By Fred Habachi
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
I never knew John J. M. too well and I shall not be eager to know him better in the near future. This is because, writing about Professor Norman Finklestein, Miller associated himself with the following quotation:
“His anti-climactic press conference, which closed the book to his DePaul career, was pitifully comical. His remarks were frequently interrupted by loud construction noises on the near-by DePaul campus. After reading a prepared statement to approximately 70 or 80 people, most being non-DePaul students on a campus of almost 20,000, he wanted to thank "a few" of his supporters. He ended up thanking a good majority of the crowd listening to his farewell speech. Thanking supporters implied some reception of an honor or an award, when in reality Finkelstein had just received his pink slip.”
An important skill a teacher must have is the ability to navigate inside the head of his or her students so that he or she may see things from the students’ point of view and thus be able to address their concerns in a manner that resonates with each individual. And once in a while you get a piece of writing from a student that is so revealing, it says everything a teacher needs to know about this one student. The quotation above is a good example of this kind of writing, and I shall come back to it in a moment.
I am not Jewish but I was often taken for one because I have a stereotypical Middle Eastern Semitic physique, and one of my closest friends during all the time that I lived in Montreal was a prominent lawyer called Ralph Cohen. Ralph introduced me to many of the people he knew without bothering to tell them I was a Christian Arab.
My other good friend – I shall call him Saul – had a number tattooed on his arm from his days in the concentration camps of World War Two. At the time of the events I am here describing, he owned and operated a one-man cafeteria in the building where I worked. Saul knew who I was and he liked me if only because I made him look younger than he really was. In reality he was fifteen years older than me but the resemblance between us was so striking that when we stood side by side, people thought we were brothers; some even mistook us for twins.
The stories I can tell from those days would fill volumes but there is one story that is so telling, I must recount it here. One day I was standing among Ralph’s rich friends in the corridor of the building when Saul was seen, tray in hand, as he delivered coffee and sandwiches to people in their offices. I waved my arm to greet him at a distance but he did not respond even though he was looking in our direction.
A few moments later, one of those with whom I was standing asked me jokingly if Saul had been telling me stories of survival. The other men laughed derisively and thus began a discussion about survivors of the Holocaust. The main points that came out of this discussion were that even though these people were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and they lived in luxury ever since, they considered themselves survivors of one sort or another. When I pressed them to say exactly what it was that they survived, they told stories about business deals that went bad and personal relationships that went sour. And these poor souls expected me to shed tears for them.
When I later met Saul in the cafeteria as he was preparing to close up, he said he did not respond to my greeting earlier because he did not like the company I was keeping. I asked why and he said the people I stood with were grave diggers and bloodsuckers who tried to coach him on how to invent and tell stories about the Holocaust so that they may get him some money. But he knew of other instances when money was collected in the name of survivors yet only a small portion of that money actually went to the survivors. The rest was kept by the people who did the coaching and the collecting.
A few months later rumors surfaced to the effect that the International Monetary Fund may sell some of its gold reserves to help the Third World cope with their mountain of debt. The World Jewish Congress quickly jumped into the act and unleashed a worldwide campaign on behalf of the Holocaust victims to try and force Germany, Switzerland and other European countries to sell their gold reserves and give them the money.
Using some of the information and the insights supplied to me by Saul and by Ralph, I jumped into the act and wrote an article for an Arabic newspaper in which I asked that the money be given to the Palestinians who were suffering under Israeli occupation. Apparently this plea was heard in Switzerland and there came a suggestion that the government will consider distributing the money among all the people who suffer one form of indignity or another, and this would include the Palestinians. I have no information as to whether or not the Swiss actually carried out this pledge.
The article I wrote was about money but Saul had supplied me with information and insights that went beyond that. He told me how confident the Nazi guards were at the concentration camp in the beginning. He said the guards were so sadistic that when a prisoner went berserk, got hurt by accident or died, some of the guards expressed pleasure by smiling quietly. Others laughed so loudly, it sounded like bombs of joy were going off in their bellies. Torturing the prisoners must have been something they always wanted to do but they were constrained from doing it, and so they rejoiced when extraneous circumstances did it for them.
But then one day, the guards and the prisoners heard planes from the allied air force fly overhead. A few days later, they began to hear bombs explode in the distance. The guards lost their confidence but they never ceased to smile and laugh at the sight of a prisoner who was suffering or dying. But there was a difference between the first time and now, the laughter was becoming nervous and more muted. Now the allied bombs were exploding closer to the camp, said Saul, but not in the belly of the Nazis anymore. Instead, the Nazis had firecrackers go off in their bellies. You could see fear in their eyes for the first time and you felt that their intestinal fortitude was downgraded to the force of a firecracker.
Let me now get back to the quotation cited by John J. M. The two words: “pitifully comical” at the beginning of the quotation set the tone as to what this exercise represents. It is the nervous laughter of a writer whose self confidence is so low, he latches on to every extraneous circumstance he sees to help him contrive a point that would not stand on its own. He mentions the construction noises, the small number of people who gathered on the campus and of course, the pink slip. None of this says much about the man whose day the writer took the trouble to observe and to describe. In tackling the subject in this manner, the writer has revealed a sadistic pleasure at the fantasy he created in his own mind to the effect that circumstances have conspired to make life difficult for the man he hates as much.
And John J. M. thought the piece had the sort of merit he wants to be associated with. Someone needs help here. From the boy on the campus to the journalist that picked up the message to the publication that used it, they all need to take a look at themselves and see what they can do to clean up their act and to raise the level of the discourse in which they participate.
Here ends my responsibility as a concerned citizen of the World, and the ball now rests in someone else’s court.
-Fred Habachi is a Christian Arab and a Canadian citizen. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org