Tom Stoppard’s Conservative Reckoning with His Jewish Past

In his recent play Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard tells the story of two upper-middle-class Viennese Jewish families during the first half of the 20th century. Stoppard—who was born Tomáš Straussler in the Czech city of Zlin in 1937, but did not learn until the 1990s that he had not one Jewish grandparent but four, and numerous relatives killed in the Holocaust—based the play loosely on his own family’s story. In his review, Wynn Wheldon stresses that the play puts on display Stoppard’s small-c conservatism (a term Stoppard himself has embraced), which has long been an aspect of his work. But it also tackles something entirely new for this celebrated dramatist: the irreducibility of Jewishness, the persistence of anti-Semitism, and his personal family heritage:

Vienna of 1899, [when the play’s action begins], is the city of Freud, Klimt, Mahler, Schnitzler. Ten percent of its population is Jewish. Great strides have been made. Says the patriarchal Hermann Merz: “My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner”—though “obviously prejudice doesn’t disappear overnight” and he has become “Christianized.” His son Jacob is circumcised and baptized in the same week. Hermann regards Vienna as “the Promised Land” and sees little point in Zionist dreams of a Levantine home. “Do you want to do mathematics in the desert?” he asks of his brother-in-law Ludwig.

Ludwig asserts that “a Jew can be a great composer. He can be the toast of the town. But he can’t not be a Jew.” The first part of Leopoldstadt ends with Hermann having to acknowledge as much after he challenges to a duel an officer, Fritz, who has made an insulting insinuation about his wife.

Fritz refuses to duel because, in his regiment, “an officer is not permitted to fight a Jew,” the fact of Hermann’s own conversion to Christianity notwithstanding. Why?

“Since a Jew is devoid of honor from the day of his birth,” Fritz says, “it is impossible to insult a Jew.” Hermann returns home to participate in a full-scale seder: “It is still our duty to retell the story of how we were brought out of Egypt . . . ”. This is the final line of the act.

Hermann’s son Jacob goes on to become an ardent Zionist, earning the disapproval not only of his staid and assimilated family members but also of his socialist cousin, who tells him, “there are more important things than being a Jew.” Yet the play ultimately vindicates Jacob’s insistence that they can’t escape anti-Semitism. Perhaps then, the very English Stoppard is telling us that, if there are things more important than being a Jew, there aren’t very many of them.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Anti-Semitism, Austrian Jewry, Conservatism, Holocaust, Jewish history, Theater, Zionism


Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict