“Israel’s Situation in the Light of the Turmoil in the East,” a February 16 lecture by Chuck Freilich, Senior Fellow at the International Security Program Belfer Center for Sciences & International Affairs at Harvard, held the nearly 100 guests at the American Jewish Committee’s headquarters spellbound. Israel’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2005, Freilich launched his extempore address with a Biblical story: “In his six-day creation pow-wow with his chief angels, God said: ‘See that area? That will be the future land of Israel, a wonderful place full of milk and honey.’ Suggesting that God might be somewhat overgenerous, an angel said, ‘Wait till they see who their neighbors are!’”
Freilich said: “In the last 60 years, Egypt has had eight dictatorships…. It is imperative to avoid a dictatorship, another strongman take-over… It would be a wonderful wake-up call that another democracy has taken over…maybe it will happen.” He was cautious about an “Egypt less committed to Israel, less friendly to the U.S.,” adding, “If you read the U.S. press, the Moslem Brotherhood is an exemplar of democracy. [But] they are rabidly anti-American, rabidly anti-Israel, rabidly anti-Semitic… The thought that the peace treaty can be abrogated will be a nightmare for all of us… unimaginable! God forbid that we find ourselves in a state of confrontation with Egypt!… If Egypt falls, it is not just important to Israel, but important to the world.”
He posited a series of possible scenarios: upheavals in Lebanon, Hezbollah “with its 50,000 rockets aimed at Israel,” Saying Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia ensured “the only future of the American way of life, with 25% of the world’s oil,” Freilich then focused on Iran, saying, “Why does Iran hate us? We have no common population and resources to fight over. Iran is a reactional player. Are they willing to trade Teheran or the Holy City Kum, for Tel-Aviv?” Freilich stated categorically: “Iran’s is a theological commitment to the destruction of Israel… not now, but years [from now] in historical terms.”
Concluding his address, Freilich posited: “If Israel is isolated today, it will be more isolated later… The three pillars of Israeli national security are the determination of Israel, its IDF and the resilience of its people.” Soberly he added, “Without the U.S. we are in trouble.” He faulted the American Jewish community for its lack of giving to Jewish-Israeli causes, though “Jews give generously to other causes.” Addressing the anti-Israel temperature on U.S. college campuses, he said “[Israel] is perceived as brutal, rapacious, racist,” then asked the audience: “Where are your kids and grandkids?” He ventured: “There will not be many non-Orthodox Jews in the next generation in the U.S.” and, as afterthought, lamented: “How can a Jewish state not recognize me as a Jew!”
Freilich (which in Yiddish means happy) offered one bit of upbeat news: “Israel is the second largest high-tech country in the world.”
“Everyone in France was writing about her, so [I thought, why not] me too?” said Sylvie Weil about her memoir, “At Home With André and Simone Weil,” at a book signing event held on February 10 at Le Skyroom of the French Institute Alliance Française in Manhattan. Translated from French by Forward writer Benjamin Ivry, it is a treasure trove of anecdotes, conversations and family secrets about Simone Weil (1909–1943), the French philosopher, mystic, trade unionist, member of the French Resistance and convert to Catholicism who died of TB and starvation. Responding to a question from a member of the mostly academic audience: “What was it like to be the niece of Simone and the daughter of André Weil?” Sylvie Weil replied: “I look like her… I was born the year she died… I know I did offend people [when] I put this ‘saint’ in a family context… I was supposed to replace her. Half-Jewish, half-Catholic [Simone would say,] ‘Now I can have more holidays’… She had no friendly feelings for Judaism. She lived in the passion of the Crucifixion… Her death dislocated, destroyed the family in which I grew up.”
Reading from her book, Weil offered a potpourri of revelations about her Alsatian Jewish roots and Ashkenazi ancestors. “My grandparents were married by a rabbi. My father, who was named Abraham, was circumcised — not typical of Jews in France in 1906.” A man in the audience wanted to know, “How did this Jewish family feel about her passion for Christ?” She replied: “People in America… thought my aunt was a saint. On more than one occasion I have renounced Simone. I was ashamed of my affiliation with her, as if it were a defect. In her book, Sylvie Weil, who during a visit to her husband’s family in Brooklyn describes “wanting to sweep Simone under the carpet,” detours the conversation with: “I may be related to Marcel Proust, his mother was a Weil… It’s the most prevalent Alsatian Jewish name which, I believe, dates back to the Napoleonic era when all Levis changed their name to Weill.” (The spelling of the family name was later changed to Weil.)
Among Sylvie Weil’s more than 30 short chapters were ones titled “Gefilte Fish,” “Jerusalem,” “Tzedaka,” “Sterling Ancestors from the Alsatian Side” and “Sterling Ancestors from the Galician Side,” in which she writes about her grandfather Barasch, who was born in Brody and whose extended family, along with the Jews of Brody and its environs, was slaughtered by the Nazis in 1939-1943 or perished in the Belzec or Majdanek extermination camps. In the chapter “Roots,” she writes: “When my father died, my editor, Raphael Sorin, wrote to me; “‘You have lost your father, but you still have Rashi,’” a reference to the medieval biblical scholar and author of the first commentary on the Talmud, who was born in Troyes in 1040 and survived the massacres of the First Crusade.
A professor of French literature at Hunter College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Sylvie Weil also taught at Barnard College and Bennington College. Author of several works of fiction, her first book of the Trilogy “Le Mazal d’Elvina” (“My Guardian Angel”) (Belin, 2001) won the Prix Sorcieres, a prestigious French prize awarded to the best novel for young readers.
On February 1, more than 300 people defied an icy night to come to the Center for Jewish History for the Leo Baeck Institute-sponsored discussion of “The German Foreign Office and the Nazi Past,” the previously little-known role of German diplomats in the Final Solution. The keynote speakers were Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former Foreign Minister, and the book’s co-author, Norbert Frei, the Theodor Heuss Professor for 2010/2011 at the New School for Social Research. Published in Germany as “Das Amt und die Vergangenheit” by Blessing (2010), its co-authors also include Eckart Conze, Peter Hayes and Moshe Zimmermann.
Fischer, an initiator of the commission to investigate the role that German diplomats played in Hitler’s apparatus of persecution, said, “I didn’t know that the Holocaust was organized by the Foreign Office in many occupied countries…. [nor] about the office to protect indicted war criminals that warned suspects not to go to France and other countries after the war.” Fischer revealed that the commission’s work was “traced to a letter from a retired interpreter for the Foreign Office, a Marga Henseler, who wrote to then Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder objecting to an obituary in the Foreign Office newsletter for a former Nazi, Franz Nusslein… who’d been with the Foreign Office in 1955 [and] became German Consul General in Barcelona. He had been convicted of war crimes for his role in sentencing Czech citizens to death during World War II [which was not in the obituary].”
“I was ashamed,” said Fischer, “so I said, ‘That’s it! No more obituaries for former Nazi members… When I became Foreign Minister, I thought, naively, that there was a new consensus about the German past… I couldn’t believe that this self-perception [of lack of culpability for Nazi crimes] still existed among the elite in a modern, democratic Germany.”