Sunday, April 06, 2014

"The Book Thief" distorts Yiddish

Last weekend I finally watched the movie "The Book Thief" and was deeply dismayed. Frankly, it was a weak film, and as for a comparison to the book, well, I've only just skimmed the novel, which seems to be -- as is usually the case -- considerably better.

I won't repeat the plot here, as there are so many synopses available online, and the film has many weaknesses, but it was one scene in particular that disturbed me. Max Vandenberg, the character who is sheltered by Liesel's protectors, 'mama' and 'papa', hands Liesel a gift of a book. It's his copy of "Mein Kampf" but each page of text has been carefully painted in white, so he is in fact offering Liesel a newly-minted (of sorts) blank notebook in which she's encouraged (by Max) to write down her own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It's a diary.

But Max, who has struck up a friendship with the young protagonist of the movie, has inscribed something on the first page of this diary, which bears the inscription in Hebrew letters "kis-vee" -- which translates as write." As blogger Margaret Perry writes:

"Max gives Liesel a diary for Christmas, in which he writes the Hebrew script for "write." He explains that words are the secret to life." 

So what's wrong with this picture? I contend that it's highly unlikely that Max, a German-Jew sheltered from Germany's post-Kristalnacht era onward, would have used a Hebrew word at all. It's far more likely that a young Jew in Germany during the 1930s and 40s would have used "shreib" the Yiddish word for "write."The word "shreib" is close to the German word for 'write'; virtually identical, in fact.

My problem with this is that it is a wholesale rewriting of history -- and one that uses this film as a political educational tool of sorts. It becomes less of a film and more of a vehicle of indoctrination.

The political state of Israel was established in 1948 -- three years after the end of World War II -- and although Hebrew was used by Jews who established themselves in Palestine in the period between the 1880s and the 1920s, it is a rewrite of history to imagine that all but a few ardent Zionists, likely already in Palestine by this time, would have used a Hebrew word in everyday usage. There would have been some Zionists 'stuck' in Germany, perhaps, but Max's inscription belies belief. In short, Max would have used the Yiddish, not the Hebrew, form.

I can't confirm this, but I suspect that somebody lobbied the filmmakers of "The Book Thief" and pressed the point that this scene -- which is not featured in the book -- (1) must be included; and/or (2) must feature the historically inaccurate usage of a modern Hebrew, not Yiddish, inscription.

As authors like Dovid Katz, and Shlomo Sand tell us, it wasn't Nazis who killed off the Yiddish language; it was murdered by pro-Zionist Jews who wanted to establish a connection to the land of Palestine, in order to make a case for the establishment of a Jewish state. This would have been considered blasphemous, as Yakov Rabkin, has recounted numerous times (although most thoroughly in his book "A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism").

In the book Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi writes: "The Hebrew language has played a crucial role in creating an Israeli identity. The first generation of natives, in the 1880s, was educated in Hebrew as a matter of course. The new identity of Zionists Jews in Palestine was first proclaimed around 1900, and it was labelled Hebrew. … The terms ‘Hebrew’, which appears in the Bible, was never used by Diaspora Jews for labeling themselves. It designed the separate identity for Palestine Jews and appeared in thousands of names and expressions. When Jews in Palestine demonstrated against the British, the cry was always for a ‘Hebrew state’ (Beit-Hallahmi, 1992: 126)."

I contend that the Yiddish language did not – as is widely believed – simply perish in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, but was in fact systematically and deliberately eliminated via the use of state regulatory procedures, intimidation and acts of gang violence against publishers, printers, journalists, writers, academics and theatre operators, among others. I contend that the proponents of 19th century Zionism and their present-day successors were and remain ideologically wedded to the path to establishing and maintaining a national-Jewish state that bears less resemblance to historical Judaism than one would assume. 

The modern Zionist State – Israel – was established at the expense of those peoples who occupied the territory of British Mandate Palestine, as well as key cultural and political elements of Judaism, including the Yiddish language.

According to both Rabkin (2006) and Beit Hallahemi (1992), this post-Holocaust nationalist fervor was aimed at the creation of a vastly different Jew; one which could not be rejected by ‘other’ nations, and one in which the Jew would no longer be viewed as meekly accepting their fate.[1] In their attempt to remake the supposedly-meek Jew, Zionist ideology (as characterized by Jabotinsky, below) was aimed at remaking a stronger, more manual-labour-capable, less-bookish, more nationalistic and more militaristic Jew; a Jew who was capable of fending off enemies with force, for the purpose of retaining a piece of territory.

In other words, a Jew who would be aggressive, militaristic, ruthless -- and more like the German troops who fought for the National Socialists than we might imagine. Looking at the Israeli Defense Force of today, it's not hard to imagine Jabotinsky's vision at all. 

[1] For ample evidence to demonstrate that Jews were over-characterized as meek, see Beit-Hallahemi (1992); Atzman (2011); Finkelstein (2005); or Rabkin (2006). This myth was aimed at fostering support for the State of Israel. 

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Greetings and welcome to my first entry. Although I established this blog in 2004, I'm only just posting an initial entry.

Below is a very short (relevant) snippet of an article I wrote earlier this year (2006). I'm currently editing it. The references to tables which aren't in the blog may frustrate some, but time doesn't permit me to insert these at the moment. N.B.: This was a section of my doctoral dissertation, completed and defended in 2005.

General Motors Oshawa: A Condensed History

Oshawa is located 35 miles east of Toronto and at the edge of Lake Ontario, almost directly across Rochester, New York. The city of Oshawa is firmly nestled in the bosom of the industrial heartland of Southern Ontario, a corridor that stretches between Windsor, Ontario and Quebec City and is joined by the Trans-Canada highway.

Southern Ontario maintains an intimate connection to the U.S. automotive manufacturing and assembly industry and the province of Ontario recently surpassed Michigan as the most prolific producer of automobiles in North America.

In short, this region’s economy is dependent on the income that a rich, primary industry delivers. Oshawa hosts GMC’s Canadian headquarters and the largest complex of manufacturing plants in Canada. General Motors’ plants visually dominate the lakeshore vista of Oshawa, crowding the skyline with hundreds of ‘stacks’ — exhaust chimneys which release plant emissions into the local atmosphere.

There is no mistaking that Oshawa is virtually a single industry city, with all the associated characteristics and flaws one might expect, including above-average pollution levels and widespread trepidation due to the domination of employment by a single industry.

General Motors is Canada’s largest exporter and produced almost 950,000 vehicles in 2003, of which 864,000 were exported, primarily to the U.S. market. In the past decade GMC’s parent corporation has invested C$6.7 billion in its Canadian operations, about $1.2 billion of which has been invested in Oshawa’s facilities since 1997. GM’s 2005 announcement that a global layoff of 30,000 workers will immediately shut down a third shift and one car plant in 2008. According to Frise, “On a per capita basis, Canada has about three times as much vehicle assembly capacity as the United States (Frise, 1999: 27).” It is worth noting that Oshawa’s automotive facilities ship over ninety-five percent of their manufactured goods to consumers living south of the Canada-U.S. border.

False Consciousness?

Oshawa autoworkers’ relatively high wages have consistently been at the root of false consciousness arguments. A measure of the wage differential between various sectors in Canada’s labour market (see Table 2) reveals a major gap between the manufacturing and service sectors.

This disparity is even greater when one substitutes the average wage of a General Motors assembler (see Table 3) for the average manufacturing wage. Juxtaposed against the average accommodation or food services worker there lies an average annual wage gap of $56,863. This gap alone represents almost one and a half times the average Ontario wage. (TABLE 3 ABOUT HERE).

In 1998 the top twenty percent of Canadian families had an average annual income of $68,518 (Statistics Canada, 2000) which places the majority of GMC Oshawa autoworker families among the top quintile of Canadian income earners. From this standpoint it is not terribly difficult to see the source of the claim that GMC autoworkers are no longer part of the working-class.

During the postwar era, industrial unionized workers’ comparative economic gains have been cited as chief among the reasons for the demise of forms of social transformation and social justice. The heart of this argument claims that the wage worker’s enthusiasm for social change evaporates inversely with an attendant increase in the size of their pay-packet, creating a relationship between group consciousness and material surplus. If Marx’s assessment of proletarian consciousness was correct there should be some evidence of the potential for ‘class action’ — a conscious, class-based social group activity that is counter-hegemonic in character (Mann, 1973: 45-54) — among industrial workers. According to Mann (1973) working-class consciousness comprises identity (common cause with others in the working-class), opposition (to the interests of the capitalists), totality (acceptance of the societal causes of class as all-encompassing) and a goal of an alternative society which one struggles toward. It is in this context that the main purpose of this study lies in an attempt to determine and document specific dimensions and degrees of oppositional working-class consciousness.

In 2000-2001, I surveyed unionized General Motors of Canada (GMC) autoworkers located in Oshawa Ontario, Canada, in an attempt to determine whether these workers have seen their oppositional class consciousness subverted and transformed into particular forms of social integration as alleged by some observers (see for example Hout, Brooks and Manza, 2001). I used measures of (1) autoworkers’ class imagery, (2) their working-class self-identity and (3) their working-class consciousness, with a focus on oppositional class consciousness. I assert that Oshawa autoworkers’ material advantage is insufficient to transform their proletarian consciousness. Of course class consciousness is a dynamic process and I make no claim that the measures used here prove the existence of a ‘fixed’ and static proletarian consciousness. As Wright put it, “class consciousness is notoriously hard to measure (1997: 407).” But if working-class consciousness exists then a variety of discrete expressions of class consciousness should be detectable in some fashion and therefore measurable.

Due to space constraints I focus primarily on the current dimensions of oppositional working class consciousness found among surveyed GMC autoworkers. Comparative references will be made to a corresponding survey of Hamilton steelworkers and their families conducted in the 1990s (Livingstone and Mangan, 1996), as well as measures of class consciousness provided by the biannual OISE/UT Survey of Educational Attitudes in Ontario, conducted by Livingstone, Hart and Davie (1979-2000). I test the question identified by Livingstone and Mangan (1996), namely whether

... there are significant associations between employed men’s current locations in the economic class structure of advanced capitalism and their expressions of class consciousness (1996: 50).

The respondents in this study are members of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) Local 222, the largest local affiliate in one of the most highly-organized trade unions in Canada (Gindin, 1995; Yates, 1998). The group under study here is composed of both unskilled and semi-skilled automobile assemblers and skilled trades workers, all of whom are employed at Oshawa’s General Motors (GMC) automotive plants.

Data were gathered primarily through the use of responses to a series of questionnaire probes (N=102), my own participant observation as a General Motors (GMC) assembler from 1984-1991, a number of semi-structured interviews (N=5) conducted for this study which explore autoworkers’ class consciousness and excerpts from seventeen interviews originally conducted for the Working-Class Learning Strategies (WCLS) study (see Livingstone and Sawchuk, 2004) that help to further illustrate autoworkers’ jobs, security and life on the General Motors assembly line. These methods were used to gauge the current levels of social class imagery, working class social identity and oppositional working-class consciousness among highly-organized, industrial workers in a mature industry.

My own experience of working as a manual worker on General Motors’ assembly lines for seven years (1984-1991) has furnished me with an additional measure: firsthand intimate knowledge of the assembly processes at General Motors (GMC), working-class mores and expressions of worker consciousness, discontent and solidarity.

Oshawa Autoworkers

As a result of their wage, one-half of General Motors of Canada’s unionized workforce is more affluent than the bottom four-fifths of Canadian income earners (Statistics Canada, 2000). At an average household income of $71,815 Oshawa residents enjoy higher income than the provincial or national averages. This study asked respondents to supply their total (gross) annual family income as reported in Table 1. (TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE).
Most respondents (68%) claimed their household income was in the range of $60-100,000 a year. Over 25% claimed household incomes of over $100,000 per annum. Due to their comparatively favourable economic position, this highly-organized, considerably advanced sector has ostensibly been characterized as a blue-collar elite whose manners, behaviours, political and social views — in fact, the core of their very consciousness — has been transformed by the girth of their wallet.

The widespread belief that changing material conditions directly creates ‘false consciousness’ was expressed by former Federal Member of Parliament for Oshawa, Mike Breaugh, who described Oshawa’s GMC workers as follows:

If they are an hourly-rated worker..they’re going to be making good money by anybody’s standards, sixty five to seventy five thousand, in that range. If they are a skilled tradesman [sic], then they will be much in demand and they will probably be into six figures. These are people who have at least two cars – brand new – probably got a boat, probably got a camper, probably got a cottage. These people are concerned about how they accumulate wealth, how they hold onto it; taxation is a big problem.

Here Breaugh claimed that the withdrawal of Oshawa autoworkers’ electoral support for democratic socialism was due to the ideological shift directly generated by their relative affluence. Breaugh’s statement is not too distant from the testimony of a 19th century Staffordshire manufacturer on the disposition of his workforce: “you cannot get them to talk of politics so long as they are well employed (Heilbroner, 1967: 155).”

In the Canadian context, GMC Oshawa’s auto assemblers and skilled trades workers are among the best compensated and most densely unionized industrial workers in the country (Lewchuk, 1996; Yates, 2000) and in many ways Oshawa remains an oasis of relative prosperity in a desert of rusted industrial carcasses. Using Oshawa autoworkers’ comparative affluence as a starting point, a key question of this study is whether these well-heeled auto workers are moving closer to those who have social, material and ideological domination. While stratification theorists typically refer to the imbalance of distributed resources between the lower ranks of society and those in the upper stratum, this study examines a small proletarian elite whose cause has historically been facilitated by favourable historical and economic conditions.

I'll link this to the 'false consciousness reigns supreme among the labour aristocracy' argument in a future post, or simply visit my website for more. For those who are curious, I did not find causal associations between autoworkers' wages and 'false consciousness'.

I'd be interested in hearing from any industrial worker who has thoughts about working-class consciousness and relative affluence. Please email me with your experiences and opinions.

My future research plans include an expansion of my survey into mining and auto parts production (where youth, women and visible minorities work).