READ ONLY SITE: Site is in read-only mode since it is using the production database.

Isaac Babel: Anthropologist of the Human Soul and of Human Cruelty

Jan. 23 2018

Reviewing the recent translations of Isaac Babel’s work by Val Vinkour and Boris Drayluk, Gary Saul Morson explains the unique genius of the Soviet Jewish writer who was executed at Stalin’s orders in 1940 at the age of forty-five:

There could hardly have been a more grotesque pairing than a sensitive Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack regiment. For [the American critic Lionel] Trilling, this contrast constitutes the central theme of [Babel’s best-known cycle of stories], Red Cavalry, and it is certainly important. But something else is going on. The author approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator recording the odd customs of Cossacks, Jews, Poles, priests, ḥasidic rebbes, camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme violence. Observing his own reactions as if they were someone else’s, or placing himself in dangerous situations in order to monitor his own emotions, he treats himself as just another specimen of the human condition. In his story “My First Goose,” he wonders at his own taste for violence and its intimate link with sexuality. He has to know everything. . . .

The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war correspondent Vasily Lyutov, a pseudonym Babel himself had used while among the Cossacks—observes everyone anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as if they were a strange tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is quartered with a poor Jewish family consisting of a pregnant woman, a man with a covered head asleep against the wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews” who hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if he were disgusted by contact with Jews, Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out wardrobes, . . . scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.” . . .

Red Cavalry draws on a diary Babel kept in which he expresses horror at the violence committed by Reds, Poles, and partisans alike. Everyone kills Jews, and he asks himself, “Can it be that ours is the century in which they perish?” Like Lyutov, the war correspondent in the stories, Babel clings to a belief in revolution as more than senseless killing, but encounters everywhere “the ineradicable cruelty of human beings.” Several stories are narrations by Bolshevik soldiers who nonchalantly describe their hideous, needless brutality as a fight against “treason” and “counterrevolution.”

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at New York Review of Book

More about: Arts & Culture, Communism, Isaac Babel, Literature, Russia, Soviet Jewry

Germany’s Bid to Keep Israel off the UN Security Council

March 21 2018

The Jewish state has never held a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. For the first 50 years of its existence, it was denied membership in any of the UN’s regional groups, which control candidacies for these rotating seats. Then it was finally admitted to the Western European and Others Group, which promptly agreed to wait another twenty years before approving Jerusalem for a Security Council candidacy. Now, Benny Avni notes, Germany is poised to block action:

As a good-faith gesture, the Western European and Others Group promised Israel that it and Belgium would run uncontested for the two open 2019-20 [Security Council] seats. Then, in 2016, Germany announced it would also run—even though it already served as a council member [multiple times, including] as recently as 2011-12. . . . [U]nless Belgium yields, Israel’s hopes for UN respect seem doomed for now—and maybe for the foreseeable future.

Why? Diplomats have been telling me Israel violates too many Security Council resolutions to be a member—as in the one passed during the last weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, which marked Jewish holy sites as occupied Palestinian territory. But is building a porch in [the West Bank town of] Ma’ale Adumim really such a huge threat to world peace?

How about, then, a report released last week by UN experts on the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions? It found Germany violated a council ban on sparkling wines, exporting $151,840 worth of bubbly and other luxury goods to Kim Jong Un’s cronies. Or how about, as the Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal reports, German companies exporting to Iran banned materials that were later used in chemical attacks in Syria?

Never mind. Germany (and Belgium) will surely benefit from the UN’s habit of magnifying Israel’s violations beyond all proportion. Thus, Israel’s petition to join the most prestigious UN club will likely be rejected, thanks to a late entry by a shameless [and] cynical German power play against the Jewish state.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at New York Post

More about: Germany, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-German relations, United Nations