Sunday, February 22, 2009

Redeeming the Perpetrator's Voice

Yesterday I heard a talk given by Eyal Sivan at UCLA as part of a conference on Leo Hurwitz's filming of the Eichmann trial. Sivan is the filmmaker responsible for The Specialist, a film inspired by Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (and by her argument regarding the banality of evil). The film, however, is not without its fair share of controversy, and after listening to Sivan today, I can understand why.

He used two phrases, a number of times, that I found especially provocative. Regarding the editing choices he used in putting together the clips of the actual footage of the trial for his film, Sivan asked, "Why are we not redeeming the perpetrators' voices?" He also talked about what he calls the "silencing of the perpetrator." He then went on to reduce Holocaust scholars' (and Israel's) tendency to "redeem" the voice of the victim to little more than a continuation of the Christian tradition of relying on a Jewish victim narrative.

Yes, of course, he's right--it's exactly the same thing.

Now, I actually like The Specialist, so I have no reason to think ill of Sivan or his work. And I do believe that it's important to hear what the perpetrators are/were saying--not because there are two sides (in the case of the Holocaust), but because Nazi voices are witnesses to the atrocity as well.

My problem here is that an ethical awareness was conspicuously missing from Sivan's claim (at least in this brief talk). He did reference Agamben at one point when he spoke of witness (albeit in a somewhat dismissive manner), so I'm sure he's aware of the importance of such ethical considerations. But there was no discussion of why he feels it is necessary to "redeem" the perpetrators' voices. My answer would be that perhaps in some testimonies--for example in the case of many Nazis who were tried at the Nuremberg trials (i.e. Goering), who neither demonstrated remorse nor offered apology--we need to hear what is not there, namely responsibility.

The absence of ethical awareness that can be seen in many of the testimonies is as important to the memory of the Holocaust as the voice of the survivor, or of the testimony of those who did not survive, whose dead and mutilated bodies speak for them. And in the case of those perpetrators' voices that do admit responsibility to a certain degree--well, we need to hear those too, even if they challenge(d) the dominant narrative of evil, non-human monsters creating heinous crimes by showing us that the perpetrators often seem quite average. And surely this was part of Sivan's goal--to underscore the complexity of the situation rather than buy into the paradigm of good vs evil.

But is it asking too much to suggest that Sivan should address the ethical nuances of this situation rather than to simply demand both sides of the story?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

CFP: Humor in Jewish American Literature at the MLA

I'm on the executive committee for the Modern Language Association's Jewish American Lit group. For some reason our CFP for this year's panel at the MLA conference in Philadelphia did not get circulated, so I thought I'd post it here.

Modern Language Association Conference: Philadelphia, PA December 27-29 2009

Panel: "Jewish Wry"--Humor in Jewish American Literature

This panel is a tribute to the late Sarah Blacher Cohen, whose work dealt with humor in Jewish American literature. We are looking for papers that deal with any aspect of humor in Jewish American literature. Please send abstracts to Ann Shapiro at before March 1, 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

Women Victimizing Women

So it looks like Samira Ahmed Jassim, a 51-year-old Iraqi woman who confessed to recruiting and sending more than 80 female suicide bombers off to their pointless deaths, has been arrested in Iraq.

Sure, we all have causes we believe in. And I think we can agree that suicide bombing is bad for all involved, and is needless to say the epitome of what it means to take something too far. But this woman takes it to yet another level, and makes all the other suicide bombers and recruiters look good, if such a thing were possible:

In a prison interview with the Associated Press — with interrogators nearby — she said that she helped to organise the rapes of young women and then stepped in to persuade the victims to become suicide bombers as their only escape from the shame.

I understand that people who blow themselves and others up think they are fighting for a cause--that they are fighting for the freedom of their people. But who, or what, is Jassim fighting for when she violates, dehumanizes, and sends women off to their deaths all under the guise of obliterating the shame that she herself has given them?

And here I was thinking that Sarah Palin was the big bad witch of the northern hemisphere, with her insistence that rape victims must pay for their own rape kits. Suddenly I feel silly for over-criticizing Palin when there are far worse indecencies being committed against women in other parts of the world.