the hunchbacks of the new york times

In the final days of the Great War, while the future architect of die Endlösung der Judenfrage was recovering in hospital from a gas attack at Ypres, Konrad Bercovici, a Jewish Rumanian anarchist scrivener, met a fellow tribesman, a financier and patron of the arts, in a swanky New York City hotel:

One day I was approached by a man who told me that Otto H. Kahn, the banker, wanted to see me. I met him at the Brevoort for lunch and promptly disliked him, his manner of eating, his arrogance, and his patronizing attitude.
    “Why are you so bitter against the Germans,” he asked, “any personal reasons?”
    “Why are you so pro-German?” I asked.
    “Don’t ask such personal questions,” he replied.
    “I am not more personal than you are,” I answered.
    “I have a right to ask personal questions,” he said bluntly; “I am figuring on employing you.”
    “You are… well, well!”
    “I have written a book to explain that I have changed my attitude in regard to Germany,” he informed me.
    “Have you?”
    “Of course. The book is written.”
    “But have you sincerely changed your attitude?”
    He looked at me.
    “I don’t like your question, young man.”
    “You haven’t answered my question, Mr. Kahn.”
    He turned in his chair and called, “Garçon, garçon, the check.” Then he said to me, “I have written a book to be called Above Race, and I wanted you to look it over and make suggestions.
    “George Sylvester Viereck is the man for such a job,” I advised. “He is probably somewhat expensive, but you can afford him, I am sure.”

—Konrad Bercovici, It’s the Gypsy in Me: The Autobiography of Konrad Bercovici‎, Prentice Hall, 1941, pp. 118-119

A long-time associate of Kahn and his would-be biographer, George Sylvester Viereck, reputed grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm I, renowned early on as a Uranian love poet and distinguished in his ripeness by the invention of gay vampirism, was destined to be convicted and imprisoned as a Nazi apologist a year after the publication of this memoir. Konrad Bercovici continued:

Some days later, I heard of an amusing encounter between Otto Kahn and Steinmetz, the electrical wizard. While Steinmetz was visiting Otto Kahn’s estate, his host showed him a chapel which he had built on the estate.
    “Don’t you find it remarkable?” Kahn asked. “It’s an Episcopalian chapel.”
    “No,” the hunchbacked wizard said, “I don’t see anything remarkable about it.”
    “I was a Jew once,” Kahn said.
    “I was a hunchback once,” Steinmetz replied and walked on.

Loc. cit.

The snap of the hunchback rapidly ascended to the standing of folklore. An alternate version recounted by Theodor Reik (Jewish Wit, Gamut Press, 1962, p. 90) and Groucho Marx (“An Evening with Groucho Marx”, Carnegie Hall, 21 May 1972), shifted the rejoinder away from the legendary forger of thunderbolts, crediting it instead to the yet more diminutive light of Marshall P. Wilder, a hunchbacked dwarf monologist notorious for stealing jokes from his colleagues. For his part, Kahn vainly strove to correct misunderstandings with regard to his conversion, explaining: “My parents were not practicing Jews and did not bring me up to be a practicing Jew. But I never left Judaism and have no idea of doing so.” More succinctly, on 7 December 1927, he declared to Jewish Chronicle: “I was born, and shall remain a Jew.” (Theresa M. Collins, Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Time, The University of North Carolina Press, 2001, pp. 261-262.) In regards of his posterity, he was destined to remain an assimilationist turncoat.

Another rumor-monger, Isaiah Berlin (Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, Owl Books, 1999, p. 185), put Kahn to a good use without once mentioning his name:

Persons, like things as a rule, are what those who deal with them take them to be, and not necessarily what they think themselves to be. A table is what most people would treat as being a table; we do not know what the table would say if it could speak; if it told us that in its own view it was not a table, we should not, in spite of this, cease to think it to be a table. This holds no less of persons. After telling themselves for half a century that they were perfectly normal Germans in Germany, Frenchmen in France, Peruvians in Peru, the Jews of the Western world, in the end, could not altogether ignore the view that they were not altogether as others were, a view only too obviously held with remorseless persistency by some of their neighbours during, at any rate, some of the time. The view was sometimes described as anti-Semitism, sometimes as ignorance, sometimes as an illusion spread by wilful obscurantists or chauvinists among the Jews themselves. But the problem which could be treated by the optimists of the nineteenth century as unreal, or in process of liquidation, became recognised as something genuine in the most assimilationist Jewish circles of our time, and led to various equally peculiar psychological consequences. If we may be allowed to employ yet another analogy, the situation grew to be somewhat as follows. Jews in such circles acted like a species of deformed human beings, let us say hunchbacks, and could be distinguished into three types according to the attitudes they adopted towards their humps. The first class consisted of those who maintained that they had no hump. If challenged, they were prepared to produce a document signed and countersigned by all the nations, in particular by their most enlightened leaders, solemnly declaring that the bearers were normal, full-grown persons, with no marks to distinguish them from other healthy human beings, and that to think otherwise was an offence against international morality. If, nevertheless, someone persisted in staring at their backs, the hunchbacks maintained that this was due either to an optical illusion, or to a violent form of prejudice dating from a period when they were thought, however mistakenly, to have humps, or perhaps to a remote time when there were in fact hunchbacks in the world, although these were now extinct. At times they were sure that they observed furtive glances thrown at that portion of their backs where they maintained no hump was discernible, even when, in fact, no one was looking at them. When they did not actually produce international certificates of humplessness, they quoted enlightened nineteenth-century liberal intellectuals, or learned anthropologists, or socialist theorists and the like, who explained that the very notion of hunchbacks was due to a confusion—since no such beings existed, or if they did had disappeared a long time ago—or was, even if the creatures existed, not relevant to any possible enquiry. [Footnote: This was the attitude of those who, like the well-meaning (Gentile) social democrat Karl Kautsky, wrote books to prove that, in terms of current criteria of what constituted a race or nation, the Jews could not be described as constituting one; or like the rabbis who declared Judaism to be only a religion; or only a system of ethics, or an outlook, or a memory. If any of these propositions had been true, they would have been too obvious to need proof. It is not necessary to prove that the Methodists are not a race or a nation, that utilitarianism is only an ethical system, that united Christendom is only a memory, or that the Jews are oddly unlike any and all of these.]
    The second attitude was the opposite to this. The hunchback did not conceal the fact that he wore a hump, and declared openly that he was happy to do so, that to own a hump was a privilege and an honour, that it set him apart as a member of a superior group, and that those who persecuted and threw stones at him did so out of concealed envy—a conscious or subconscious jealousy of so rare a possession, and one which could not be acquired at will. These persons said in effect, ‘I am not ashamed of being a hunchback; very far from it; certainly I am a hunchback, and proud of it.’
    The third type consisted of those timid and respectful cripples who found that, by never mentioning humps at all, and by inducing others to regard the very use of the term as virtually implying an unworthy discrimination, or, at the very best, lack of taste, they could reduce discussion of the topic to manageable and ever-diminishing dimensions, and move among the straight-backed with almost no sense of embarrassment, at any rate to themselves. They tended to wear voluminous cloaks which concealed their precise contours. Among themselves they did occasionally mention the forbidden topic, and even recommended one another various kinds of ointment, which, it was rumoured, if rubbed in nightly, for many hundreds of years, would very gradually lessen the size of the hump or—who knows?—might even remove it altogether. Cases of complete disappearance were not altogether unknown, particularly in remote places or the very distant past. There was hope for everyone, provided as little as possible was said, and the ointment used regularly and assiduously.
    These were for a long time the three principal categories of ‘assimilated’ Jews, enjoying varying degrees of discomfort about the abnormality of their status. Each category regarded the members of the other two with some disfavour as pursuing an absurdly mistaken policy and therefore liable to compromise the wise together with the foolish. But presently there came those who said that a hump was a hump, an appendage which was neither desirable nor capable of being disguised, nor yet of being slowly diminished by application of mild palliatives, and, in the meanwhile, a cause of grave distress to those afflicted with it. They recommended—and this was considered audacious to the point of lunacy—that it be cut off by means of a surgical operation. This, like all operations, admittedly involved a grave risk to the life of the patient; it might lead to disorders in other parts of the body; it might have unexpected psychical results; but if successful it would remove the hump. Perhaps a hump was not the worst of evils; and the operation was certainly both costly and dangerous. But if what was desired above all things was the removal of humps on a mass scale—if, in short, anything was preferable to a hump—then there was nothing for it: only an operation of this kind would secure adequate results. This, in fact, is what the Zionist solution—in its full political form—advocated. Its triumph consists in the fact—and I believe it to be a fact—that the Jews of Israel, certainly those born there in recent times, are, whatever their other qualities and defects, straight-backed. Whatever the present and future effects of this operation upon Jews or Gentiles, the three earlier attitudes have become historically discredited by the emergence of the State of Israel. This astonishing event has transformed the situation of the Jews beyond recognition, and made all previous theories and activities which flowed from it obsolete: not without leading in its own turn to new problems, new solutions and sharp new controversies.

—Isaiah Berlin, “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation”, Jewish Chronicle, 21 and 28 September, 5 and 12 October 1951;
reprinted with alterations in Norman Bentwich (ed.), Hebrew University Garland, London: Constellation Books, 1952;
reprinted in the original form in Isaiah Berlin, The Power of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy, Princeton University Press, 2001, pp. 162-185, at pp. 174-176

In our day, another member of the kohanim, Roger Cohen, International Writer-at-Large of our national newspaper of record “has never previously felt so despondent about Israel, so shamed by its actions, so despairing of any peace that might terminate the dominion of the dead in favor of opportunity for the living.” He hedges his shame by kvetching:

But what of the intolerable Hamas rockets on Sderot, the 14 Israelis killed by those rockets since 2005 (four of them in the current violence), the vile annihilationist language of the Hamas Charter? Yes, there has to be a response to Hamas, but this is the wrong one.

Elsewhere Mr Cohen intimates his credentials for feeling despondent about Israel and shamed by its actions, or second-guessing its responses to annihilationist anti-Semites and prescribing the right way to deal with their actions and agenda. He “[has] nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; [he’s] looked in the mirror.” In other words, he has both a congenital stake in the fortunes of the Jewish state, and a congenital liability to annihilationist anti-Semitism. Indeed, his last name betokens a priestly allure that entitles its bearers to pontificate about the fates of their tribe. These rare privileges merit gainful exploitation. As a class-II hunchback, Roger Cohen employs his deformity as a warrant for political punditry.

In the land of the straight-backed, the virtual Russian Jerusalemite persona of [info]l-u recites 10 reasons why he roots for Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In my translation, they run as follows:

  1. In the struggle between drinkers and teetotalers I side with the drinkers.
  2. I prefer regimes in which a leader can be imprisoned to those in which a leader can only be killed.
  3. I have much more in common with men who pray standing up, than with men who pray doggie style.
  4. I prefer women in uniform to women in black bags.
  5. I do not want people who awaken every night to the shrieks of a muezzin to defeat people capable of setting an alarm clock.
  6. I have much more in common with men who, upon learning about the adventures of their daughters, grab their hearts, not their knives.
  7. I think that it is more appropriate to pay a lot of money to separate from your wife, than to buy your wives.
  8. I have more understanding for people who bury their murdered children at once, than for those who thrust their corpses at TV cameras.
  9. I have more respect for a society that ransoms their captives with hundreds of their enemies, than one, whose prisoners are valued at less than one thousandth of a captured enemy.
  10. I want to live in a world where no one kills women and children. And if that should happen, I would rater see military prosecutors hand out indictments, than a jubilant crowd hand out candy.

The only reason I would add is wanting to have nothing in common with brokeback burblings of Mr Cohen.

23 thoughts on “the hunchbacks of the new york times”

  1. I want to live in a world where no one kills women and children. And if that should happen, I would rater see military prosecutors hand out indictments, than a jubilant crowd hand out candy.

    Right on. Now let’s wait for indictments of IDF officers who ordered the strike on school and released year-old footage in effort to prove that school was used as staging area by militants. And let’s express disgust at jubilant Livejournal flashmob, cheering on attacks on civilians.

            1. If you arm to serve good causes by spilling your guts, at least do it in drag:

              “Израильская,—говорю,—военщина
              Известна всему свету!
              Как мать,—говорю,—и как женщина
              Требую их к ответу!

              Который год я вдовая,
              Все счастье—мимо,
              Но я стоять готовая
              За дело мира!
              Как мать вам заявляю и как женщина!…”

              An additional merit of this approach is in its keeping with the roots of your anger.

              1. It’s a cultural thing – in physics departments it is not viewed as cool to be diplomatic.

                The roots of my anger are elsewhere. I take very dim view of anyone I notice trying to deceive me.

                  1. In that particular case, the lie was exposed by UN. Anyway, the question is not whether Israel is nicer than Hamas or whether women in uniform are preferable than the ones in black sacks. Rather, it is whether Israel is going to stay a good place to live if it keeps treating Palestinians like dogs.

                    1. Believing in the United Nations’ capacity to expose anything is akin to the revenue model of leaving your teeth under the pillow before going to sleep. As for the nature of “the question”, every man is entitled to pose his own. The question that concerns me is the just policy of the Jewish state towards a nation constitutionally dedicated to its eradication and extermination of Jews worldwide. For my part, the words that come to mind are “Carthago delenda est.”

                    2. In Carthage, ending opposition to the empire consisted of putting all men to sword, selling all women and children into slavery and salting the fields. That’s one possible solution.

                      Since Hamas has for years been calling for peaceful two-state settlement, taking them at their word may be another possible solution.

                    3. “They have legitimised the murder of their own children by killing the children of Palestine,” Mahmoud Zahar said in a televised broadcast recorded at a secret location. “They have legitimised the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people.”

                      Questionable logic, but very far from what you allege it is. Hamas for the last six months abode by the ceasefire, whereas Israel did not. Hamas leader takes the biblical principle of retributive justice to the extreme. However, the claim that the Palestinian state controlled by Hamas will be dedicated to the eradication of Israel looks like propaganda to me.

                    4. Politics is the art of the possible. Realizing the worst of political agenda is far from impossible. Political responsibility stems from forestalling this realization.

                    5. Irregulars shooting rockets made from roadsigns’ pipes exterminating the world’s second-most technologically advanced and nuclear-armed military. Yeah, it takes some deduction to figure out that you actually mean this.

                    6. Terrorism rests on opportunity. Privately owned nuclear weapons are said to proliferate in Russia. Russian leaders are reaching out to Hamas. Connecting the dots is left as an exercise for the reader.

                    7. Bears walking the streets in broad daylight are also said to proliferate in Russia.

                      Russian leaders reaching out to Hamas any more than EU does ? Must have missed that story.

                    8. No shit.

                      Let’s for the sake of argument forget the difference between the economic conditions in Russia in 1991 and in 2009.

                      Let’s also forget the fact that for all the talk of Russian loose nukes the only loose nuclear technology emerged since 1991 was from the US client Pakistan.

                      We are left with scenario of bearded Hamas engineers strapping a loose nuke to a roadsign and that’s the existential threat that justifies bombing of the Gaza strip. Bravo, Michael, that was a veritable tour de force of reasoning. I am so overawed that barely can master a courage to ask just how anything short of carpet nuclear bombardment of Gaza strip can suffice ?

                    9. In hindsight, planning die Endlösung der Judenfrage is Nur-immer-schon-bei biting off more than one can chew. Nevertheless, I have no qualms about knocking the teeth out of any head nibbling away in support of such intent.

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