Pamela Geller, You’re No Charlie Hebdo

What is my problem with Pamela Geller?

It doesn’t seem fair, at first glance, that I would support Charlie Hebdo and attack Geller.

Geller is the Long Island Jewish housewife-turned-anti-Muslim activist behind the Muhammad drawing contest in Texas that ended in violence this week. Two Muslim men, ostensibly with links to ISIS, opened fire outside the exhibit’s building and were shot dead by a security guard.

I’m not sorry for their loss. As dangerous and deluded as I think Geller is, nothing justifies the men’s violent reaction. In a civilized society, we scorn and mock people like Geller; we don’t shoot them.

When Islamic terrorists burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and shot dead its cartoonists and staff, I was appalled. The Jewish Journal that week changed its masthead to “Jewish Hebdo,” and we eagerly printed examples of the offensive Hebdo covers of the Prophet Muhammad in print and online. In a free society, people have the right to offend and to be offended. They don’t have the right to kill others for giving offense, or to intimidate them into silence. Taking a stand for free speech, even speech I don’t agree with, was a no brainer.

So why not defend Geller?

Because she is a radical hatemonger. Her aim is not to defend freedom. In Texas, she just happened to frost her poisonous ideology with some free-speech icing. But don’t let fools fool you: Her entire newfound career as the circus clown of Islamophobia is based on inciting mindless masses to hate and to attack those who disagree with her. It began with her incendiary campaign to ban a perfectly legal place of worship, an Islamic center, near the site of the World Trade Center. But she didn’t stop there:

• Last year, Geller called “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart a “Judenrat” who “would have been first on line to turn over his fellow Jews in Poland and Germany” to the Nazis to be put to death. (Literally, Judenrat refers to the Jewish councils organized by the Nazis, but Geller assumed it was German for “Jewish rat.” No one has ever accused her of over-researching.)

• In January 2015, Geller launched a campaign against the New Israel Fund, the premier American-Israeli progressive rights group, calling it a “sickness in the soul of American Jewry.”

• While she was at it, she called the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Leichtag Foundation — two major sources for Jewish educational funding — “united against Israel.”

• In 2014, Geller ran a public service announcement campaign on 100 New York City buses and subways that even the New York Daily News described as being part of a “shocking anti-Islam ad campaign.” The posters were the MTA equivalent of Der Sturmer cartoons, attacking all of Islam as fanatical and bloodthirsty.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Geller the “anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” who “has mingled comfortably with European racists and fascists” in order to demonize Muslims.

Of course, Islam has a problem — we all know that. Our in-depth cover essay this week, by Sunni Muslim scholar Hussein Aboubakr Mansour, outlines thoughtful ways the religion can stop its ideological extremism and move into the modern age. 

But Geller is no Charlie Hebdo. Her goal is not a free society of mutual tolerance. Her goal is an intolerant America where those who disagree with her — Muslim, Jewish or otherwise — are demeaned, disparaged and intimidated. First, people like Geller go after Muslims. Then they come after us.

Why is that? You might think it odd that a middle-aged Jewish woman from Long island would become bigotry’s pinup girl. But Eric Hoffer, my guide to all things fanatical, predicted just such a phenomenon in his seminal 1951 book, “The True Believer.”

“Boredom accounts for the almost invariable presence of …middle-aged women at the birth of mass movements,” Hoffer wrote.

“Even in the case of Islam and the Nazi movement, which frowned upon feminine activity outside the home, we find women of a certain type playing an important role in the early stage of their development. … By embracing a holy cause and dedicating their energies and substance to its advancement, they find a new life full of purpose and meaning. Hitler made full use of  ‘the society ladies thirsting for adventure, sick of their empty lives, no longer getting a “kick” out of love affairs.’ He was financed by the wives of some of the great industrialists long before their husbands had heard of him.”

Putting aside the pre-feminist chauvinism in Hoffer’s writing, you can’t deny he’s onto something. Geller has found something more important to her than a cause; she has found attention.

Good for her — now the rest of us just have to pay the price. 

Nazis’ stooge or well-meaning Jew?

When the French director Claude Lanzmann completed the editing of his eight-hour epic documentary, “Shoah,” in 1985, he still had stashed away nearly 11 hours of interviews with one man.

That man was Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto, and the only Nazi-installed “Elder of the Jews” not killed during the Holocaust.

Lanzmann has now compressed those interviews, conducted in 1975, into the more-than-three-and-a-half hour documentary “The Last of the Unjust.” The film reveals a then-70-year-old man, who, in Lanzmann’s estimation, was highly intelligent, ironic, didn’t lie, was hard both on others and on himself, and who was blessed with total recall.

Murmelstein also displayed a sardonic wit, upending the title of Andre Schwarz-Bart’s novel “The Last of the Just,” into the self-designated “Last of the Unjust,” which Lanzmann has adopted as the title for his film.

The roles played by the Elders of the Jews in the Nazi-controlled ghettoes of Lvov, Warsaw, Vilna and Lodz are still the stuff of debates, books and plays. Were these men stooges who did the Nazis’ dirty work to save their skins and to allow them to enjoy the illusion power? Or were they brave, well-meaning men who sacrificed themselves in the hope of saving at least some of their fellow Jews?

Murmelstein, like most humans, comes across as a mixture of motives, hopes and ambitions, though apparently more intelligent and self-aware than other ghetto leaders.

A Viennese rabbi and deputy to the Jewish community president, Murmelstein first met Adolf Eichmann in 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria.

Eichmann ordered Murmelstein to organize the forced emigration of Austrian Jews, and even his detractors acknowledge Murmelstein’s role in helping more than 120,000 of Austria’s 200,000 Jews flee the country.

Over the next seven years, until the end of the war, the Viennese rabbi and the Nazi Holocaust organizer met and sparred again and again, and, arguably, Murmelstein got to know Eichmann better than any other Jewish leader.

As such, Murmelstein thoroughly demolishes philosopher Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann as a mere bureaucrat carrying out orders and the personification of “the banality of evil.”

In reality, Murmelstein testifies, Eichmann was a “demon,” and a thoroughly corrupt one at that, who was also a fanatical and violent anti-Semite, participating directly in the burning of Vienna’s synagogues during Kristallnacht.

Director Claude Lanzmann

Murmelstein lambasts Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem as “a poor trial run by ignorant people,” and approvingly quotes a newspaper critic on “the banality of Mrs. Arendt’s own conclusions.”

While obviously trying to cast his own role as ghetto “Elder” in as favorable a light as possible, Murmelstein, under sharp questioning, acknowledges his own shortcomings.

He owns up to enjoying a sense of power and, oddly, even of adventure, as well as to his reputation among his Jewish “subjects” as tough and mean.

But, mainly, he sees himself as a pragmatist among the self-deluded, noting that “if a surgeon starts crying during an operation, the patient dies.”

In general, he holds a high opinion of his importance, arguing that “I had to save myself to save the ghetto.”

After the war, Murmelstein, who held a diplomatic passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross, easily could have fled Europe. Instead, he chose to remain in Czechoslovakia and stand trial on allegations of collaborating with the Nazis. After 18 months in prison, he was acquitted of all charges. He died in Rome in 1989, at 84.

“The Last of the Unjust” is, above all, a fascinating examination of the human condition in extremis, especially in clinging to hope when every escape seems barred.

For example, when Eichmann and the Nazi propaganda initially painted Theresienstadt as a lovely spa that lucky Jews could enjoy if they turned over all their money to the “Eichmann fund,” 40,000 elderly Jews eagerly signed on.

In a lengthy interview with Lanzmann in the production notes for the film, the director notes that even Murmelstein, who had no illusions about Nazi cruelty and trickery, “said he didn’t know about the gas chambers, and that’s absolutely true.

“In Theresienstadt, the Jews were afraid of deportation to the East, but they couldn’t imagine the reality of death in the gas chambers,” Lanzmann noted in the interview.

Lanzmann illustrates the desperate longing for survival in the ghetto by quoting one inmate, who said that “he who wants to live is condemned to hope.”

And in words all latter-day analysts of Jewish action and inaction during the Holocaust might take to heart, the film concludes, “The Elders of the Jews can be condemned, but they cannot be judged.”

“The Last of the Unjust” opens Feb. 7 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Town Center in Encino, as well as the Regal Westpark in Irvine.