an open letter to efraim zuroff

with 9 comments

So. Nestled among the innocent, carefree, goodwishing comments to the bagel piece is this:

In the light of all the terrible things happening to the small local Jewish community and the ongoing efforts of the Lithuanians to hide or minimize their extensive complicity in Holocaust crimes and their government-funded campaign to relativize the Holocaust by falsely equating it with the crimes of Communism, one would imagine that two obviously-intelligent Jewish Fulbright scholars in Lithuania to study contemporary Jewish issues would be able to come up with something more meaningful than reintroducing Lithuanians to bagels.

This was written by one Efraim Zuroff (unless there’s some very weird and motivation-less impersonation going on, in which case, the following is addressed solely to the content of the comment). EZ is a renowned Nazi-hunter and a tireless advocate for Jews and Jewish interests worldwide; I have only the deepest admiration of him — his comment is sort of like a punch from your favorite celebrity.

Jake replied.

Efraim, obviously I am aware of contemporary Lithuanian political rhetoric and its obfuscation of the Holocaust, double-genocide theory, and the historical bleaching of Jewish history in this country, and am keenly interested in raising public awareness to this issue. Considering local Lithuanians have very little interaction with Jews from any part of the world, I would think that a popular Jewish cultural resurgence would be a positivist approach to making Jewish presence felt again in this city, and by proxy, would raise public interest in contemporary Jewish topics / politics. I am sorry that you don’t agree.

I’m quoting this in full because I can’t hope to say it better; but, at the risk of mild redundancy, I will expand.

There are very serious ongoing Jewish- and Holocaust-related issues in Lithuania — Efraim is painfully correct on that point. We are increasingly aware and troubled by these, and like everyone else involved/concerned, are dedicated to publicizing the problem, and finding some sort of resolution.

But none of this detracts from the purpose, effectiveness, and all-around kickassness of the  bagel party. Let’s, for just a second, grant Efraim’s implication (which is stone dead wrong) that this is nothing more than serving a bunch of Lithuanians some decent lox n’ cream cheese bagels. My question, then, which I’ll put in words easily and quickly understood, is: SO WHAT. We are not undermining anyone’s efforts of “significant” Jewish activism. We have not dedicated every waking hour to making bagels. We have not ignored our Fulbright mandates (indeed, this is, dare I say, a fantastically successful implementation and example of the Fulbright’s misison of meaningful cross-cultural communication). We have been in Lithuania for just over a month; the issues Efraim refers to are complicated, nuanced, and extraordinarily political — allow me, please, to gain some fluency in the matters before I chain myself to any gate.  Really, it’s not clear to me what criticism can be levied at something as innocent and fun as a bagel party.

But — and here I return to what Jake stated so eloquently above — a bagel party in Lithuania is obviously not just a bagel party. I’m not sure this came across in the article, but: for most people there, this was the only real engagement with Jewish issues they’ve ever had. The kids here don’t know or don’t care, and this is an unacceptable tragedy. But those English op-eds and essays — which are very very important, if slightly agitated — aren’t read by this crowd; and the heavyhanded activism is completely ignored or, worse, detested. How do you convince somebody in an argument he doesn’t know he’s having? If there has been in recent years a more successful Lithuanian Jewish event that attracted and interested non-Jews, I’m unaware of it. I’m fairly confident that had we thrown a Holocaust-obfuscation roundtable, the turnout wouldn’t be quite so robust. We haven’t kidded ourselves that we’ve solved the country’s problems by baking and serving some bagels; we just believe that it’s a meaningful and fun and quietly powerful entry.

Come on — aren’t bagels a pretty darn good way to open a dialogue? To give people a forum to ask, to wonder, maybe even to reflect? To meet normal, young, American Jews who are proud of their Jewishness, and who want to share that pride? To encounter something Jewish that’s readily digestible and agreeable and apolitical, unlike the anti-Semitism, the anti-anti-Semitism, the anti-anti-anti-Semitism, etc.?

Mr. Zuroff, these Vilnius bagels are, at the very least, harmless — and they just might be actually revolutionary.

Written by menachemkaiser

19 October at 23:09

Posted in bagel, rants

9 Responses

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  1. Just saw this, but Shabbat beckons and you will have to be patient until motzash when I can(and b”h will) respond.

    Efraim Zuroff

    22 October at 17:30

  2. Dear Menachem,
    Sha’vua tov. I’m assuming you know what that phrase means, which goes to the heart of the matter.
    Perhaps if your name had been Oliver Phillips or some other WASPy variation thereof, I never would have responded to your article in Tablet. It was your name that implied some sort of commitment, affiliation, support, and/or empathy for what people like Prof. Dovid Katz, Rachel Constanian and myself have been trying to do in Lithuania since independence. (Is that you cursing out your parents’choice of Menachem in the background?) Your name means “comforter” and carries with it, some sort of promise. Instead, what we read about is some inane exercise in engagement of locals in fressing traditional Jewish fare under the guise of some sort of phony dialogue.
    Whom do you think you are kidding? Not yourselves, since as Fulbright scholars you certainly are too savvy to fall for such drivel.
    After reading your piece, I decided to do some research with local sources to try and figure out what you guys are up to and whether you were part of the problem or part of the solution?
    Lo and behold, there hadn’t been any sightings at the local Jewish sites of interest and/or importance. In other words, it appeared that rather than seriously delving into the issues you guys were apparently primarily out to have a good time and enjoy the local social scene.
    In that case, the question is whether today’s Lithuania is the place for such fun and games? My sense is that the country is hardly an appropriate setting, given not only its Holocaust past, but it’s current policies, hence my sour comment on your bagel project.
    I could apologize for “offending” you or give you the alibi that it’s a generational misunderstanding, but I don’t feel honest doing so.
    I can only hope that by the end of your sojourn in Vilna, you will have produced something more meaningful than bagels and learned enough to understand the source of my angst.

    Efraim Zuroff

    23 October at 21:04

  3. “for most people there, this was the only real engagement with Jewish issues they’ve ever had.”

    Why should Lithuanians have any real engagement w/ Jewish issues? Do you get involved in Lithuanian issues, especially the ones related Russian oppression? Do you take any interest in, let’s say, Ukrainian genocide?

    “The kids here don’t know or don’t care”

    Why should they care?

    “If there has been in recent years a more successful Lithuanian Jewish event that attracted and interested non-Jews”

    Why should there have been such a thing?

    The main issue here should be whether modern Lithuanian society admits local citizens were involved in Jewish genocide. And they do admit, because it is logical to think locals helped the Communists.
    But it’s in the past. Today is what we have. Sure, Lithuanians would be much happier if their own oppression hadn’t happened (which, including czarist repression, lasted for around 150 years), but they don’t go around blaming all Russians for living in the country, for not admitting the oppression and for a number other factors. They live together without discussing things that don’t matter anymore. They live without asking “What’s your nationality?”, because it doesn’t matter.

    Menachem, You sound very prejudiced Yourself, and whilst having such a value judgement, You will miss out on getting to know other cultures.

    Good luck with Your mission.


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