“When we make the holocaust our justification for everything we do, because we think it’s inarguable, we actually make it the one thing we give our opponents to argue with.”
We live in interesting days. The news unfolds in real time on our TVs, computers and mobile devices. The world is at our fingertips. Surely, then, it would be logical to conclude that with the sheer volume of sounds and pictures would make it easier to lay the truth bare. But you would be wrong. News may be easier to gather than it has ever been, but it’s just as easy to distort. The modern consumer’s voracious appetite demands constantly updated 24-hour coverage, so it’s no wonder that, with the demand for speed, the occasional intentional foul can be slipped into the news cycle.
If you want the truth you can no longer trust one stand alone source. Even the attack on the World Trade Center, one of the single most observed and documented events in history, has “alternate” versions and revisionist histories. Putting aside the whos and the whys, at the very least we know exactly how many people died that day and how. It’s been very carefully documented. At least, we believe it is. We’re fairly certain. Almost positive.
History is written by the winners. Or, as Barry Levey puts it: “What the most people wish to be true, is true.” You might think that concrete data would serve to distill the fact from the fiction and illustrate event free from bias and revisionist speculation, but as we grow savvier as a culture, we also grow more cynical, and there always will be people who would take advantage of that proclivity. That is how Holocaust denial works, especially in the wake of bad press for Israel, when people are more ready to believe what they want rather than what was.
Some history: Feeling the burden of collective guilt, the newly formed United Nations formalized the borders of Israel in 1948, drawing lines through the English and French mandates to officially establish a Jewish homeland—a place of safety and security after millennia of oppression, expulsions, Inquisitions, pogroms and crusades. It was also a means of settling the survivors, whose pre-war homes and possessions had been taken, leaving them nothing to return to.
Though Jews had lived in the land for thousands of years, the timing of the establishment of the State linked the area, seemingly irrevocably, with the tragedy of the Holocaust. Every time Israel finds itself at war by its neighbors, the Holocaust is invoked. Terms like “genocide” and “apartheid” are bandied about, haphazardly and erroneously, and Jews around the world find themselves the targets of violent attacks. The question Barry Levey wonders is whether that would be the case if we could somehow divorce the State of Israel from the context of the horrors that preceded its founding.
The discord between Israel and its neighbors is no secret. Though close cousins, the Jews and the Arabs have always suffered periods of…tension. This tension is underscored when Barry’s brother, Howard, gets engaged to a “Franco-Algerian” girl, putting the whole family dynamic on shaky ground. Anthony notes, “Ever since your brother got engaged you’ve all gotten really, really…Jewish.” He continues, “Oh, you know what? I don’t think I meant to say Jewish. I think I meant to say…racist?”
Anthony confronts Barry and Barry confronts his mother. Inevitably, the subjects of the Holocaust and Israel are broached. “We have been shuffled from country to country ever since countries existed.” She explains the importance of Jewish continuity in the shadow of traumatic collective memory. Barry brings his mother’s words back to Anthony.
Arguments about comparable suffering laid on the table, Anthony counters: “Are you always going to define yourself as the victim?”
The challenge established, Levey decided to research the Holocaust, an event that altered his family tree and became an ingrained part of life. It just was. While conducting this research, Levey discovered something interesting and unexpected as he began to take note of history’s trends—how linking Israeli military actions inevitably led to a spike in global anti-Semitism. Every time Israel fights, no matter the cause, there is a distinct uptick in the number of articles published by and about Holocaust deniers. Even as protesters invoke its name, they denounce its veracity.
He sets out, then, to learn more about the people who would have the world believe the Holocaust either never happened or just wasn’t as bad as everyone says. Or, in the popular parlance at many an anti-Jewish demonstration, that “Hitler was right.”
Taking that first step toward understanding the deniers is like falling down the rabbit hole. Levey’s first contact leads him to another, who leads to another. He argues their logic and tries to understand how someone could try to deny something so massive that had been documented in such impeccably kept records. What he hears is troubling. As argument upon argument is made, each revisionist’s “facts” and figures piling on top of the ones before, he starts to get a little nervous and a lot confused. It also seems impossible to separate the data from the context.
Deep down, he knows they’re wrong. He can feel it. Can’t he? They make such persuasive arguments, these professors and scientists. They pull information out of the air and dangle the numbers over his head. They argue about dates and documents, about intent and geopolitics, about Russian agitators and elusive chemical compounds. They even argue mankind’s basic innate goodness: “I sound ridiculous to you? Do I sound more or less ridiculous than saying [Jews] were stuffed into giant ovens out of Hansel and Gretel while the whole world watched?”
Levey’s script is beautifully structured. It’s sharp and insightful, simultaneously funny and thought-provoking and oftentimes surprisingly angst-inducing. While I wouldn’t call it highly quotable, hardly a minute goes by that doesn’t include some pithy statement on the nature of the Israel-Holocaust connection and sociopolitical progress or the Internet’s role in shaping young minds and filling them with fabrications. “I’m always taking someone else’s word for something I don’t personally know,” Levey says. “How do we expect people to know to not trust the sources they find online?” He holds to a highly perspicacious line of questioning, following the trail of crumbs in order to find a comprehensive explanation and achieve complete understanding.
As an actor, Levey is incredibly engaging, addressing the audience directly throughout and often throwing out humorous little side notes that make the whole presentation feel pleasantly off the cuff. He comes across as a little nervous at first, but that completely suits the character version of Levey, who grows ever more confident as a storyteller the deeper he goes into the Holocaust denial rabbit hole. Every time you think things have gotten to a point at which there can’t be anything funny to say, he lands an apt pop-culture reference that breaks the tension.
He portrays several characters throughout: Anthony, his mother, the crass American Professor Arthur Butz (of the “Brooklyn bachelors” theory), London Holocaust “revisionist” David Irving (of the “2 million Jews survived unaccounted for by escaping to Poland and Czechoslovakia” theory), French engineer Robert Faurisson, and even an incredibly jocular and garrulous (and delusional) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And that’s not all. There’s one last speaker to account for, but he’s really in a class all by himself. It’s really better to hear it directly from Levey himself.
The monologue ends on a distinctly Dadaist note. “In order for all the deniers arguments to add up, they would have to be part of a plot so massive, it really would have to be supernatural.” A couple of well-placed rhetorical questions leave the audience to draw its own conclusions about what it just witnessed—or thinks it witnessed. It’s sort of impossible to tell. But that’s okay; “Americans can afford to be ignorant.”
Written and Performed by Barry Levey
Directed by Jeremy Gold Kronenberg
Now given an extended run as part of the Solo in the City: The Best of FringeNYC 2014 Series
September 11, 18, 21 and 24?, 2014
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Avenue