Thomas Mann: Lover of Midrash and of Zionism

Dec. 10 2021

The German author Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, was a vocal and public opponent of the Nazis for many reasons, their anti-Semitism among them. But he also exhibited a philo-Semitism that went far beyond an aversion to the vicious persecution of the Jews. As Shalom Goldman explains, Mann’s respect for the Jewish people became manifest while he was researching his epic retelling of the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers:

Like many others educated in the yeshiva tradition, I delighted in Mann’s use of midrashim, the [rabbinic] legends that supplement the spare narratives of the Bible. Mann accessed these legends through his own research, and through a network of European Jewish scholars he cultivated before he set to work on what would eventually be his four-volume, 1,500-page magnum opus on Joseph.

In 1930, Mann and his wife visited the Near East, where the novelist sought further inspiration:

[I]n British Mandate Palestine Mann and his wife placed an important concern on their itinerary—Zionism. The Manns visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and a kibbutz, and were interviewed by the local English-language paper, The Palestine Bulletin. In the interview Mann emphasized his support for Zionism, and at the same time called for recognition of the rights of the Arabs of Palestine. As Mann’s biographer Donald Prater put it, the novelist found the visit to Palestine “of inestimable value for the background he needed. But he was alive too to the modern situation of Palestine and of the immense achievements of the Jewish settlers.”

A few years before this visit Mann expressed his sympathy for Zionism in a letter to the German Palestine Committee. “I can only say that one need not be a Zionist nor even a Jew to find the idea of awakening the land from its barren state, where such a tremendous evolution in the history of mankind has taken place from the days of the exiled people.”

Goldman finds himself surprised and disappointed that the writer Colm Toibin omits all of this from his recent novel about Mann’s life, focusing almost single-mindedly on what “Toibin considers the most important fact about him, that he was gay.” Thus, to Toibin, Mann’s Death in Venice, in which a man’s obsession with a teenage boy is central to the plot, is his most important novel. And in “Toibin’s retelling of Mann’s life, his tip to Venice as a young man is the only important journey.”

But perhaps Goldman shouldn’t be so surprised. To the people who write influential reviews of serious fiction, the story of a gay man living in an age of repression is a sympathetic one. The story of a Bible-reading Zionist, less so.

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Read more at Fathom

More about: Homosexuality, Literature, Mandate Palestine, Midrash, Philo-Semitism

Why Is Iran Acquiring Property in Venezuela?

In June Tehran and Caracas concluded a major twenty-year cooperation treaty. One of its many provisions—kept secret until recently—was the transfer of 4,000 square miles of Venezuelan land to Iranian control. Although the territory is ostensibly for agricultural use, Lawrence Franklin suspects the Islamic Republic might have other plans:

Hizballah already runs paramilitary training centers in restricted sections of Venezuela’s Margarita Island, a tourist area northeast of the country’s mainland. The terrorist group has considerable support from some of Venezuela’s prominent Lebanese clans such as the Nasr al-Din family, who reportedly facilitated Iran’s penetration of Margarita Island. . . . The Maduro regime has apparently been so welcoming to Iranian intelligence agents that some of Hizballah’s long-established Latin American network at the tri-border nexus of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay has been overtaken by Hizballah activities on Venezuela’s Margarita Island.

Iran’s alliance with Venezuela most importantly provides Tehran with opportunities to target U.S. interests in Latin America and potentially the southern United States. Iran, along with the Chinese Communist Party, is in the process of strengthening Venezuela’s military against the U.S., for instance by deliveries of military drones, which are also considered a threat by Colombia.

While air and seaborne arms deliveries are high-profile evidence of Iran’s ties with Venezuela, Tehran’s cooperation with Venezuelan intelligence agencies, although less visible, is also intense. The Islamic Republic’s support for Hizballah terrorist operations is pervasive throughout Latin America. Hizballah recruits from Venezuela’s ten-million-strong Lebanese diaspora. Iran and Hizballah cooperate in training of intelligence agents and in developing sources who reside in Venezuela and Colombia, as well as in the tri-border region of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

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More about: Iran, Latin America, Venezuela