For an Intellectual, the Centennial of a Holocaust Writer Is an Opportunity to Condemn Both Israel and Democracy

July 12, 2019 | Liel Leibovitz

In honor of what would have been the 100th birthday of the Italian Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi, the Indian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra delivered a talk sponsored by the Centro Primo Levi in Manhattan. Mishra began with a twenty-minute disquisition on the disputed territory of Kashmir before, finally, settling into his real topic: the many sins of the Jewish state. Describing Mishra as the very archetype of an intellectual, Liel Leibovitz comments:

[Mishra’s] mission was to argue that three things were inherently true when it came to Primo Levi: first, that it was possible, even advisable, to read him out of context, which meant that the Holocaust should be viewed as anything but a specific historical occasion that happened to a specific people, the Jews, for a specific set of reasons; second, that it was permissible, even laudable, to distill Levi’s intricate legacy into a potent political brew guaranteed to fortify one’s leftist credentials; and third, that it was logical, even inevitable, that intellectuals alone, the few and the proud, should serve as their nations’ moral compass, remaining upright as the unwashed masses are led astray by bloodlust and fear.

To see the world this way is . . . to rob Levi of his ultimate meaning by expanding the boundaries of the “Gray Zone” [as Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, described the moral universe of Auschwitz] from the hell of the camp the writer had observed so carefully and meticulously to just about every place where humans dwell, a reductio ad absurdum that turns a lengthy and varied literary career into a single broad metaphor.

And finally, it’s an affront to the very notion of democracy: there were, Mishra noted at some point in his talk, fine writers and intellectuals in Israel who spoke out against the horrors of the country’s brutal policies, but they were an enlightened minority; in Israel, as in India, the mob was always falling in love with some fascist. Follow this logic to its end, and you’ll be tempted to do away with such pestering things as elections or free speech, which only have an awkward way of enhancing the benighted opinions of those boorish majorities; far better to entrust the ship of state in the hands of those smart and sensitive enough to lead it to safety.

In Auschwitz, Levi noted in The Drowned and the Saved, intellectuals were at a disadvantage, their orderly minds useless at understanding a strange new reality that was illogical and immoral. [But] maybe Mishra had it just right: the question of political evil presses on, and if we listen to Levi—really listen to him—we’ll know that the last people we can expect to grapple with it in any meaningful way are intellectuals.

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