the play. I do not know Jim Allen personally and I cannot say if he is an anti-Semite in his heart. But if so, he has, in a masterly way, hidden this trend in his writing".
Even Dr Levenburg, veteran Zionist and author of the original Institute of Jewish Affairs Report on the same script that quotes from, slates: "The author avoids using anti-Semitic arguments but some viewers of the play will not be able to avoid forming a negative attitude about Jews".
How is it that O'Mahony is able, with such certainty, to brand Perdition as anti-semitic when Jews with a proven record of having fought anti-semitism and racism take the opposite viewpoint. Indeed, how is it that an avowed Trotskyist can become not merely an ardent apologist for Zionism today, but for its past too, even if it does mean lining up with the most reactionary sections of bourgeois opinion? Finally, if going against a bourgeois tide of opinion places one in the 'two-camps left in world politics', so be it. Certainly it is preferable to providing a socialist coat, Militant-style, for imperialism. To O'Mahony it may appear as a third way, to revolutionaries it is merely the old reformist path.
John O'Mahony, Workers' Liberty 8, October 1987
As always, Tony Greenstein doesn't debate the issue in dispute. He worries around the edges of it, quibbling over secondary details and evading the questions he is supposed to be dealing with.
The chunks of Perdition I quoted were not from 'early drafts' (where would I have got them?) The version just published in book form was the fourth. The one I quoted from was the second. This was the one scheduled for production at the Royal Court Theatre, and it got some circulation, initially when the Royal Court sent out copies to theatre critics.
The third draft was, I understand, a modified version of the second after Allen made cuts under pressure of his critics. In the fourth, printed, version there are massive changes. Most of what I quoted from the second. or Royal Court, version, has been cut.
Ah! says Greenstein. In the middle of a raging public controversy you quote the available text, the one due for production, but that is impermissible and scandalous because six months later the author will publish an expurgated edition.
Allen massively changes his arguments under pressure, in such a way that he concedes a great deal of the political and historical criticism of his opponents and all their moral case. Yet he maintains his thesis. I would say that that is a scandal.
Allen and Brenner both have a picture of Zionism as some outside force, allying with anti-Semites and Nazis, hi-jacking the Jews. At the same time Allen sometimes conflates secular Zionism and the Jewish religious communities. I thought that was important because it leads Allen, whose explicit hatred is directed at the devil-ex-machina Zionists, to claw into his target range vast layers of the Jewish communities who were not Zionists.
Perdition does not "look at the Holocaust from an explicitly anti-Zionist perspective". It uses the Holocaust as raw material for a scapegoating historical forgery whose target is the existing stale of Israel.
In the guise of an independent exposure of the alleged role of 'the Zionists' in helping the Nazis kill Jews, it presents a Zionophobic message whose current political implication is to provide justification for those like Allen and Brenner - who would destroy the Jewish state. It is not history. It is not criticism and polemic of a political trend from the point of view of international socialism. It is part of an Arab-chauvinist propaganda drive to deny the rights of the Israeli Jews by branding the founders of Israel with some responsibility for the Holocaust.
Zionophobia on that level is comprehensively hostile to most Jews, whatever Allen's feelings about Jews. Initially I wrote that I had no doubt that Allen was not anti-semitic personally. Analysing the passages I quoted in WL 7, I no longer felt sure about that. If the passages l quoted and commented on don't explain why to the non-Greensteinian reader, then repeating them here will not help. and is anyway impossible.
In his own way Greenstein repeats all the nonsense. Only "a few" Zionists wanted genocide, he says, moderately. Which Zionists, Greenstein?
Zionists didn't resist the Nazis? One of the changes in Allen's fourth version is the admission that some Zionists did organise resistance and fight back.
The Zionist movement wasn't responsible for the Judenrate. But it is not a matter of 'defending' either Kastner or the Judenrate. Naturally socialists would be on the other side of the divide from these 'prominents' and bourgeois. The socialists in the ghettoes, including socialist Zionists, were on the other side.
But we have a duty to understand, a responsibility to refrain from glib and facile denunciations of people living in conditions and within choices that we have to strain our imagination even to begin to comprehend.
You can't equate Israel with 'imperialism'. The existence of the Jewish nation is a fact separable from any links it has with US imperialism.
Finally, on the new version of Perdition. It is a much better play for the pruning and the additions. Its poisonous theme is the same, but now it is hidden.
The basic dramatic weakness - that the case against the author's 'anti-Zionist' thesis was not really put - has now been resolved by Allen abandoning even the pretence that he is mounting a serious debate on the issues. Now the trial is just a charade. The defendant and his accuser are in collusion. Old Yaron wants to confess and have himself judged and scourged in public. His accuser, Ruth, is being helpful.
Thus Allen turns the play into a silly melodrama. Worse than that, though. In the play Yaron is guilty, and he knows it, of helping kill hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Could someone admit that guilt and stay alive (helped by a little public scourging)? Could a play deal with such a subject and avoid all the dramatic demands for catharsis or expiation? Allen's does!
Even in melodramas the villain usually comes to a bad end. In Perdition mark 4 Yaron, the organiser of mass murder, and Ruth, his accuser, comfort each other. He forgives himself, she forgives him. The last cosy scene - after the issues raised in the play, and after Yaron has been branded a mass murderer - is schmaltzy enough to make you retch.
With the new ending Allen brands himself as not taking his own case seriously.
It is not just bad non-drama. It is also a give-away. For Yaron in the play is just a stalking horse for Zionism. The anger of the author is not really focused on historical figures like Kastner-Yaron but on Israel now. Otherwise the camp schmaltz-fest at the end would not be psychologically possible.