re re open letter to efraim zuroff

with 3 comments

In case you’re just joining us now: Last week, I wrote an article about a bagel party we threw in Vilnius; Efraim Zuroff commented, Jake counter-commented, and I penned an open letter; and, last night, Efraim responded.

(N.B. I goofily misspoke when I first posted Efraim’s response — I did not mean to say it was ‘presumptuous.’ I meant, and this is an embarrassing SATish error, ‘presumptive.’ That is to say: his response was not inappropriate or outside the boundaries of good taste and class, but was, rather, riddled with presumptions and suppositions.)

Dear Efraim,

Firstly, thank you for responding. Again, I would like to emphasize how much I respect and admire your lifetime of achievement, and that I appreciate the input and criticism, even if I disagree with a large chunk of it, and even if I was initially very taken aback by the tone, etc. And there is no need to apologize, even if you were so inclined  — I am not at all offended, and view this all as valid and valuable discourse.

To the meat (lox?) of the issue: the bagel party. I’m willing to concede that I may have oversold it, over-stressed its importance and significance; the article did have a whiff of breathless self-congratulation. Yeah, in the scheme of things, it probably doesn’t matter. It almost certainly won’t change anything. There was no dialogue that you would consider legitimate (or not “phony”). But was it, as you maintain, “inane”? I still don’t think so. You upgraded your criticism of the event in question from ‘not meaningful’ (in your comment) to something a bit more vicious (in your last response). But again, because I really am mystified, what’s the harm? Is there something — and I ask sincerely — wrong or dangerous inherent in a Lithuanian bagel party? The interactions between ourselves and the Lithuanians, before, during and after the party — much of it concerning Holocaust-101 stuff, like the extent of Lithuanian involvement  — is, to me at least, of some value. And it came about through the preparation and staging of the bagel party. That alone, I feel, redeems it. My article was only meant as a cute and entertaining dispatch on what was widely agreed to be a cute and entertaining event. Perhaps the article itself, as opposed to the event, is what’s upsetting you? If so, I apologize; it was, I assure you, a tricky piece to write, and I had to dance around several touchy issues. Your comment was therefore valuable in that it listed the “terrible problems facing Lithuania Jewry” that I, for editorial reasons, could not. What we found strange — and perhaps this was unintentional on your part — was that you couched it in fairly personal language.

Prof. Dovid Katz, btw, the tireless crusader you refer to, attended the bagel party, and by the looks of it, thoroughly enjoyed himself. The LSI, Katz’s organization and arguably the primary home and disseminator of criticism of Lithuanian Jewish issues, sponsored (nominally) the event. We have received nothing but support and encouragement from everyone else; this includes some who are very dedicated to those “terrible problems.”

True, you didn’t say it was dangerous or wrong; you said it was “inappropriate.” This is, I feel, probably the crux of any constructive disagreement between us. I would very much like to hear why you think this is so — I’m not ready to dismiss your opinion out of hand, but I’ll admit I don’t understand it. You know a great deal more than I about the politics and workings and history of Lithuania. To me, a bagel party is, at the very least, innocent and fun. I’m open to be convinced otherwise. We were, obviously, not out to make light of any issues. Please, if you feel that we nonetheless inadvertently diminished or undermined anyone’s efforts or campaigns, tell me.

I wish I could end here, but you seem to hinge a lot of your judgment on the bagel party on your judgment of me and my activities here. I admit I find this a little uncomfortable, and am unsure why issues cannot be evaluated on their own merits. Nevertheless, you do make some pointed accusations that deserve a response; allow me to correct some mis- and pre-conceptions.

My pride of my name and its origins notwithstanding, it’s best not to presuppose any affiliations, affinities, associations, or alliances on any nominative basis; they will more often than not be incorrect.

I came to Lithuania with a detailed and painstakingly-prepared proposal that was, upon arrival, clearly worthless. It also had nothing to do with the ongoing Jewish/Holocaust issues; I was completely ignorant of those until a few weeks ago. I’ve had to continually reassess where, exactly, to put my effort and time and figure out what my project will look like. I’m still learning about the issues. My point is, I’m not yet fully on your ‘team’ — I don’t know enough yet. I need time. Some of the tactics and rhetoric, admittedly, make me uncomfortable. All I’m saying is that I’m approaching this cautiously.

Here’s my bigger point: I’m here first and foremost as a writer/journalist, and I have no commitment to engage in this highly political discussion, or raise awareness, or to be an activist of any sort. “Contemporary Jewish issues,” how I too-hastily described my studies in my one-line bio, does not  mean Holocaust obfuscation and the like. Whatever I choose to do in this sphere is of my own personal decision, and is outside of my original undertaking. I’m not saying it’s not important. It is, obviously; but I am saying that your suggestion that I’m ignoring my Fulbright mission and wasting my time is unfounded, wrong, and mildly insulting. Further, you claim your wrongheaded assessment comes from “local sources,” your “research” into what we are “up to.” This is kind of ludicrous. Aside from being false (I can’t believe I’m about to list this: I’ve visited Ponary, the network of Jewish museums, multiple tours of the ghetto, local professors, local politicians, Dovid Katz, the troubling Vilnius museums, engaged in prolonged discussion with LSI regarding its mission and implementation, etc; plus fairly intensive reading and studying), it also very much beside the point. (It’s also peculiar that someone can presume, even with the best-informed local contacts, to extensively know a month’s worth of activities and research.) Because, as mentioned, this isn’t my project. (This goes doubly for Jake.) I’m involved with several universities on programs and classes unrelated to these issues; I’m writing multiple essays and articles that have nothing to do with this. I’m traveling. I’m teaching creative writing and Old Testament. Etcetera etcetera. The point isn’t to defend my productivity here — I don’t have to do that — but to reiterate that your dismissal of my time and effort is curt indeed. As is your implication that I’m “part of the problem.” Again, if you strongly believe that I should devote the entirety of my resources to these problems, then that is a worthwhile discussion. I’d be very appreciative to hear how you feel I should use this very special opportunity I’ve been given.

Lastly, the bagel party was indeed a blast. I do not have to apologize for having fun.


Written by menachemkaiser

24 October at 21:56

Posted in bagel, rants

3 Responses

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  1. I can’t help but revel when the younger man is the more adult, but actually I think this is due to something Efraim alluded to. There really is a generational gap and it goes much deeper than an appreciation for levity, electronic noises in our music, or some kind of misconstrued “alibi”.

    There aren’t many progressive minded young people, Efraim, who would wear the title of “hunter” so comfortably or brazenly as you do. Most people who study genocides today are keen on the notion of reconciliation and are not eager to go hunting even criminal human beings. I don’t mean to discount your truly noble efforts of bringing some of the worst criminals in history to justice, or for feeling angry when those efforts are being stymied, or even opposed, today. I wish you the best on your mission and as a Jew whose family died, like yours, in Lithuania, I cannot tell you how important I feel it is. But what I do mean to question is your feelings toward people, culture and practicality against the rather intangible and sometimes starkly unjust notion of justice. I believe even you would agree that the Nuremberg trials had a limit, and that sometimes, although incredibly painful, it is necessary to let someone “get away” with murder or at least complicity and allow for healing.

    That said, is the discourse of double-genocide a dangerous and very real problem? Of course it is and Lithuania has been especially disturbing in their lack of confrontation (bordering on outright denial) of their own heavy involvement in the mass murder of Jews (just see the rhetoric of a commenter on your most recent response). Have the the people of Lithuania in any way dealt with their responsibility as they should have? Does a genocide museum devoid of reference to the Holocaust in the country with the highest kill rate in Europe disgust any self-respecting Jew? The answers to these questions are obvious for anyone who cares to look into them. And there is a long difficult fight for recognition of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, just as there is for the suffering of countless others across history and today (including, notably in this case, that of Lithuanians under Soviet/Russian rule). But sometimes fighting as passionately (and, if I may say, angrily) as you do, is not the only, or even the best way to climb this mountain. And I dare say it is not the way of my brother or Menachem.

    Given your extensive involvement in these kinds of issues, is it really so wrong to have ANY kind of healing event, even if it seems trivial from afar and is run by two rather goofy gentlemen? Are you really so opposed to reopening the dialog by any means available? I call again for you to answer Menachem, what is the harm in breaking Jewish bread where our ancestors did for centuries? Rather than use informants to question their activities (re: “kids these days don’t care about anything!”), why not use your obvious plethora of local contacts to assist these two in their research (or even help shape it)?

    Lives are full of inconsistencies and hypocrisies and dare I say it, yours is no exception Efraim. You are the last Nazi hunter, perhaps out of duty to our families or perhaps because you are angry and want some kind of revenge. But given your involvement in Rwanda’s post-genocide efforts, and as far as I know, no new title of genocidaire (certainly not French special forces) hunter, can you really say what you do is out of unflinching principle?

    I stress again that what you do is quite admirable in a lot of ways and I feel obliged to thank you for your work in human rights in whatever way you found fit. It is no easy task and you’ve done more than most. But I hope, perhaps naively, that it is not the way of my generation; that we might strive for a more universal, reconciling, and frankly preventative way of mourning the death of innocents. I hope you can appreciate that as much as we respectfully appreciate your work.

    Mitchell Levine

    26 October at 08:51

  2. Efraim, I’m sorry I missed the bagel party, and I believe you were reacting more to the article than the bagel gathering. Even then, your tone was snide and condescending, but “descending” from where — your slant on your mission, which survives on polarization and the industry of guilt more than reconciliation and justice. The genocide museum has an unfortuntate name and it should be changed — this was a reaction soon after independence. Devoid of reference to the Holocaust — ignorant, but it is really a KGB Museum. Though I haven’t recently visited the Holocaust Museum here in Vilnius (about a year ago and I was not taking notes on references), I doubt there is much if any reference to the genocide of the Lithuanians, their gulag. Yes, this quarrel goes both ways. And genocide is not owned by any one tribe, though Efraim you might propose an auction, and probably you would be the highest bidder, raising the most funds. Everyone likes to use the word “obfuscation” these days. I once edited and co-translated a tome of a book on Jews and the Lithuanians who helped save them, albeit a small minority of Lithuanians. Often, all sides were quite simple people but they did feel some pride in what they had done…..the book is full of commentary. And I have heard this book referred to as an obfuscation.I don’t think so, but given that logic, one could say that some of the Holocaust Industry is a convenient obfuscation of Israel’s policies in occupied Palestine, Gaza, Jerusalem, etc. It keeps the guilt active and thus mollifies the outrage at current policies.
    The discussion could go on, but I believe you showed your true colors, Efraim, even more so in your second response to the bagel incident. Did you send spies to watch over Jake and Menachem? Come on,
    have a bagel with some Lithuanian cream cheese from the market. There is little room for humor in this engagement and discourse but you should brighten up and have a dozen whiskeys with Jake, Dovid Katz, and the rest of us. I was introduced to you once at a social gathering, and you glowed hatred. Your mission is honorable but you are going about it in the wrong way. Stupidly or stubbornly, I don’t know.

    Kerry Shawn Keys

    5 November at 01:00

  3. The eloquence and articulation of the posts this bagel incident has inspired have been impressive, wowingly so. Special kudos however, to both Mitchell and Kerry, for so aptly calling Efraim’s snobbery and arrogance out for what it truly is, wrong. He really did reveal himself to be self-centered over truly principled in approach, snide and condescending, fuming in hatred, raged and revenge seeking, polarized and loving it, guilt over reconciliation driven and stupid in his stubbornness. Paraphrasing aside, masterfully done. So here’s to a future filled with far more universally based approaches, the brave souls needed to blaze the trails and survive the flack for doing so add all the bagels one might need to go along with.

    Nicole Dobinson

    5 November at 18:06

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