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.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Fathom

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

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.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

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