OPINION: Primo Levi’s complex love affair with Israel

OPINION: Primo Levi’s complex love affair with Israel

Upon the centenary of the Shoah survivor's birth, Alvin Rosenfeld reflects on Primo Levi's complicated relationship with the Jewish state and its various policies and governments

Alvin Rosenfeld

Alvin Rosenfeld works with the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism

Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi
Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi

 Every age has its volatility, but ours is beset by a resurgence of hostility against Jews and the Jewish state. This year marks the centenary of Primo Levi’s birth, so it is fitting to recall his complicated relationship with Israel.

He visited the country once, in 1968, with 40 former Italian partisans. He maintained contact with Italian Jewish friends who lived in Israel and kept himself updated about events there. His responses to two crises reveal a strong attachment to Israel on a personal level, but also some sharp differences with its policies, especially when Menachem Begin was prime minister.

His criticisms were political and aligned with the Italian left. They came to a head in 1982, during Israel’s Lebanon war. Originally a response to Palestine Liberation Organisation threats against northern Israel, the war widened as Israeli forces reached Beirut. Public opinion in western countries, including Italy, turned against Israel, especially following the Christian Phalange militia’s massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. Levi joined his voice to the protests urging Israel’s withdrawal and Begin’s resignation. He was criticised by Italian Jewish community leaders, who called for solidarity.

Levi became uneasy after these disputes, which put his existential attachments to Israel at odds with his criticism of some of its policies. “I retain a close sentimental tie with Israel,” he said, “but not with this Israel”. In the end, he had enough of partisan bickering over the Jewish state and backed off from further comments.

US academic Judith Butler and others have used Levi’s remarks against the Lebanon war to enlist his voice against Zionism. But in waging her polemical campaign against the Jewish state, Butler quotes Levi selectively. It is worth recalling what he said during an earlier and more critical moment in Israel’s history.

In June 1967, President Nasser of Egypt said the Arab national aim in the coming war was Israel’s annihilation. The goal, was to ‘drive the Jews into the sea,’ an end endorsed by his military allies and sanctioned by Muslim leaders.

Anxiety ran high among Jews throughout the world and on 31 May 1967 Levi gave a speech in the main shul of Turin, his native city. The following words set the tone of the speech and expressed what mattered most to Levi: “Lately words have been [expressed] that we thought were extinct: ‘With the help of God, we will win and we will exterminate our enemy.’ I can’t imagine a worse blasphemy. This is worse than taking [God’s] name in vain – it is calling for his help in a massacre. Are there still people in this world who believe in holy war and equate it with total war?” Levi reminded everyone Israel, “originating in persecution and massacre” is meant to be a guarantee that “there will be no more persecutions, no more massacres”. No other country is asked “to cease to exist”. Arab armies were preparing for the country’s liquidation. Levi’s response was Israel “must survive”. Why? Because, like every other country, “it has the right to live”, but, beyond this, “Everyone should remember the generation that created Israel consists almost entirely of people who escaped the massacre of Judaism in Europe… The pioneers of Zionism are the survivors of the tsarist pogroms, of the ghettos, of the mass graves, of Hitler’s lagers. Israel is not like other countries; it is a country to which the whole world is indebted, it is a country of witnesses and martyrs, of the insurgents of Warsaw, of Sobibór, and of Treblinka. The goal of inflicting dispersion and massacre on the survivors of dispersion and massacre is doubly criminal.”

“Israel must live,” he twice reiterated. Policy differences could be discussed and disputed, but there could be no denying the Jewish state’s right to continued existence.


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