Over-reacting and under-reacting: The Portman vs. the Konstanz Case

Two events, two kinds of reactions. What insults us and what does not? What keeps our attention and what fails to get it?

Dr. Inna Rogatchi

OpEds Hitler, Anne Frank as Halloween costumes
Hitler, Anne Frank as Halloween costumes

It is all about us. How do we react to events, and what makes our indignation flare out? What qualifies an incident of any kind as a public scandal - for us, both individually and collectively?

The Portman Case

In my view, what could be called the Portman Case has underlined our own perception, our own criteria, those with which we measure life much more than it has shown any valuable content in itself. It also, inevitably, gave rise to questions about the criteria for the prize dubbed as the ‘Jewish Nobel’.

In the Portman Case, a  grossly overrated actress behaved coldly and calculatedly, as if she were a small trade-union boss in Ireland a century ago, in order to make a stir, to serve the political objectives and aspirations of a public figure. And the entire country loses sleep over it.  And the Diaspora is still agitated days afterwards.

The Portman case did not reveal anything new about the person who was chosen to be awarded the prize. Her policies are well-known, as is her behaviour. There was an obvious misjudgement in the selecting process for the Genesis Prize 2018, and the bottom line is that this mistake is all that matters.

The Genesis Prize has a structure which is difficult to operate, by definition. When private money meets with governmental structures, one has to navigate so much that the risk of losing direction is high. It is a well-known side-effect of such alliances in an applied philanthropy.

But there is a golden, even unbending rule, in philanthropy: You are not to politicize it. Once that is done, the sense of philanthropy is gone and the cause is lost. I feel qualified to say this after more than 30 years of experience in international charitable activities, many of them connected with culture.  

In the case of the Genesis Prize, one has the impression that it has been politicized to the point of obvious appeasement. But why? And what for?

Among the five winners of the Genesis Prize , so far, from 2014 onward, only Maestro Itzhak Perlman was an impeccable choice. I am at loss to find among the winners the people who were and are the best among the Jewish Nation, devoted, talented and humble - such as the late Leonard Cohen (who was among us for two or even three first Genesis Prizes).

Has the list of the Jewish Nobel laureates of our times been shortened or suddenly disappeared? Many of those people are not only brilliant scientists leading mankind to new heights, but are great educators whose influence is global. What about the unparalleled, best in the world, great Jewish doctors, or their medical teams ?

What about great Jewish musicians and composers for whom the Award for Excellence could easily be awarded? Look at Maestro Evgeny Kissin. Supremely talented, unboundedly devoted, always with his people, despite all the comforts of his deservingly star-status life, he asked for Israeli citizenship, and he regards it as a reward in itself. Globe-trotting, one of the very best pianists on the planet, Kissin has decided that while he is travelling, he would like to do it as a citizen of Israel, and will represent his country anywhere he goes with his smashing, unbelievable concerts, each of them the product of the hardest labor possible. 

There is Philip Glass, great composer; there is Gideon Kremer who did enormous things for modern music, and for the state of mind of people world-wide, the same as Glass did and does.There is Mark Knopfler, as well as Simon and Garfunkel - whose contributions to Jewish and cultural legacy in general are indisputable and everlasting.

There is an American living for over forty years in Israel, Yoram Raanan, talented, devoted, humble, loving son of our people, a true artist. Yoram Raanan loves his people, our history, he understands it and brings it out to the world. Anish Kapoor, another strange winner of the Genesis, loves himself, and his art is cold, imposing, and has nothing to do whatsoever with Jewish values. Commercial success has never been the indication of artistic quality - every student of art history is aware of that. If van Gogh just happened to be Jewish and alive today, he would have no chance to qualify for the Genesis nomination, he was far less famous during his life-time than Mr Kapoor during his.

There are Jewish historians of a global importance - such as 85-year old Saul Friedlander who contributed to the understanding of history on a world-scale, a legacy which will last for ever.  There are Jewish philosophers  - and yes, imagine, Rabbis - who are giants of spirit for generations, world-wide. Rabbi Lord Sacks is a great example of a multi-talented, wise, deep Jewish person who changed lives of millions.

And if we must have Hollywood, there is Maayan Bialik, with her unwavering support of the state and others who are the same. Great director Peter Bogdanovich is there.  Mighty Rade Mihaileinu, too. Steven Spielberg who quite possibly was born to make Schindler’s List has also contributed to the world’s perception of the Jewish legacy a thousand times more than an absolutely mediocre actress with a giant ego known primarily for her arrogance and hostilities.

Ms Portman was good in just one role, in Goya’s Ghosts - entirely due to the mastery of the great Milos Forman who directed the film. Apart from that, all her works are standard Hollywood productions, including Black Swan. The glamour and glitz does not automatically mean substance. In this very case, it certainly does not. A good agent does not make a good actor.  

Ms Portman tried hard to send a poisonous message to the Jewish world: One cannot be, is not supposed to be, a good Jew and love Israel wholeheartedly. One has to be a hater, be arrogant and ignorant, in order to be worthy of ‘the Jewish Nobel’ with a two million dollar price tag on it.

There are so many worthy candidates for the Prize which embodies - going through the Genesis Prize's own statement -  “excellence”, “international renown”, ‘inspiring others’. 

If you read on, their criteria say: “The Genesis Prize honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and/or the State of Israel.”

I honestly cannot get it: why should "and/or regarding dedication to the State of Israel" be the main principle in selecting the candidates for ‘the Jewish Nobel”? Such an attitude is exactly what paved the way for the international PR disaster over selecting such a personality as Portman as the winner for 2018. How on earth it is possible that the organization on whose board top Israeli government officials and public figures are present, allows itself to declare a policy which keeps dedication to the State of Israel optional for the prize dubbed the ‘Jewish Nobel’? Why bother to have it in the first place, under such conditions?

With the exception of Maestro Perlman, the Genesis Prize, so far,  has been a glitzy thing; more a conduit to vanity and a ‘safe’ solution in terms of political correctness than a stimulus to develop and carry on the blossoming legacy of our talented nation - as, I am sure, the initial intention of the Genesis founders and supporters was. Something went wrong at some stage, and it would be healthy to have a closer look into that.

Why is everybody so stirred up by such predictable behavior? It tells nothing new about Ms Portman, it does tell about us.

In 2015 when Ms Portman, in her ever arrogant mode, decided to teach the entire Jewish people that we ‘have to stop talking about the Holocaust’, I made a public comment on it in Jerusalem, during the special commemorative series of my The Lessons of Survival film on Simon Wiesenthal.  In a Q&A session with me, my comment was very short. I said that ‘despite Ms Portman having graduated from Harvard and often bragging about it, it seems to be a clear, if not clinical, case of ignorance. Perhaps she has to study the subject before coming out with her comments, made in the irritating categorical tone of a diva. One does not play on the Holocaust. It is tasteless, at the very least. One does not preach about when it is long ‘enough’ for people in Israel to remember it.”. The entire hall of the Jerusalem Cinemateque was united in applause. 

The  Konstanz Case

Another event unfolded at the very same time as the Genesis Prize PR flop, an event incredible in its perversion and its blatant trampling of Jewish feelings. On this event, we had only one small and matter-of-fact JTA story which was dutifully re-printed by all Jewish media, without any further reaction and no action.

In Germany, in the Theatre of Konstanz, a university city on the border with Switzerland, he Konstanz Theatre held the first evening of its running of the compilation of George Tabori’s plays. Conveniently, as the producers saw it, the first night was set for April 20th, the Fuhrer’s birthday.

It does not matter that the play was performed with overwhelming violence so that the first people started to leave the hall of the over-packed theatre after the first 30 seconds, according to  the German media, and soon were storming out of the hall non-stop. It does not matter that Tabori’s plays had been transformed beyond recognition, adding Trump and Theresa May to Hitler. This low-brow approach is in fashion currently. Who cares.

What mattered is that on the eve of the first night, the theatre made an announcement and an appeal to the audience. They announced that during the performance, the audience would be divided into two groups: Jews and Nazis. The audience, not the actors. The Nazi group would be given Nazi arm-bands and “the Jews” among the audience would be given yellow Stars of David to pin on their clothes. And those in the audience willing to be “the Nazis”, would be provided with free seats.

There is an ongoing and accelerating industry of hijacking the Holocaust and perverting it, as we all know. But this invention takes the prize. To think this way, to be able to invent this approach - which has been called ‘a marketing idea’ - one has to be a real Nazi.

Konstanz is a substantial city, with a significant population, a big university - these are educated people. There is a well-experienced team working at the theatre. Well, we know that Eichmann loved to play on his violin, and loved to be called ‘maestro’ by his colleagues and friends. don’t we?

Some facts about the team behind the idea: Director Serdar Somuncu, a  Turk born in Istanbul, is known as "a hardcore comedian who likes to outrage the public by his radical insults”, according to the German media. Well, the public has to like to be insulted, to keep such a director afloat. The main popularity that this ‘comedian’ who likes to call himself  ‘a politician’ has earned is a result of his scenic reading of Mein Kampf. He started this entertaintment back in the mid 1990s and toured Germany with Hitler’s monologues for years, despite the fact that Mein Kampf had been banned in Germany. But this is art, you know.

His other program was another scenic reading of the infamous Goebbels stadium speech of 1943, this time in early 2003. He read Mein Kampf in front of the former inmates of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen - who in his right mind could allow such sacrilege? But this is freedom of artistic expression, German style. And now, the interior ministry of Germany is examining whether the provocation in Konstanz was an illegal act - as Nazi symbols are still banned in Germany for public display - or an act of artistic expression.

The director of the Konstanz theatre is known relatively well in cultural circles across Germany. Christopher Nix in his previous life was an active defense lawyer specializing in cases falling under the criminal laws demanding capital punishment. Then he discovered that he liked to play clowns, to start with, and thus his theatrical career began. His career as theatrical administrator has been marked by scandals and expulsions from one place to another. Now he has found his soul-mate in the Hitler and Goebbels’ ‘scenic reader’, ‘a comedian’ who jokes publicly in pure Nazi style.

The Konstantz Case has both crossed a red line and shown the state of mind of people who run the theatre and cultural projects in this educated, well-to-do place, 80 years after Nazism divided the citizens of Germany into those who were compelled to wear the yellow star and those who got  free seats everywhere, regularly.

The case is also being looked into now by the German federal Ministry of the Interior, and  justly so.

But what about us? Why did we swallow this with such passivity? The story has left the public eye without any reaction.

Under-seeing and under-reacting to this episode of inhuman perception of Holocaust and sick treatment of all Holocaust victims, which openly and in typically German way brutally insults us all, the Jews, and does it on purpose,- must be contrasted with over-reacting to the misbehavior of an arrogant woman who did nothing in her life except project herself. 

It is all about us. How we react, what we are interested in, what catches our attention, and what makes us worry. It is about what insults us and what does not; what attracts and  keeps our attention and what fails to do so. It is about us, our values and priorities.

In a few days, the healthy majority of the Israeli public and Diaspora Jewry will forget about Ms Portman for good, however hard she tries to remind us about herself. But will it remember the idea of the modern German theatre people, 80 years after Holocaust, who decided to charm their public with free seats for those who would volunteer to play Nazis, against those who would be forced to wear the yellow star and pay for their tickets in that sick, perverted, Nazi theatre of Konstantz on Hitler’s 128th birthday?   

This is what matters. Dignity, decency and the real defence of the Jewish memory, and Jewish values, in the cases where they have been violated so cynically, not the arrogant self-promotion of another mediocre actress.

Dr Inna Rogatchi is a writer, scholar and film-maker. She is  the Co-founder and President of The Rogatchi Foundation, an international cultural charitable organisation that has been involved in international cultural and educational philanthropy for over 30 years.