Primo Levi, Zionist

December 2, 2019 | Alvin Rosenfeld
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The influential philosopher and fanatical Israel-hater Judith Butler has favorably cited Primo Levi’s public criticism of the Jewish state’s war in Lebanon in the early 1980s to make him into a literary saint of anti-Zionism. But such a reading of the Italian-Jewish novelist and Holocaust memoirist requires ignoring what he had earlier written on the subject, explains Alvin Rosenfeld. Levi’s first encounters with Zionism came in Auschwitz, and later with the Jews he met while wandering Eastern Europe after the war:

[When] Levi first came to know young Zionists [he] was fascinated by them, so much so that he devoted an entire novel, Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?) to telling their story. His narrative follows the exploits and wanderings of a small group of young Jewish partisans, who during the war lived in the forests and fought the Nazis and their allies. Following war’s end, they were determined to get away “from this Europe of graves” and make their way to the Land of Israel, where they would be “men among men” and work to reclaim “the honor of our submerged people.”

In addition, writes Rosenfeld, Levi was disturbed by the emergence of anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Zionism after World War II. In particular, like a number of other Europeans of the left at that time, he spoke in defense of Israel on the eve of the Six-Day War:

On May 31, 1967, . . . Levi gave a speech in the main synagogue of Turin, his native city, which was soon afterward published under the title “More than Any Other Country Israel Must Live.” . . . No other country, [Levi declared], is asked “to cease to exist,” but precisely such an end was being envisioned for Israel. Moreover, with Egypt in the lead, several Arab armies were preparing for the country’s liquidation. Levi’s response was that Israel “must survive.”

Why? Because, like every other country, “it has the right to live,” but, beyond this reason, “everyone should remember that the generation that created Israel consists almost entirely of people who escaped the massacre of Judaism in Europe. . . . For this reason, I say, Israel is not like other countries; it is a country to which the whole world is indebted, it is a country of witnesses and martyrs, of the insurgents of Warsaw, of Sobibór, and of Treblinka.”

Levi saw “the relationship of every Jew, even if he is not a Zionist, to the state of Israel [as] obvious and profound.”

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