Speaking with Will Yakowicz
Modern journalism is more akin to warfare than a search for truth. I have been misquoted so many times that it's a wonder I speak to anyone at all. "Don't speak to strangers" is what they told us in kindergarten, and I'm sure I'd be better off if I followed that advice. Journalists turn my instructive metaphors into hateful headlines. One time I told a Russian interviewer that, "It is possible to extinguish the Jew within". I thought it was a poetic way to describe overcoming our inner fears and anti-social behaviours; hostile bloggers preferred to "translate" it as "Shamir calls for the killing of Jews".
I recently received a letter from the young American journalist Will Yakowicz. He wrote that speaking with me and creating my literary portrait would be like a dream come true for him. I was myself once an eager young cub reporter, and his stated desire did not strike me as too unusual. Whether it is good for me or not, I always look for opportunities to answer my critics and support my comrades. Will flew from New York to Moscow and we had our interview; I answered all his questions even though they became increasingly combative as the interview progressed. In order to avoid any possible misinterpretations, I am publishing the entire unedited conversation as recorded by Dictaphone: http://www.israelshamir.net/interview/WILLIAM.MP3, and the following partial and loose transcript:
Will: It is a fantastic opportunity to speak to a famous writer… You are one of the most important journalists this year; you are a champion of freedom of speech… Why were you chosen to do what you are doing for Wikileaks?
Shamir: We are not chosen; we are choosing to do what we do... Here it is an exciting story, every journalist would do the same.
Will: You present Assange as a hero.
Shamir: In the modern world, we have no heroes. The last hero was the hero of Richard Aldington's book Death of a Hero; now we feel it is pathetic. I presented Julian Assange as a comic strip figure (like modern Superman) so people would be able to relate to him. Especially since my own acquaintance with Julian was so very short and superficial.
Will: Why did he introduce you as Adam?
Shamir: This is the name I was given in Church, and I often use it. On the cover of my books it says: Israel Adam Shamir.
Will: You've been to Belarus. How did you like the Belarusian dictator?
Shamir: I've been invited as an observer to the Belarus presidential elections, went to a few voting stations, it seemed to be all right. In the evening there were disturbances; I also saw it. I personally have no doubt that he won fairly.
Will: What do you like in Moscow?
Shamir: It is my first winter in the cold climate for many years and I enjoy it as recollections of my childhood come back: frost, skies, skating, snow…
Will: You wrote that destruction of al Aqsa Mosque would bring to the end of the world. How far from are we now?
Shamir: It is difficult for me to relate to it now. That was part of my writing long time ago, when I lived in the Holy Land and experienced this feeling daily. Now I write about something different, and the thing you speak of remained as a bleak memory.
Will: Still do you believe the world will end soon?
Shamir: No. People always prophesy the end of the world; they always do it. I translated a Jewish Renaissance man Abraham Zacuto; he prophesied the end of the world – in 1515. He died in 1515.
Will: So it was the end of his world?
Shamir: Exactly. I think when people prophesy the end of the world they feel their end is approaching. Much of it is connected to age; when one feels one's end is coming one interprets it as the end of the world.
Will: Now do you feel the end is coming?
Will: And where will you go when you die?
Shamir: If I shall be a good boy, I'll go back to creator, to God. Imagine a bonfire; you pick a burning log out, walk with it and then you return the log into bonfire. This is our life. We are taken out of the great fire of God, and eventually we return to this bonfire.
Will: Usually Hell is described as fire; but you think Fire is a better way to describe God?
Shamir: This is just a metaphor.
Will: What is love for you?
Shamir: Joseph Brodsky in his Great Elegy for John Donne said that earthly love is but a poet's duty, while love celestial is an abbot's flesh.
Will: do you go to the church often?
Shamir: every Sunday.
Will: what do you like about Orthodox churches?
Shamir: they are most similar to Jerusalem Temple of old; they also have the same structure of Inner Sanctum, of a place for priests and a place for laity. So they are quite archaic but also very much alive. There are many churches with archaic rites in Jerusalem, but the Russian church is particularly vibrant.
Will: have you ever seen an angel?
Shamir: not sure. Angels are a figure of speech; we do not see them as our ancestors did.
Will: are we trained not to see angels?
Shamir: you put it well.
Will: and what is hatred?
Shamir: this is something I never experienced.
Will: but so many people smear you?
Shamir: I think they have practical reasons. I do not believe they do it out of hatred. We tend to judge people by our own measure; if one is mercantile, he believes that others are mercantile. That is what Talmud says: Posel bemumo posel. Provided I never experience hatred, it is difficult for me to believe that others experience hatred to me.
Will: Can one be provoked to hatred? You've seen settlers in the West Bank doing awful things…
Shamir: One can be annoyed, but hatred is a very strong emotion, and I never felt it.
Will: You compared the IDF soldiers with Nazis.
Shamir: Not out of hatred; not even out of anger, because if one writes angrily, people will not read it. I do not write angrily because it is counterproductive. Anger is a very rare feeling I would indulge myself in for this reason.
Will: I've been to the West Bank and I interviewed some murderous settlers. Do you think Jews have a reservoir for hatred?
Shamir: People can be trained to hate, by speaking endlessly of your suffering, by repeating forever how you and your relatives were mistreated.
Will: When I was there [in the West Bank] I saw the settlers are very hostile to Palestinians.
Shamir: Yes, this is very silly. You know my mother is a settler. Very ideological, she can speak forever about how awful is everybody to them. I tried many times to convince her. They should try to live together in peace with their neighbours.
Will: it must be hard for her to read your stuff, as she is a settler
Shamir: yes she does not like it.
Will: my mother does not like what I write
Shamir: We are not obliged to write in a way to please our mothers. The Japanese say the bond between a child and parent is a one generation bond; the bond of husband and wife is two generations bond; the bond of master and disciple survives three generations. It is reasonable for we choose our spouses and even more so we choose and persevere with choosing our masters, but we do not choose our mothers.
Will: How did you choose your wife?
Shamir: I was married twice, and both times I realised immediately from the first sight that is what I want.
Will: Where did you meet your current wife?
Shamir: In Eilat.
Will: Is she an Israeli?
Shamir: Yes. That was almost twenty years ago. I was married to my first wife for fifteen years since I was thirty.
Will: What is happiness?
Shamir: negatively speaking, it is the absence of anxiety. Happiness is something you experience after a good church service. Peace of mind.
Will: Are you happy now?
Shamir: Very often
Will: And right now?
Shamir: That would be very odd! Happiness is a sublime moment; it is not something we should wish for twenty hours a day. Angels are always happy. Read Anatole France, he wrote a lot about angels, all his books delightful.
Will: If you could be a supernatural being what would you be?
Shamir: Bodhisattva; that is one who declined to become a Buddha in order to remain on earth and help other people to reach enlightenment. A man is given a chance to become a Buddha, to leave this life of vanity, but Bodhisattva refuses because he feels that there are things to be done here. I do not say I am, I say that is what I'd like to be. One should help people to come to life.
44:30 Here the interview becomes more controversial and tense
Will: You said in interview to Mohammed Omer that anti-Semitism is an article of Jewish faith; Jews believe that Jews and Gentiles must hate each other. Can you elaborate?
Shamir: How do the Jews explain hatred of Gentiles? By their envy. They say that everybody is envious of Jews, and for this reason they hate. It is an article of Jewish faith that everybody should be envious of Jews because Jews are close to God. I hardly ever met a person who would be envious of Jews. That is why I do not believe in existence of anti-Semitism. I've met people who were described as anti-Semites; some of them would hate the concept, the idea of Jews but hardly anybody would hate Jews as persons.
Will: Do you think Hitler hated Jews, or Jews hated Hitler?
Shamir: Hitler perceived the Jews as an idea opposing the Aryan idea. He followed the concepts of Weininger; Otto Weininger, an Austrian Jew from Vienna, an elder contemporary of Hitler, a young man who committed suicide. Hitler followed his idea of paradigmatic struggling figures of Jew and Aryan.
Will: People label you as anti-Semite, and you said that if one is not called anti-Semite, something must be wrong.
Shamir: Sometimes I speak in paradoxes so the people would pay attention. One should make people listen to you. The meaning is: if you are never called an anti-Semite it means you never spoke against some awful things, for instance against Bernie Madoff, because if you would, you would be called 'antisemite'. Anyway this accusation does not mean much for Jews; you've been to Israel, you know people call each other 'antisemite' easily.
Will: So anti-Semite is an empty word?
Shamir: Yes, for us in Israel it is.
Will: If somebody would tell you "I hate Jews and I wish that Hitler killed all of them", what would you say?
Shamir: I've heard it more than once from Sephardi Jews in Israel; they say that when they meet an Ashkenazi Jew sometimes. I never felt strong about that. I understand they feel mistreated by Ashkenazi Jews, so they say: "Pity you did not burn in Auschwitz".
Will: What an awful thing to say!
Shamir: One understands that a person speaks emotionally because he is upset.
Will: Don't you think people should be held accountable for what they say?
Shamir: People do say things… we do not know whether they mean what they say.
Will: What would you say to a person who says: Israel, it's too bad that your family did not die?
Shamir: I'd reply: that's your bad luck.
Will: Won't you be hurt?
Shamir: Not really. I experienced these things many times, perhaps 5 or 10 times, and I did not even felt annoyed.
Will: You say Auschwitz, but by your definition Auschwitz was a Red Cross internment camp? [This is one of the accusations levelled at Shamir by the holocaust expert Davis whose expertise was paid for by John Sweeney of the BBC show Panorama. The comment is based on Shamir's critique of his good friend Gilad Atzmon's remark on why the allies did not bomb Auschwitz. Shamir simply said that Auschwitz was considered an internment camp "attended by the Red Cross" and that is why it was not bombed]
Shamir: Oh no
Will: So what is your definition of Auschwitz?
Shamir: I have absolutely no interest in that. And no definition of my own. I've said something entirely different: that Auschwitz was perceived as internment camp.
Will: Perceived by whom?
Shamir: By everybody: by Jews in Palestine, by the allies, by the Russians, by the Americans. When the first rumours of mass annihilation came to Palestine they were strongly refuted by the Jewish authorities. They wrote in newspapers: life is bad as it is, war is bad as it is, and some people bring such horrible stories… The Jewish authorities were strongly against this sort of rumour. Surely Auschwitz was perceived as a deportation camp, not a resort, quite an awful place to be sure. "Concentration camp" was used before, by the Brits in Anglo-Boer War in the beginning of 20th century; there the expression was minted.
Will: But Auschwitz as a place for extermination of Jews?
Shamir: This idea came to being only after the war.
Will: So it was just a rumour?
Shamir: No, I did not say that at all. What I said is "when the rumours came etc". I'll make myself clear. I am not all that much interested in what happened in reality. I am interested in perceptions. What I am dealing with is perceptions. So the perception [of Auschwitz] during the war was of a quite awful deportation camp, where people were kept, forced to hard labour. Only after the war a different perception was formed: that of mass annihilation, mass murder. But is not a universal, or even a known perception during the war.
Will: So it is not a fact that there was mass annihilation?
Shamir: I did not say that, and I did not intend to say that; what I say is something different, about the perceptions.
Will: But which perception is true?
Shamir: I am not interested in this question; it is outside of my sphere of interests.
Will: So it does not matter for you?
Shamir: There are so many debates of this sort: how many Armenians were killed and when and where, or how many Ukrainians were killed by Holodomor, I am not interested in this sort of stuff.
Will [persists]: But can you comment at all whether these things happened?
Shamir: I have no knowledge about it at all. Unless one wants to just repeat what others say one should learn the subject and I am not interested. I am not interested because I reject the idea. Why people speak of that: because they think it is important. That it has salvific value of it; that it brings geula, salvation. But I do not think so. Death does not bring salvation. For this reason I am not possibly interested.
Will: You said you should reject the story of Holocaust [Will is probably referring to an article in which I say: "As for the accusation of 'Holocaust denial', my family lost too many of its sons and daughters for me to deny the facts of Jewish tragedy, but I do deny its religious salvific significance implied in the very term 'Holocaust'; I do deny its metaphysical uniqueness, I do deny the morbid cult of Holocaust and I think every God-fearing man, a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim should reject it as Abraham rejected and smashed idols. I deny that it is good to remember or immortalize such traumatic events, and I wrote many articles against modern obsession with massacres, be it Jewish holocaust of 1940s, Armenian massacre of 1915, Ukrainian "holodomor", Polish Katyn, Khmer Rouge etc. Poles, Armenians, Ukrainians understood me, so did Jews – otherwise I would be charged with the crime of factual denial which is known to the Israeli law."]
Shamir: That is right.
Will: So you do not deny Holocaust?
Shamir: That's right, I do not.
Will: You have a witty way of spelling Holocaust as Hollow-Cost, in your book Masters of Discourse.
Shamir: I doubt I did; I do not remember it. This pun is not high class.
Will: One does not have to be high class all the time.
Shamir: Yes, but one should try not to go down too far.
Will: Do you consider yourself Siberian, Swedish, or what?
Shamir: This is a difficult question for me.
Will: One of your names is "Joran Jermas". This is the name on your Swedish passport. Where does it come from?
Shamir: When I came under attack I was worried to lose my freedom of movement, of being stopped or bothered when checking into a hotel. So it was a question of anonymity. If I were to write under an assumed name from beginning, it would be easier; but as I used my real name, I had to assume another name for anonymity.
Will: So what is your real name?
Shamir: Israel Shamir
Will: So what about Israel Shamirer. People say this is your birth name.
Shamir: No idea where they get it. People provide me with so many names!
Will: Once you described Jews as virus in human form.
Shamir: I never did. This was an invention of the Jerusalem Post. They repeated it many times. People accused me of all sort of things.
Will: Smear jobs. Why do you think you are targeted?
Shamir: I say complicated things; so it would be easier if I'd say something else. So they misrepresent what I say. People are probably unhappy with what I say, so they add to make their case. Why can't they say truth? I say and write enough things, but they still misquote or invent.
Will: So what are you trying to say?
Shamir: I say a lot, thousands of words. Tens of thousands.
Will: What is your attitude to life?
Shamir: I am very grateful to the Lord for what he gave me; for bad times so I'd appreciate good times; and for good times because they provided respite. Grateful for the world that was created for me. In Talmud, a disciple of Rabbi Akiba came to the Temple Mount and blessed the Lord for creating multitudes of people for him to worship with. He was a madman; but this feeling we experience that all was done for us: snow, throngs of people, forest – all that was created for me. Such a feeling causes a lot of gratitude.
[afterwards – some small talk about skating, fishing, New Jersey, until 1:14]
Will: Do you know whom I met in Brooklyn? I've met Norm Finkelstein. You say he is one of your best friends.
Shamir: Oh no, an acquaintance.
Will: He said not very nice things about you. He said you are sleazy, that you invented your personal history, and that is just a tip of an iceberg.
Shamir: I'm not too disappointed. He is doing very good job, Finkelstein does. He was very disappointed with me. He used to say that the Intifada has made one good thing: it brought Israel Shamir forth. He was keen; he thought I am doing wonderful things. But when I did not stop where he would like me to stop, he did not like it. He did not want me to criticize Jewish culture, Jewish faith; that I'd embrace Christ – that was very foreign for him, being a secular man. I did not promise him to do what he wants. Anyway I am fond of him: he is doing a very good job. I always stop people who criticize him. It is not necessary that everybody will follow my path, that they will reject what I reject and accept what I accept. So I am very positive about Norman Finkelstein. He is a wonderful guy; he is very fast on the draw. Very quick reaction. We appeared together in front of a huge multitude, thousand people, in the Columbia University in 2001. A lot of people. I had difficulty to reply as fast as he did. He impressed me. There was a Jewish guy, dressed Jewish way, he asked me: "Are you Jewish?" I must admit I did not know what to answer. This is a complicated question. Now I am surely not a Jew…
Will: but your parents are Jewish, so you must to be Jewish
Shamir: My parents are Jewish, but I am not. It is a question of choice, and I chose. But then I was in the middle of transition, so I could not answer neither Yes nor No. Norman stepped it and answered wittily for me; smoothing it over. So my memory of Norman is very positive; he is smart, and his logic is great.
[Shamir explains a conjecture that the past is being constantly re-written by our present-day actions. If it is re-written, it can be re-done, as well.]
Will: How far along are we with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
Shamir: This is complicated matter. The Protocols describe the world spiritually impoverished, the world where Spirit is being destroyed. The Jewish part there is not decisive, what is decisive that's destruction of spirit. And that is what many people feel that Spirit is destroyed. This is the concept of Kali Yuga. [Shamir spells and explains what it is] This is the same as the Protocols. One can imagine that there are some groups of people (the Protocols say it is Jews) who lead the way.
Will: Is it for real?
Shamir: The process of spiritual impoverishment is real.
Will: And are Jews behind it?
Shamir: No, not as the paramount force. Though some ideas of Jewish theology fit into it. We should try to understand why people connect Jews with the Kali Yuga process of decay. The Jews believe that non-Jews have no direct access to God. Only Jews have access to God, and non-Jews should only approach God via Jews. If a non-Jew has religion or learns the Bible or tries to access God, it is called in the Talmud a "theft of Israel's legacy". This theft is a crime; so from Jewish point of view, practically any spiritual involvement of a Gentile is a crime. Here it fits the Kali Yuga paradigm. However, Kali Yuga decay or de-spiritualization of the world is not a process controlled by humans (though it is certainly influenced by them).
Will: So what about the Elders of Zion?
Shamir: Elders of Zion is a figure of speech.
Will: So when you write about the Elders of Zion, you mean just a figure of speech?
Shamir: In my writings I did not go as far as I did just now; I just described the concept and summed up what others wrote. It is a complicated subject; orally one can explain it, but in writing: people can't ask additional questions, so they end up misunderstanding. I wrote much more simple things; one long piece or two short pieces. One, explaining how people saw it, notably how Solzhenitsyn saw it; for he insightfully wrote about the Elders. [Shamir spells out Solzhenitsyn and explains who he was]. Solzhenitsyn saw the thought behind the Protocols not as a domination drive but as a process of spiritual destruction.
Will: You write about American Goyim being brainwashed by Jewish media lords. Can you explain? Do you think I am brainwashed goy? [Actually until this moment, I was certain that the young man is of Jewish origin. Here he says he is not. But it does not matter; what I say to a Jew is what I say to a non-Jew].
Shamir: How could I know about you personally? Do not turn it into something so personal.
Will: But what do they want to achieve by their brainwashing of Goyim?
Shamir: They want to induce you with thought that Jews are special.
Will: The Jews are not special? Are they like everybody else, or worse?
Shamir: Jews are not special; they are like everybody else. They want to induce you with thought that everything about Jews is special; whether it is State of Israel, or Holocaust. In my view, it is not so.
Will: Do you want to say that Jews and Gentiles are the same?
Shamir: My view is a bit more complicated. I do not think that Jews is a separate self-evident category like zebra. You see a zebra; you know it is zebra. With Jews it is not like that. A Jew is one who willingly says: "I belong to this group". It is a question of choice.
Will: Is it good or bad to be a Jew?
Shamir: I think it is a wrong choice. It would be better for an American to be an American like all his neighbors, instead of claiming that he is special, a Jew. It is better for people to be a part of the community they live in. If they would have separate culture, like for instance Assyrians in Moscow; they live separately among themselves. But Jews haven't got this separate culture anymore, not in Russia or in the US.
Will: What about the West Bank? The Jewish settlements like one your mother lives in - isn't it Jewish separate culture?
Shamir: Not really. It is a separate colonial setup. Technically they are Jewish, but actually they are a colonial enterprise, and that is why there are quite a lot of non-Jews in the settlements, there are Russians, French. My mother is frequently upset they celebrate Christmas. The settlements could be moved to Rhodesia or to Wild West of 19th century. Some of the settlers go there for economical advantages, because they want to live in nice countryside, some are attracted by the scenery, and some go for some crazy reasons. I do not know the settlers all that much; I saw them from outside, from Palestinian point of view. They are possessed by feeling they are so special, so they establish no-go zones for natives around the settlements.
Will: Do you say you are not a Russian representative for Wikileaks?
Shamir: That's right. I am not. I am a journalist accredited with Wikileaks.
Will: I spoke to Kristinn [Hraffson, the Wikileaks spokesman] and he said that you are their Russian representative.
Shamir: So he said.
[AFTER 1:45 – small talk].
Shamir: Why did you decide to write about me?
Will: You are one of the most important journalists of our age. Are you a freedom fighter, a crusader of truth?
Shamir: No, just a writer.
Will: Anyway you do not work for Jewish media lords. Do you think I do work for Jewish media lords?
Shamir: I do not know. You published too little to know; you are still very young to know.
Will: If one says to you 'the state of Israel' what do you think first?
Shamir: I'll think of the country first, of its landscape, of its people. "The state of Israel" is a present political setup, it was not the setup some 60 years ago, and it may not last. It is transient feature.
Will: You said the Jews will thrive under Islamic state…
Shamir: I say: there may be Islamic state, and it will not be tragedy, but it is not that I am a supporter of such a solution. In Israel, we have SHAS party, the party of religious Oriental Jews. This party is very similar to Hamas; I think they can become affiliated to each other – if and when there will be one man – one vote system in the land. Then Hamas plus Shas could become a leading force, but there are other forces - secular, liberal, socialist. We should not decide for people. But I do not exclude Hamas.
Will: Does Israel seek world domination?
Shamir: Israel as spiritual super-being wants to be the Church of the world.
Will: Israel should not exist, in your view?
Shamir: The state of Israel should be transformed into a state where everybody (people who claim they are Jews and those who do not) has equal rights.
Will: It was reported that you asked for cables about Jews. Why did you? Did you get any?
Shamir: Yes, I've a lot of cables concerning Jews.
Will: What do the cables say?
Shamir: I intend to write about it; I've had no time yet.
Will: One example?
Shamir: There is a cable from Moscow saying there is no anti-Semitism in Russia. [This cable was published by Komsomolskaya Pravda and by Counterpunch].
Will: If I had the black hat and curls, you think I'd be able to walk the streets of Moscow unmolested?
Shamir: So many people do.
Will: Give me another example?
Shamir: Demands for restitution of Jewish property. The US ambassadors in many countries fight for it.
Will: Is it right?
Shamir: It is too late, and it will cause too much trouble. Likewise, regarding restitution of Palestinian property; in some cases it can be done, but not totally.
Will: What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word "Jews"?
Shamir: "Not again". I am very tired of hearing this word.
Edited by Paul Bennett