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False syllogisms, troublesome combinations and Primo Levi’s political positioning on Israel and Palestine

Twenty-five years after his death, Primo Levi's legacy has been the object of many debates and reinterpretations. Distinguishing his true words from those forcibly put into his mouth is a crucial step towards understanding the thought of a major witness of the horrors of the twentieth century.

Primo Levi - Flickr/TheNose. Some rights reserved.
Flickr/TheNose. Some rights reserved.

'The centre is in the diaspora'
- Primo Levi[1]

Primo Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian Holocaust survivor whose accounts of the 'reality' of concentration camps have received international attention and diffusion. His books are studied in schools in Italy and throughout Europe and have generated wide debates about the possibility of being both a victim and a witness of political violence and dehumanisation. His critique of violence goes beyond bearing witness to the concentration camp, touching also on the national and international events he experienced during the rest of his life as a survivor. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli massacres in Lebanon at the beginning of the 1980s are particularly noteworthy among the topics that provoked Levi to engage in a complex reflection on the articulated relationship between Holocaust, memory, new episodes of political violence and political positioning. Our article is an attempt to identify the valuable elements of this reflection – and what we call its 'combinations' – on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Levi’s death.    

Last April, two Italian researchers of the International Primo Levi Studies Centre in Turin published an article in the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. Domenico Scarpa and Irene Soave analysed the emergence of a syllogism falsely attributed to Primo Levi: 'Everybody is somebody’s Jew. Palestinians are Israel’s Jews'. 

After noticing a high degree of recurrence of this sentence on Google, the two researchers aimed to dismantle the history of what proved to be a falsely-attributed syllogism. Their main evidence comes from the comparison of an interview with Levi published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 1982 and another article in the same year, published in Il Manifesto : in the latter, the journalist Filippo Gentiloni, reporting a sentence by the clockmaker Mendel (one of the protagonists in Levi’s If not now, when?), added a personal comment right after the quote: 'And the Palestinians are Israel’s Jews'.

For a good while now, Levi’s words and the legacy of his political thought have not only been the subject of invocation, ad hoc adaptations, and cut and paste operations within the so-called international pro-Palestine front, but also of attacks and accusations of betrayal – we should remember how coldly Levi’s work was received in Israel, similarly to the reception of other inconvenient authors such as Hannah Arendt. Since the misinterpretation of Levi’s words have resulted in thousands of web pages and quotations on different social networks[2], we feel it is necessary to reflect on some of the combinations – what in Italian we call accostamenti – put together by Levi within the framework that ultimately led to the false syllogism analysed by Scarpa and Soave.

What do we mean by combination? Here, combination does not imply an overlapping thought or identification.  Rather, it means a combination in the eyes of the survivor, in the eyes of the witness, perhaps similar to a combination of colours, where two or more elements put together become a new one. The result of this process is a third element that however does not erase the memory of the combined components – what we could define as the  'stratigraphy'  of their past (see A combination is necessary to continue understanding oneself and ultimately generating a political positioning – a further stage in the process of the subjectification of the victim. Thus, in Levi’s positioning, the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon conjured up memories of Warsaw 1944. In an interview Scarpa and Soave don't mention, journalist Giampaolo Pansa asked Levi what 'instinctive reaction' he had after hearing about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. 'I never have instinctive reactions', Levi answered, 'If I have them, I repress them. Initially I was not convinced that it had actually happened. Then I understood that it was all true. Then, the slaughter in those two camps brought back to me a vivid recollection of what the Russians did in Warsaw in August 1944. They stopped and waited at the Vistula whilst the Nazis exterminated all the Polish partisans of the uprising. Of course, like all historical analogies, mine doesn’t quite work. But Israel, just like the Russians in 1944, could have intervened and had the power to stop the gangs who were carrying out the massacre of those people, but they didn’t'[3]. Several reconstructions of those facts have showed that Israel was not a mere 'guilty spectator', but allegedly the director of those bloody operations. But this is not the point. The production of parallelisms between the two situations gave Levi stomach aches; despite the temptation to backtrack or vacillate, finally his doubts as to what had really happened in Lebanon translated into 'believing' in it. In this case, this confirmation of the truth perhaps has to be interpreted as the inevitability of a political positioning born from the combination of two truths. Maybe it was exclusively through this very awkward oscillation of subjectification between being a witness of the Nazi extermination and a spectator of the Lebanon massacre that Levi could overcome his incredulity and take a firm position . After all, the oscillation we refer to is one that not only made it difficult to entrench a position that identified the two situations: it made the syllogism between the two situations impossible.

Levi’s oscillation raises the level of inquiry into the philosophy of history and, inevitably, a sphere of
reflection that touches very closely upon Walter Benjamin’s critique of violence. In another excerpt from the interviews collected by Marco Belpoliti, the one with Virgilio Lo Presti,  Levi made explicit – in terms of actions that can be generated by a political positioning – his critique of violence: 'I do not like violence. I am a mild person. It is evident that there are justifiable forms of violence: violence against state violence is justified… But at this point, we enter a frightful tangle, because we have to understand when state violence begins… that what illegality of the state is is a violence to which we can respond with violence. We can accept a 'repairable' violence; one that does not end in death… I am not comfortable with saying 'burn someone's car but do not burn someone's lodging'… I reserve the right to judge it case by case'[4]. In this excerpt Levi explains his meaning of a sense of justice when faced with 'controversial cases', in which declaring a situation to be 'democratic' is not sufficient to guarantee justice. Doing so, Levi entered a 'terrifying tangle', as in the many intricate parallels that result from his discussion of Israel and Zionism. He expressed himself on a case by case basis, through a process of combining in order to adopt a position. In the same book edited by Belpoliti, Philip Roth described the whole of Levi’s testimony as  'moral biochemistry'[5]. And there can be no biochemistry without a study of the interactions and combinations of elements.

But let's return to our fundamental interrogation: Levi created a syllogism that was followed by a false syllogism put into the mouth of one of his If not now, when? characters.  Once we have determined that the latter is false, it nevertheless proves problematic to accuse of falsification all those who want to understand Levi’s combination from a non-syllogistic perspective. Many of these combinations exist in Levi’s work and their originality has not been called into question, but it is rare to find traces of them. The problem evidenced by all kinds of falsifications is also that of the context that produced them: the syllogism is false but the combinations that have been pushed to the point of falsification may not be. This does not mean that we are absolving 'the falsifier' – we are talking about justice, yes, but this is not a worldly justice. Instead, the problem comes from understanding  the boundary between combinations and syllogisms, between the production of memories able to host multiplicity and fascist memories.  

The enormous risk inherent in all comparative forms of reasoning is that of reifying the categories of interpretation that make these comparisons pertinent. Thus, beyond the identity of the author of these comparisons, the issue to be solved in terms of a syllogism (whether true or false) involves the complexity of some forms of sharable or non-sharable reasoning. Case by case, we have to question by which criteria of –verifiable– comparability two or more historical, political, juridical, social, and economic situations can be, in this sense, combined.

Levi never claimed on his own behalf that 'Palestinians are Israel’s Jews', but in both his interview with Il Manifesto and La Repubblica he affirmed the possibility of a comparison, as long as this happens without exploitation and within certain limits. These limits are determined by Levi’s positioning and analytical rigour: 'There is a certain analogy. I would not want to push things too far, but the similarities seem to me essentially this. We are talking of what we might call a "Nation" , because in the Arab world things are always difficult to define, which found itself without a country. And this is a point of contact with the Jews. There is a recent Palestinian diaspora that has something in common with the Jewish diaspora of two thousand years ago. But the analogy cannot go much further, in my opinion.'

Here, like elsewhere, Levi stopped dead right before the syllogism that was attributed to him. It seems as if for Levi the best way to avoid a trivialisation of the complexity and relative awkwardness of his political reasoning on Israel and Palestine was to avoid  thinking in the concise rhetoric of  slogan and propaganda. Now that we know what is true and what is false about Levi’s words on such a delicate and essential topic, we can cheer up and try to develop our reasoning from his lessons and words. This point of departure for our broader and on-going research on how to develop a political positioning from processes that we can define as combinations, assemblages, albeit vertiginous, is similar to that of Levi’s moral bio-chemistry, a bio-chemistry that seems to develop from his reflections on the 'grey zone'  in Israel-Palestine too.

[1] P. Levi, 'If this is a State', interview with Gad Lerner, L’Espresso, September 1984, in M. Belpoliti, R. Gordon (ed.s), Primo Levi. The Voice of Memory. Interviews 1961-1987, Polity Press, Cambridge, p. 290.

[2] We reported Levi’s false syllogism on our Facebook pages some months ago, not with the aim of embracing the syllogism, but rather in order to develop our on-going process of reflection on what these combinations of historical facts, these 'anachronistic assemblages', entail when  constructing memories and their rhizomatic and tree-like variations.

[3] P. Levi, 'Primo Levi: Begin should go', interview with Gianpaolo Pansa, La Repubblica, 24 September 1982, in M. Belpoliti, R. Gordon (ed.s), Primo Levi. The Voice of Memory. Interviews 1961-1987, cit., p. 284.

[4] 'Tornare, mangiare, raccontare', interview with Virgilio Lo Presti, 'Lotta Continua', 18 June 1979, in M.Belpoliti (ed.), Primo Levi. Conversazioni e interviste 1963-1987, pp. 52-53, translated into English by the authors of this article.

[5] P. Levi, 'A Man Saved by his Skills', interview with Philip Roth, The New York Times Books Review, 12 October 1986, now in Ivi, p. 87.

About the authors

Nicola Perugini is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Italian Studies and Middle East Studies at Brown University and the author of The Human Right to Dominate (with Neve Gordon, Oxford University Press 2015).

Nicola Perugini est titulaire de la bourse postdoctorale Mellon sur l’étude du Moyen-Orient et de l’Italie de l’université de Brown et l’auteur du livre intitulé Le droit humain de dominer (avec Neve Gordon, Oxford University Press 2015).

Nicola Perugini es un becario de postdoctorado Mellon de Estudios Italianos y Estudios sobre el Medio Oriente en Brown University y autor de The Human Right to Dominate (con Neve Gordon, Oxford University Press, 2015).

نيكولا بيروجيني هو زميل ميلون بعد الدكتوراه في الدراسات الإيطالية ودراسات الشرق الأوسط في جامعة براون، وهو مؤلف حق الإنسان في الهيمنة (مع نيف جوردون، مطبعة جامعة أكسفورد 2015).

Francesco Zucconi is a postgraduate student in Visual Studies at the Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane in Florence. His research interests interlace aesthetics and semiotics with image theory, in order to investigate the concept of 'archive' and the actualisation of cultural heritage in contemporary arts and media. He also published articles on constructing reality in cinema and literature.


Read On

The International Primo Levi Studies Centre webpage

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