Tag Archives: Jews

The Cinch Review

Defiant Requiem

Defiant RequiemAt New York’s IFC Center I recently watched the film “Defiant Requiem,” which is a new feature-length telling of a remarkable and moving story from the Holocaust. I am not going to try and provide the whole narrative here, as you can find that kind of thing elsewhere, but briefly it is the story of how a group of prisoners—almost all Jews—led by a talented young Czech conductor named Rafael Schächter, practiced and learned Verdi’s “Requiem,” a very stirring and enormously challenging choral work, eventually performing it sixteen times for their fellow prisoners (recruiting new singers as many were deported to Auschwitz in the meanwhile). This was in a concentration camp at Terezín, near Prague.

The idea of Jewish prisoners working so hard to perform something based on the text of a Roman Catholic funeral mass seems strange, and indeed some rabbis at the camp objected. However, Schächter would not be dissuaded, and found 150 singers who volunteered to descend to a cellar (where Schächter had a broken down piano he had found) and go through hours and ultimately months of exacting lessons and rehearsal.

Some years ago, the American conductor Murry Sidlin came across a mention of how Verdi’s Requiem was performed at this concentration camp, and, understanding what was involved, was flabbergasted at the thought of how it could have been done. He found out all he could about the story, and ultimately dedicated himself to bringing the Requiem back to the abandoned Terezín in a performance to honor those who had performed and heard it then, most of whom were murdered at Auschwitz or other camps. The new documentary, “Defiant Requiem,” portrays this (including a performance in the very basement where Schächter and his singers practiced) and tells the original story by means of reenactments and interviews with a few surviving members of the choir.

Schächter’s passion for putting on Verdi’s Requiem in the camp had everything to do with the Latin text, which, accompanied by the sublime music, he saw as being capable of making a defiant and inspiriting statement which the prisoners could not otherwise have publicly made. He made sure the singers knew the meaning of each word they sang, including these verses which speak of God’s judgment: Continue reading Defiant Requiem

Myriam Monsenego

Mohammed Merah: a “Lone Wolf” and an Idea that Will Not Be Shamed

Myriam MonsenegoMohammed Merah was the twenty-three year-old jihadist who brutally murdered three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse, which was a follow-up to his killing of three French soldiers earlier in March. His older brother, Abdelkader, reportedly has said that he “is proud” of Mohammed’s actions.

Those actions include not only the cold-blooded human slaughter itself, but Mohammed’s filming of the acts. He had already uploaded his videos to a jihadist website, to inspire his brothers in faith, including the footage of him killing a terrified eight year-old Jewish girl. From the New York Post:

Mohammed Merah is seen yanking Myriam Monsenego by her hair — then firing a bullet into her head while he holds her.

Officials believe Merah strapped on a camera before each murder and posted the videos on jihadi Web sites, where he believed they would inspire other al Qaeda wannabes.

Mohammed was not really innovating in what he did. Al-Qaeda and other jihadist killers have long used video recordings of their bloody slaughter of helpless victims to encourage, entertain and inspirit one another. None of these jihadist perpetrators should properly be called “lone wolves.” They share a philosophy and a network, one which continues to produce additional actors all over the world.

It’s not pleasant to contemplate this kind of evil. It’s natural to want to turn one’s head away and dismiss it as aberrant and incomprehensible. I’m as guilty of that inclination as anyone.

However, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, these acts raise questions that have to be reflected upon by anyone who desires to live oriented towards reality rather than a false rosy horizon. There is violence everywhere, and there always has been, but what is it that makes so many human beings today believe—without any apparent doubt or shame—that acts of this nature are not only desirable in the moment but objectively good? Mohammed Merah truly believed as he jumped out that window with bullets flying that he was on his way to heaven, to be with God and to be rewarded by God for the actions he had taken. God, he believed, was going to reward him for grabbing the hair of eight-year old Myriam Monsenego, yanking her head towards him and firing a bullet into her skull. His brother, still living, agrees, as do his fellows watching the videos on the jihadist websites. This is the same motivation which is behind countless acts of inexpressibly horrific violence going on around the world. (Most of it, of-course, takes place not in western nations like France, where it gets so much attention, but rather in Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, often directed against fellow Muslims, or in countries with burgeoning Muslim majorities like Nigeria.)

It is a very different quality of evil which is so confidently convinced of its own objective and eternal goodness, very different to the evil of pure blood-lust or of violent greed for money and power. It cannot be characterized as being completely unprecedented; people have been killed in the name of dark distortions of Christianity and of other religions before. However, surely it is unique in its imperviousness to the judgment of time and its apparent immunity to correction through reflective leadership and reform. Islam originated with Muhammad in the seventh century and, bluntly-speaking, the idea that killing people on the basis of who they are (Jews, Christians, infidels) can be regarded as an objective good has persisted since those earliest days. Of-course, it is not a behavior practiced by the majority of Muslims, as if that even needs to be said. But the idea itself that slaughtering even the helpless, even innocent children, on the basis of their non-submission to Islam can be good, laudable and holy: that idea has not gone away. And the consequences of that idea show no signs of abating in our modern world, in this twenty-first century. Far from it, as if that even needs to be said. President Obama is in Seoul this very day at a summit regarding nuclear proliferation. He has said that the danger of terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb in an American city is “the single most important national security threat that we face.” If or when that happens, it’s almost certainly going to be just one more consequence of this same idea. Millions may be destined for violent death in this century as a direct result of it.


Again, I feel I’m probably belaboring the obvious, and perhaps coming across as being naive, but every now and then, as these events proceed on and on, it is worth stopping to ask the basic questions, if only to resist falling into total callousness. Here is such a basic question: What is being done, within Islam, to defeat and eradicate this persistent idea? It is not enough for some imams or select Islamic spokespeople to react to the acts of a Mohammed Merah by saying, yet again, “This has nothing to do with Islam.” Yes, it did have something to do with Islam. Mohammed Merah believed he was going to heaven and would be rewarded for, among other things, grabbing eight-year old Myriam Monsenego by her hair while discharging his gun into her cranium. He believed this was a good thing, that it was something to proudly film and share to encourage others. And all around the world, more and more Mohammeds are convinced daily of the same basic idea, and are acting upon it. (If they are not killing Jews or infidels, they are killing fellow Muslims who they judge to be falling short in some way.) Why is it so apparently impossible for this idea to be fought and defeated by other Muslims? Why in fact does the horrible nature of such acts not produce a wave of shame that might extinguish the fire of would-be perpetrators?

I know that there are those who can write treatises in response to such questions, and I sometimes read them too. Maybe the answers are already out there. But sometimes you just have to stop and ask the questions again.