Review of “A Radical Jew,” a film by Noam Osband.
One of the most contentious, and misunderstood, notions in recent memory is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” an argument she used to describe Adolph Eichmann in her Eichmann in Jerusalem. The complexity of her argument and its critique is not relevant here except to say that Arendt saw in Eichmann not the monstrous murderer she expected to see but a rather boring, somewhat pitiful, and largely unreflective apparatchik. That such a person could be guilty of such horrific crimes, which she believed he was, was a shock to her system, and her study of Eichmann was a philosophical reflection of that shock.
Baruch Marzel, the subject of Noam Osband’s short compelling film “A Radical Jew” is no Adolph Eichmann but he exhibits a banality that similarly shocks the viewer who expects to see this leader of the KACH party and follower of Meir Kahane as a rabble rouser, a terrifying far-right Jew who spouts hatred and venom toward the Arabs and the left. One can see such a figure in Kahane himself who plays a prominent role in the film. Clips of Kahane yelling and espousing racist and vile rhetoric contrasts starkly with the mild-mannered Marzel who seems more like a hapless practical joker than a Jewish terrorist. Marzel denies ever engaging in terror not because it is wrong, he says, but because he does not think it will achieve its intended goals. He has been arrested many times for alleged terrorist activities.
Baruch Marzel was born in 1959 in Boston to American parents who moved to Israel a few weeks after his birth. His father was a leader of Bnei Akiva in America and was acquainted with Kahane who had a long-standing relationship with Bnei Akiva. Marzel was impressed with Kahane as a child and by the sixth grade he was active in far-right protests in Israel. A religious Jew who now lives in Hebron, Marzel seamlessly espouses the centrality of trust in God, and leads an Orthodox life, but wears his religiosity lightly. His far-right ideology does not come across as theological or messianic but, with the early Kahane (Kahene became more apocalyptic later on) it is a materialist ideology of survival. “To survive you have to learn how to fight,” he calmly notes, one must trust God in one’s fight for survival “even if it endangers the entire Jewish people, sometimes.” There is something arresting in the almost serene way Marzel explains his conviction regarding the inevitability of violence as doing God’s work. One wonders whether we are witnessing a sociopath, one who does not understand the consequences of his actions, but I think that is incorrect. Marzel is quite aware of what he is saying and aware of its consequences. He is an uber-pragmatist who lives in a world of black and white and accepts that without complexity. When asked about the Arabs he says, “We don’t hate the Arabs because they are Arabs, we hate them because they are our enemies.” This contrasts sharply with Kahane’s rhetoric of Arab’s being “a cancer in our midst” that need to be “cut out.” In Marzel’s world the solution to all conflict is that the strongest fighter wins. His view of Torah is that human civilization is like nature, survival of the fittest. Darwinian Judaism. Ironically, though, Marzel doesn’t seem very strong. At least not on the outside. His strength lies in the unequivocality of his conviction. And his belief he is doing God’s work. When describing how his young son got into a fight with an Arab boy, he congratulates both his son and the Arab boy. “It good to get hit by an Arab,” he says, “because only if you get hit, will you learn how to hit.” “I educate my children to fight,” he says, and Baruch Hashem, they fight. This is all stated with the calmness and serenity of one describing last night’s dinner.
At one point, Marzel smiles and says to Osband that what he is really afraid of about this film is that “you will portray me as a pussycat and ruin my reputation.” The irony is that he actually is a kind of “pussycat,” just one who happens to hold radical right-wing views and is not afraid to act on them. That is part of his banality – he seems to lack fear, but not because he is heroic or courageous but because he is so deeply convinced of his views he is willing to die for them even if it endangers the lives of his family and community. This is why, Marzel says, that KACH cannot be stopped – because there is a purity of conviction that is uncompromising. Whether that is true in KACH more generally is open to debate. But in this film it appears to be true of Marzel.
One of Kahane’s claims is that even if you disagree with him he will never be caught in hypocrisy. We know from Kahane’s personal and professional life that this is false, hypocrisy runs deep, but Marzel seems to have absorbed this in a particularly simplistic, one might say, banal, fashion. He tells the story of being in the Knesset library when Yossi Sarid, the left-wing veteran Knesset member approaches him and asks to borrow a pen. Marzel, with a pen sticking out of his pocket quietly says, “I have no pen for you.” Marzel’s Knesset colleagues who witnessed the exchange chastise him and say “I want to teach you a lesson, even as we disagree in there (referring to the Knesset chamber) outside we are all friends.” Marzel replies to them, “I want to teach you a lesson. What I believe inside, I also believe outside.” Sarid, Marzel claims, is a danger to the Jewish people. As such, he is a danger inside the Knesset as much as outside. Thus, “I have no pen for you.” Marzel is, as he claims, a person of pure ideology. With a wry smile he quotes his teacher Kahane who ostensibly said, “It is all lies or all truth. 99% truth is 100% lie.” Rhetoric aside, Mazel seems to actually believe it, in a scary and banal way.
Mazel comes off in Osband’s film as a radical without anger or animus. The viewer is inclined to think this is a ploy but I do not think it is. The camera often fixates on his very calm eyes, not demonically or eerily calm but a calmness that exhibits no tension or ambiguity whatsoever, a person of unshakable conviction, childlike, as person who is all ideology. He captures his banality best when he states, “I’m crazy, but I’m normal.”
In the final scene Osband asks Marzel, “Is there anything you are afraid of?” to which Marzel responds, “Myself.” “I am afraid I will not do what I am supposed to do.” One is compelled to believe he means this sincerely.
What are we to make of all this? Mazel’s conviction makes him largely impenetrable, his mind seems hermetically sealed with a Hobbesian notion about power as the tool of the good he learned from Kahane, an angry and complex man. Morality, empathy for the “other” (i.e. the non-Jew, in this case, the Arab) seems irrelevant to Marzel, not because they are Arab but because they are, and in his mind, always will be, the enemy. Survival, not morality, is what drives him and it does so in a way that lacks any tension. One can almost hear the vitriolic ideology feeding Marzel’s worldview but he seems to have absorbed it in a way that has excised the vitriol and left only the ideology. Yet he does not come off as righteous; he comes off as banal. And there is danger in that banality. One is just not sure what that danger is. It is a danger, I suppose, that enables him to do things others would be afraid to do, a conviction that empowers him to influence others to act similarly. His banality does not make him less guilty of his ideology, it just makes him more difficult to demonize.
Someone once said of the philosopher Paul deMan that he believed in nothing, “and there is nothing more dangerous than a person who believes in nothing.” Mazel may be just the opposite. He believes with a simplicity that is banal, and perhaps there is nothing more dangerous than a person whose ideology lacks all ambiguity, anger, or vitriol. Such a person could move mountains. Or destroy worlds. Or perhaps neither.
Osband offers us a fascinating window into the mind of a banal radical Jew. One is both compelled and repulsed by Marzel’s conviction, sometimes wishing one could capture that simlicity and then thankful one cannot. Marzel is scary in a very unassuming way. The fear is that there is no fear. And no fear may be the most frightening thing of all.
Arendt was accused of diminishing Eichmann’s evil by claiming it was banal. But maybe the reverse is true. Maybe the banality of evil is actually the most dangerous kind of all.