Monday, 19 January 2009

Open letter to the Italian Jews

Franco Fortini was one of the leading intellectuals in Post-war Italy. He was a poet, a critic, a translator, a communist activist and a Jew. He translated and shared the view of Bertolt Brecht’s work. In the English speaking world Fortini is known for his poem on Communism (New Left Review, I/38, 1966) and the recent work of Thomas E. Peterson (1997, University Press of Florida. 1997).
This letter was first published in the Italian communist newspaper “Il Manifesto” on the 24th of May 1989. “Il Manifesto”, meritoriously, re-published it yesterday (18th January 2009). Fortini’s letter has not lost anything of its topicality. The reason why il Manifesto republished it is that, while Israel massacres hundreds of Palestinians, Italian representatives of the Jewish community in Rome protest against the huge demonstration that took place on Saturday in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.

Franco Fortini

Every day we are informed of the Israeli repression against the Palestinian population. And every day we are more distracted by its significance, as is wanted by those who lead it. Every day there grows a siege that together with the lives, culture, houses, plantations and memory of that people – at the same time – destroys or deforms the honour of Israel. In a space which is as big as one of our regions, there corresponds to the hundreds of people killed, thousands of people injured, dozens of thousands of people imprisoned – and to the daily exploitation of Palestinian labour-force, seventy or one hundred thousand of people - dozens of thousands of young Israeli soldiers and settlers who all their life, night after day, with their wives, children ad friends, will have to repress what they did or what they allowed to be done.
Moreover, they will be induced to justify it. And they could do it only in the name of some Realpolitik cynicism and of some mystical or national delirium, different from those that have covered Europe with ossuaries and monuments only because it is displayed in the places of everyday life and with the evident complicity of many. For every Palestinian women who was arrested, boy who was killed or father who was hit and humiliated, there is a woman, a boy, a father of Israel who will have to say that they did not know; or, as they already do, they will have to ask, with an abominable wish, that the blood fall on their descendents. They already eat and drink polluted food and pretend that they do not know it. In the books of their and our prophets there are written words that it is not my task to recall.
This siege can win. Even Titus’s legions won. When the stones will fall from the hands of the Palestinians and – as the “eagles” of Israel wish – those Palestinians who are against the politics of detente of the PLO, caught between provocation and desperation, take up weapons, then the super-military power of Israel will be deployed to the applause of a part of international public opinion and the harmless silence of hate of the other, far larger side. The people of memory should not disregard other peoples to the extent of believing them incapable of remembering forever.
The Jews of the Diaspora know and feel that a new and bestial anti-Semitism has grown and keeps on increasing day after day among those who stupidly feel to be allowed to deride the feelings of equality and the persuasions of fraternity by the violence of Israeli politics (together with the powerful ideological machine of its propaganda, amplified by the Diaspora). For the new anti-Semites, the Jews of the Diaspora are nothing but agents of the Israeli State. And this is also the result of twenty years of Israeli politics. The usage that the latter has made of the Diaspora has overturned, at least in Italy, the relationship between supporters and adversaries of such a politics, in comparison with 1967. They believed they were more protected but instead they are more exposed to distrust and hostility. Thus, we honour those who resist with reason and continue to distinguish between Israeli politics and Judaism.
It must be said that the tradition of the Italian left (inconsiderately accused of encouraging racist feelings by some philo-Israelis) is precisely that tradition that has helped more to maintain that distinction during these years. There are many who are able to make a distinction, and I am amongst them. Yet, every day I ask myself more and more: how is so much silence or not a few equivocal words possible between the Italian Jews and the friends of Italian Jews? Those who, Jews or friends of Jews - many or a few, famous or not, it does not matter – believe that consciousness and truth are more important than faithfulness and tradition; even more, that the latter putrefy without the former – then, they should speak as long as there is time, they should speak clearly, choose a side, bring a sign. They should have the courage to wet their doorpost with Palestinian blood, hoping that the Angel doesn’t recognise it in the night; or instead they should find the strength to refuse complicity with those who wet the earth everyday with it, an earth that screams against them.
They should not lie to themselves, as they do, by equating the massacres of terrorism to those of an organised and disciplined army. Their children will know and will judge it. And if I was asked with what right and in the name of what mandate I allow myself to ask these questions, I won’t respond that I do it in order to give an account of my own existence or of the name of my father and of his jewish line of descent. Because I believe that the significance and value of human beings lies in what they make of themselves starting from their genetic and historical code and not in what they have received as fate with it. […] I write these words in a very different way from many recent, and improvised, friends of the Jews and of Judaism. I write these words at an extreme point of discouragement and hope, because I am convinced that the conflict between Israel and Palestine only seems, but is not, comparable to those many conflicts for national independence and freedom that our century knows all too well.
It seems that Israel is and acts today as a nation or as the armed limb of a nation, as France acted in Algeria, the US in Vietnam or the URSS in Hungary or in Afghanistan. Yet, as France was in the end – for our interior theatre – the people of Valmy and the Americans those of 1775, and the Soviets those of 1917, the Jews, before being soldiers of Sharon, were the bearers of a part of our holy vases, an anguished and ardent part of our intelligence, of our words and will. I can’t remember who is the Zionist who wished the condition of exceptionality to disappear and that the State of Israel could have its tithes and its prostitutes like any other state. Now it has them and that’s its business. But its Book has always been our Book as well and thus the countless books, alive and dead, that have come out of it.
The distinction between Judaism and the state of Israel, which until yesterday seemed to be a precious acquisition against fanaticism, has been questioned precisely thanks to the assent or silence of the Diaspora. And it allowed us to see better why it is not possible to consider what happens at the doors of Jerusalem as something that has only to do with political-military conflicts and the struggle of interests and power. At least in some part, this conflict puts at risk something that it is inside us. For each house that the Israelis destroy, every life that they kill daily and every day of school that the youth of Palestine misses because of them, a part of the immense deposit of truth and wisdom is lost that, in and for the culture of the West, has been accumulated by the generations of the Diaspora, from the glorious or infamous misfortune of ghettos and through the cruelty of ancient and recent persecutions.
A great Jewish Christian woman, Simone Weil, recalled that the sword hurts from two sides. Even from more than two, I dare to add. Every day of war against the Palestinians, namely of false consciousness for the Israelis, makes a building disappear or humiliates it, a memory, a parchment, a feeling, a line, moulding of our life and homeland. A poet spoke of the postscript and of its gaze “that condemns an entire people around a scaffold”: here, around the rooves of Gaza and Transjordan every day Israel risks a condemnation far worse than those of the UN, a trial that will be opened, but inside Israel, in itself […]. Our life is not only diminished by the blood and desperation of the Palestinians; it is, I repeat, diminished by the dissipation that Israel has made of a common treasure.
Over there, there is not a university or research institute, library or museum, auditorium or place of study and prayer that can compensate the accumulation of bad consciousness and repressed guilt that the praxis of oppression induces in the life and education of the Israelis. Even in the life of the Jews of the Diaspora and their friends. I am one of them. If every word of them takes a cartridge away from the submachine gun of the soldiers of Tsahal, it takes away another one also from those, now hidden, of the Palestinians.
So speak!

Translated into Italish by Mappelope; revised into English by Philommappus

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