Saturday, May 22, 2010

The French Railroad on Trial

Reuters reported this week that 100 French and American plaintiffs are suing SNCF, the French national railroad company, for their role in transporting French Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The group, made up of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, insist that it’s not about the money, but rather about exposing the crimes in which the rail company participated. “‘It is about money but not in the way they mean,’” said William Wajnryb, whose father died at Auschwitz. “When people make accusations about money, they should look at the SNCF first of all,” he said. “The core of this story is that the SNCF got money for deporting Jews.’”

I certainly understand the motivation that is driving these plaintiffs to sue the SNCF. The trauma of the Holocaust coupled with the French government’s decades-long refusal to acknowledge its role in contributing to that trauma is enough to want to fight for whatever compensation might be available. That is logical. Just because it is logical however, doesn’t make it right. Had this case been brought to court 40 or 50 years ago, when the money would have made a tangible difference, I would be more sympathetic. But today, with most of the survivors gone and many of their children successful, they don’t need the money to help them survive.

If the money is meant to serve a purely symbolic purpose, then I look forward to reading that each of the plaintiffs is receiving a one dollar bill (or one euro coin) from the SNCF in recognition of their past. But in the absence of such a proposal, there are many other ways to draw attention to the SNCF’s crimes that could have a greater impact.

If the group insists on some sort of significant monetary compensation, they should use their winnings to set up a foundation to help victims of current genocides or donate it to other non-profit organizations that advocate for increased Holocaust education. Another alternative is for the SNCF to publicly acknowledge their guilt, something it has already begun to do. In ‘The SNCF under the German Occupation,’ a self-commissioned study, it was revealed that during the war SNCF workers were, “quite willing to protest vigorously to the Germans about excessive demands in other areas, [they were] ready to pack thousands of Jews and others off to Eastern Europe in plainly inhuman conditions without any apparent qualms.” Reuters does not say how or if the report has been made public, but it is an important step forward.

Alain Lipietz, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, suggested that this trial serves a wider purpose by demonstrating that crimes such as those committed by the SNCF will never be forgotten until justice is served. But justice will not be served if its rewards help only a handful of people. Roughly 76,000 French Jews were persecuted and killed during the Holocaust with the help of the SNCF. No amount of money or admission of guilt can bring them back. So instead of making this trial about reparations for the past, it should be about working towards a future where such gestures will no longer be needed. Only then will it be worth it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fabulous, Feel-Good, and Fatwa-Free

When a Muslim and a Jew walk into a bar, it’s a joke. When a Muslim discovers he was born Jewish, it’s a movie. The Infidel, shown as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, is the story of Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili), a middle-aged Muslim man from London’s East End, who discovers after his mother’s death that he was adopted as a baby. Not only was he adopted, but his birth parents were Jews. Jews who named him Solomon (Solly) Shimshillewitz, or as his new friend Leonard Goldberg (Richard Schiff) suggests: Jewy-Jew-JewJewawtiz.

While Nasir is trying to cope with his new identity, he also must deal with the impending marriage of his son to the stepdaughter of one of Egypt’s most radical imams, Arshad El Masri (Yigal Naor). The movie takes off when Nasir discovers that his alleged birth father is dying in a nursing home, but can’t see him until Nasir learns what it means to be Jewish. (For the Rabbi is guarding the door, this means Nasir must know how to say the names of the five books of the Torah in Yiddish or recite the Shema). Desperate, he turns to his caustic neighbor Goldberg who instead, teaches him the truly important aspects of Judaism: how to say “oy” with the right inflection and knowing how to dance the Kazatsky (certainly a critical skill in my family!).

If you’re looking for a light-hearted send-up of Jewish and Muslim stereotypes, this may be the movie for you. The writer (David Baddiel) was not afraid to openly mock both sides with often pointed humor. And watching on-screen chemistry between Djalili and Schiff is definitely worth the price of admission. Beneath the laughs however, the film did try to address some larger issues–religious conflict, death of a parent, loss of identity–which is where it fell flat.

To take on these topics with a comedic touch, as Baddiel did, is admirable but he didn’t trust his writing skills to take his set-up to the next level. For example, towards the end of the movie we see Nasir sitting down with the Torah and the Koran on the table in front of him. Both books are leather-bound with ornate decorations on the covers. He opens each book to the first page and begins to read. Suddenly, he realizes how fundamentally similar these two books are, despite his pre-conceptions and he begins to reconcile his seemingly disparate identities. But instead of letting the message sink in both for the character and for the audience, the camera quickly shows him grabbing a cup that reads, “#1 Mutt.” Sure it’s funny. But it was defensive humor, almost as if Baddiel was afraid that one serious moment would detract from the overall humorous tone of the movie.

Similarly, in making this a film about a man torn between religious identity: Judaism vs. Islam, moderate vs. radical Islam, Baddiel primed us for a deeper conflict that never happened. Comedy gives us permission to explore even the most contentious of situations and has the confidence that audiences will follow. I wanted him to take advantage of this loop-hole and go deeper–to take on the simmering tensions that right now are only accessible through humor. Instead, he came up short–offering only watered-down hostility instead of full-blown craziness.

During the Q and A, Baddiel and Josh Appignanesi (the director) mentioned they had been a little nervous about the film’s reception by Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities. They were pleased to report however, that after its release no one was burning them in effigy or calling them anti-Semites. Which, considering the topic, is no easy feat. Despite its flaws, the success of the movie proves that Jews and Muslims can agree on at least one thing. Can a comedy about AIPAC and JStreet be far behind?