When the Yiddish Theater Tackled American Racism

July 28 2020

In 1931, nine African American teenagers were arrested and brought to trial in Scottsboro, Alabama for allegedly raping two white women—and then sentenced to death. The charges, it soon became clear, were demonstrably false, and the case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the fate of the Scottsboro Boys—as they became known—received international attention, and eventually became the subject of the 1935 Yiddish play Mississippi, written by the playwright Leyb Malakh (1894-1936) at the encouragement of the director and critic Mikhl Vaykhert (1890-1967), who staged it at his Warsaw theater. Alyssa Quint writes:

When I first came across archival artifacts from productions of Mississippi . . . I assumed that [it] was a translation. I had come across ephemera of so many translations from this era: a review of the Vilna Troupe’s 1924 version of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, for example. . . . Directors saw translation as a way to introduce worldliness and sophistication to the Yiddish theater, and to engage with current social and political issues.

The script is also embedded with an array of original Yiddish songs by the celebrated composer Henekh Kon (1890-1970) who composed songs in the African American musical tradition including jazz, gospel, and African American spirituals. One makes reference to the enslavement of African people, and another refers to the part former slaves took in the Union army fighting in the Civil War.

Despite Vaykhert’s concerns that Polish Jewish theatergoers wouldn’t be interested in a play on so foreign a subject, Mississippi was a smash hit, enjoying a long run of over 200 performance.

Mississippi’ssuccess in the late 1930s worked off the energy of the Blacks’ and Jews’ common history of oppression. More remarkable, however, is the play as it reveals how much its Jewish participants, creators, and audience mustered sympathy for this mostly unknown African American subject matter, for how and where they lived, the particulars of their persecution, and for their cultural forms and traditions. Ironically, these are the least palatable aspects of the play, at least according to our standards [of political correctness] today.

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More about: Polish Jewry, Political correctness, Racism, Yiddish theater

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy