Perception of a meaningful life of author Iddo Netanyahu

Fiamma Nirenstein

Without fear, Iddo Netanyahu grabs history by the throat like his older brothers.

His eldest brother, Yonatan (“Yoni”) Netanyahu, was the lead commander in one of the most daring hostage-rescue operations in modern history, “Operation Entebbe,” in which more than 100 hostages who were held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976 were rescued in a masterful Israel Defense Forces’ maneuver that sadly cost him his life at the age of 30.

Iddo’s other brother, Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, 69, has been prime minister of Israel for the past decade (and for a stint before that), a leader who has elevated Israel to become among the most powerful countries in the world in terms of economics, science, technology and defense, despite facing an onslaught of criticism from the Israeli political left.

Iddo, the youngest, takes his risks in intellectual realms, namely on the stage. The physician, author and playwright, age 66, is a tall and lean man, a husband and the father of two, who has become a writer whose plays have now premiered in Moscow and off-Broadway in New York. His characters not only occupy the stage, but jump from the page, emitting bitter irony as he bluntly says it like it is. This is case both in his novel Itamar K. and in his play A Happy End.

Now, in Meaning, his latest play that had a great success in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, he addresses from a particular angle the refusal to stare anti-Semitism in the face.

It certainly isn’t surprising that Netanyahu should tackle this issue. In the play Meaning, protagonist Viktor Frankl—a survivor of the Nazi death camps, and a world-renown Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who created what is known in psychology as logotherapy—is stripped bare in the comedy, and the fear of the true “meaning” of what he has gone through is revealed.

His experiences as a concentration-camp inmate and his search for finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, were transformed into an international bestseller titled, Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946 and translated into 24 languages. Frankl not only recounts his own suffering and that of others, but discovers a path in which to overcome, in general, suffering and trauma, to pursue a worthy life—a life of meaning.

And he takes for granted that the Nazi persecution Jews went through was finally over.

It is here, however, that Iddo Netanyahu makes Frankl’s illusions meet with the disillusionment of Betty, a Christian mother whose Jewish love died at Auschwitz, and whose son is forced to suffer anti-Semitic attacks from his classmates even after the war.

Q: If society has overcome the evil perpetuated by the Nazis, how come the child must suffer? Why does she feel so much uneasiness inside her, so much fear that evil will inevitably return?

A: Betty doesn’t believe in Frankl’s “meaning.” On the contrary, she demonstrates his weakness by asking for help and unveiling a reality that the psychoanalyst can’t cure—namely, the permanence of anti-Semitism in Europe after the Shoah. Betty goes to his clinic in Vienna for help, but anti-Semitism lingers.

Frankl instead tries to convince Betty that her imagination is simply running wild; that with the defeat of Nazism, good has now defeated evil. He refuses to confront reality: Anti-Semitism is forever present in Vienna, and elsewhere. It’s an incurable disease. The optimists who didn’t understand Hitler in time paid dearly for their stubbornness, and the risk of denying reality is ever-present.

Q: So is disillusionment, which has also been the protagonist in your other works, is a necessary element of understanding?

A: Disillusionment is necessary. The world is divided into two: between those who imagine that humankind can change, that taking care of it can extract its good part, and those who understand that there is a hard reality that is often unchangeable, or that sometimes changes only a little through patient and constant work. Anti-Semitism has been with us for thousands of years; its evil is a persistent, irremediable ideological stone.

Frankl, however, thinks he address it through his brand of psychology.

After Hitler’s unequivocal historical defeat and suicide, for Frankl, it’s an evil that is over. However, Betty presents him with a reality that he doesn’t want to know. Nazism was an episode, and the good guys won, Frankl and a large part of the modern world think. And the bad … they can become good if they discover good meaning; after all, some Nazis were very good to their family … or even to their dog.

Yet the truth is that it’s not a matter of good or bad people. It was the ideology of Nazism that provided the zest for persistent anti-Semitism in victory and defeat. And Frankl refuses this point of view for him Betty is solely allowing her imagination to get the best of her. Until the son doesn’t try to commit suicide.

Q: Frankl, when he is in Auschwitz, speaks of meaning even to an SS. But he tells him that his meaning lies in killing Jews and proves it at the time by shooting a friend of Frankl on the spot.

A: Yes. This is a farce and testifies to the paradox. Frankl, though at Auschwitz, remains part of the optimistic human group; that is an attractive point of view. Think of all those, for example, who maintain that communism failed because it is was led by evil men. No, it was a bad ideology, oppressive and totalitarian. Anti-Semitism is a strong, bad ideology that lives as an ideological disease that has been capable of transforming itself for millennia, since the times of ancient Egypt. Hitler knew how to exploit the popular basin of genocidal anti-Semitic ideology. Every now and then, even today, it’s there, and it is used for various political purposes and always with genocidal intentions.

Q: OK, Frankl doesn’t believe Betty and doesn’t understand that finding meaning doesn’t solve anti-Semitic ideology. Yet searching for a “meaning” helped him survive. Isn’t that already a lot? Isn’t this a good moral result in the face of the Shoah?

A: Sure, I think his insistence on pursuing good is moving, his belief that man has a moral purpose is moving, even childish. I’m not upset with him.

Q: Yet he seems to be a very selfish character. In order to survive, he pretends to ignore that a copy of his notes are safe in Vienna and drags his wife towards death in order to protect them with him in the camp; he takes for himself the shoes of a dying fellow prisoner. This doesn’t make him look very “good.”

A: But he was also generous, friendly and helpful to his inmates, and a courageous survivor. I will tell you that in Baku, where the play was received with great success, many fell in love with his optimism. I read Frankl’s book for the first time as a boy; my mother gave it to me. I loved, like many others, the idea that a survivor would talk about himself and how to improve the human soul. Then I realized, when reading it again 40 years later, that something wasn’t right. The word “Jew” wasn’t used even once, nor even the word German … there are only universal souls for Frankl, bad and good people. And the bad can be saved.

Today, think about what many say about ISIS young militants who perpetuate terrorist attacks and cut off heads. He’d probably say they are the poor, exploited, socially disintegrated, lonely, and that they found a bad aim instead of a good one, and therefore must be helped.

Q: You yourself, with your life choices, have served in Sayeret Matkal, the Israel’s special-forces unit, as did both of your two brothers, a hero and a prime minister. How can you think that the idea of searching for meaning is a misguided idea? After all, your life and the lives of your family are full of meaning.

A: Yes, but it’s a realist, non-ideological meaning, the life of the people of Israel—a very real meaning. The need of a state for the Jewish people in order to guarantee its survival and identity is very practical, evident. Frankl indicates good meaning as an abstract belonging to a humankind destined to be redeemed, just like on the other side there are the bad guys. Things aren’t like this.

Q: According to you, can genocidal anti-Semitism be practiced by anyone? Cultured and ignorant people, Christians and Muslims?

A: Of course, by anyone who adheres to its ideological corpus. It’s a disease of the mind; its multi-millennial life has made it a vicious disease. The Eastern Roman Empire infected Western Europe with it, and Europe has infected other cultures with it.

Q: You are speaking about Islam?

A: Part of Islam. What’s important is that it takes roots and becomes dangerous when there’s a leader capable of using anti-Semitism, i.e., when it’s already present among the people. For example, when Hitler decides to mount the anti-Semitic horse, he does so because from the time he attended art school in Vienna, he knew he could count on popular anti-Semitism.

Q: Then are those who fear that today’s populism that can trigger anti-Semitism correct?

A: I wouldn’t say so. It depends, of course, on whether or not leaders can use it to advance their interests, and if they’re strong enough to do so. But it’s difficult to imagine that a European leader could be anti-Semitic, especially because this would deeply antagonize Israel. The great change in reality is the following: Today, Israel exists.

Q: But to think that anti-Semitism would end with the birth of Israel was a mistake. On the contrary, there is now “Israelphobic” anti-Semitism.

A: It wasn’t a mistake. The fact that the Jews can no longer be the object of a war of extermination is the most important thing; they can still be hated, but no longer exterminated. Anti-Semitism is a genocidal ideology. Today that genocide is unthinkable because it’s just not possible. Israel’s founding fathers understood that the Jewish people had to have their homeland, and also physical strength because they would have to go and be able to defend themselves. Anti-Semitism is much less dangerous today. The thing that most directly threatens the Jewish people is Iran, which has a clear genocidal aim vis-à-vis the State of Israel. European anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is hateful and dangerous for individuals. It can hate us, but not eliminate us.

Q: Is there anything we can do about it? It’s an ideology, so couldn’t we defeat it with ideological weapons, with laws?

A: I am against bans, criminal convictions and criminalization. Placing anti-Semitism within the framework of battle for the free of opinion is a useless gift.

Q: In one of the play’s final dialogues, Frankl tries in vain to curtail the desire for revenge by another prisoner in the concentration camp. What do you think?

A: I think the desire for revenge against those who killed your children, your parents, your wife is perfectly natural, but when there is organized power, you don’t have to take revenge into your own hands.

Q: If the State of Israel had existed at the time of the Shoah, would it have sent the army?

A: It’s obvious that if Israel had existed then and had strength, it would have been used. Unfortunately, we arrived 10 years later.

Q: I was in pain for Betty’s son. Tell me, will the boy die?

A: If I wanted him to die, he would have died … but he’s at the hospital.

Q: So will Frankl be able to talk to Betty again? Be able to understand reality? Help her?

A: Let’s hope.

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