by Uri Davis. Crossing the Border;     Published by  19xx,  ISBN: 1 86102 0023

The following is the full text of the "Perdition" section from the chapter: "In Exile: Judaism versus Zionism" and is reprinted here with permission.

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Part 1:  Introduction to the Trail

(continue to Part 2)


Perdition, a play by Jim Allen, entered my orbit in London with the extensive review by David Rose in the Guardian on 14 January 1987:

A new play about the Jewish Holocaust which opens in London later this month claims that Jews, and specifically Zionist Jews collaborated with the Nazis ... Perdition which is being put on at the Royal Court is the first stage play by Jim Allen, a former miner whose previous television work ... has made him no stranger to controversy ... The play, directed by Ken Loach was first presented to the Royal Court two years ago ...[T]he present opening date of January 27 is almost a year later than originally planned.

The opening date was in fact scheduled for 22 January and David Rose had a draft of the text that was not the final version. In his review he quoted Dr Stephen Roth, Director of the London-based Institute of Jewish Affairs, alleging that the play was 'clearly anti-Semitic' and 'a libel against all those who lived through, fought and mostly perished in the Holocaust'.

By the time Perdition was scheduled to open all tickets had been sold, yet 36 hours before opening the play was axed by Max Stafford-Clark, Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre. The actors and the Director, Ken Loach, were informed just as they were preparing for the dress rehearsal. Jim Allen was in Manchester when Stafford-Clark's phone call came:

I am pulling the play. Not because it contains any inaccuracies, or is in any way anti-Semitic, but because it might cause distress among some members of the Jewish community (personal notes). Ken Loach appropriately points out that the stated reason for the ban ('going ahead would cause great distress to sections of the community') was quite inadequate:

Plays about fascism have caused distress in Germany, but does that mean they should be censored? Stafford-Clark himself staged a play about the Falklands war in Plymouth despite local objections about 'distress'. Of course, he was not fighting such powerful opposition there (Ken Loach & Andrew Homung, 'Censorship & Perdition', New Statesman, 20 February 1987).

The inadequacy of the stated reason is illuminated by Stafford-Clark himself when he reported that he and others had met with Dr Stephen Roth on 13 January:

Dr Roth also indicated the powers he could use to remove the play. He could picket. He could contact 'the Royal Court's friends' in New York. He could influence funding bodies in London. ('Why I Axed Perdition', Guardian, 13 March 1987)

The Zionist campaign did not end its mobilization against Perdition with the ban at the Royal Court. A subsequent attempt to produce the play at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin was also blocked. Sustained efforts were made by the Zionist lobby to ensure that no theatre would stage the play in London or anywhere else.

One producer was told that the theatre he wanted would become unavailable for this play. Not only that, he would not be allowed to rent any theatre belonging to that particular proprietor in the future. Another was telephoned from New York and told if he produced the play, his future career on Broadway would be in jeopardy. Legal action had been threatened. We have been advised that it would have little chance of success, but the possibility of legal costs is a severe deterrent even to a sympathetic management. (Ken Loach, Op Cit)

Perdition became a cause celebre. The battle was mostly fought in the columns of the Guardian and the New Statesman, although many letters and articles also appeared elsewhere. In face of the volume of Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust and mounting attacks on the play, I wrote to the Guardian as an anti-Zionist Israeli academic. I defended the play and voiced my support for the decision of the Royal Court Theatre to stage it as part of its 1987 repertoire. The letter was sent to the Guardian before the cancellation:

Judging by David Rose's exposition of the case, Jim Allen's interpretation of Zionist-Nazi collaboration is basically correct ... I very much welcome the Royal Court decision and the public debate/controversy that it is likely to generate. Public discussion of this aspect of Zionist history has been evaded or suppressed in many significant quarters. It is important that an open discussion of the subject take place. I and many others hope that this discussion will contribute to a critical reassessment of the role of the Zionist movement, the World Zionist Organization and the state of Israel in the determination of Jewish history at the time of and after the Holocaust as well as today (Guardian, 21 January 1987).

Between January and May 1987 some 120 editorials, articles and letters to the editor appeared in the mainstream British press. British historian Martin Gilbert condemned Perdition's court-room drama as 'a kangaroo court' and quoted David Cesarani's analysis of the play as 'a travesty of historical fact' (Daily Telegraph 22 January 1987). He also claimed to have identified 'more than 60 historical errors' in the text (Ibid). To the best of my knowledge he never made the list public. Lord Goodman said that 'Mr Jim Allen's description of the Holocaust can claim a high place in the table of classic anti-Semitism' (Evening Standard 23 January 1987). Arnold Wesker and others damned Perdition as 'a poisonous and reactionary work' (Guardian Letters 27 January 1987). And Victoria Radin villied it as 'a nasty play' (New Statesman 6 February 1987).

After its cancellation at the Royal Court the play could have disappeared and been forgotten. But coincidence determined that I should have the task of bringing it into the light of day.

When Gully [Uri Davis' elder son - Y.F.] was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Hackney London in May 1986 he was a whisker away from death. By July 1986 he had sufficiently recovered to be admitted to the Mildred Creak Unit at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children where Dr Bryan Lask and his team’s achievements were internationally renown for their treatment of adolescent anorexics.

An integral part of Gully's therapy was regular family meetings led by Margaret Cohen. Nira [Uri Davis’ former wife – Y.F.] and I would often go for a coffee at the nearby Dean's delicatessen at the corner of Southampton Row and Cosmo Place. The Perdition controversy had by then featured prominently in the press. One afternoon, we entered and took our seats. Haim Bresheeth was there. He is an expatriate anti-Zionist Israeli-Jewish film-maker and Head of the Film and Video Division of the London College of Printing at the London Institute. He was talking to a man I did not recognize. We were introduced. It was Ken Loach. He had seen my letter in the Guardian. He was eager to follow any lead that could help with the production of the banned play. I told him that, in principle, and subject to reading the text of the play, I would readily consider making Jerusalem & Peace Service [a consulting office on the question of Palestine headed by Uri Davis Y.F.] available for this purpose. Ken had a copy of the play with him and gave it to me to read. We arranged to meet again soon, together with Jim Allen.

It was a beautiful play. I found the text very powerful. There was nothing in the text, the context, the presentation, or the nuance that could support allegations of anti-Jewish racism (anti-Semitism). At bottom the play had two important messages to convey. First, every political and religious organization in Europe under Nazi occupation had produced the praiseworthy phenomenon of resistance and the shameful phenomenon of collaboration. The Zionist political organizations and Jewish religious organizations, like all others in Europe, responded in the same way. The Zionist contented that because under Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, Jews were victimized as Jews, they could not by definition collaborate with the Nazi occupation authorities (even had they wanted to). But this was nonsense. The play was based on the story of Rudolf Kasztner who, in 1954, appeared as witness in a libel action before the Jerusalem District Court presided by Dr Benjamin Halevi. A Hungarian Jew, Malkiel Greenwald accused Kasztner of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary in 1944-45. Kasztner failed to clear his name of the charge of collaboration with the Nazis, of preparing the ground for the murder of Hungarian Jewry and of saving a Nazi war criminal after the war. One charge was not fully proven - that of sharing plunder with a Nazi war criminal) footnote 13.

The play's second message was that Zionist ideology and practice led important sections of the leadership of the world Zionist Organization/Jewish agency to put the priority of Jewish state building in Palestine before the priority of rescue. To illustrate this the text quotes Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl's account of a letter in Hebrew (although, according to Weissmandl, in Roman script) sent by Nathan Schwalb. At that time Schwalb was representative of the Zionist He-Halutz (The Pioneer) organization in Geneva. The letter was addressed to the Jewish rescue Working Group, of which Weissmandl was a member, in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in about the autumn of 1942 as follows:

Since a messenger has been found he [Schwalb] writes to the Group that they must always remember that the most urgent issue, the main issue which must always be in front of us, is that in the end the Allies will win. After the victory they will divide the world again amongst the nations as they did at the end of the First World War. Then they paved the way for us to take the first step.

Now at the end of the war we must do everything so that Palestine will become the State of Israel. There have already been important steps made in this direction. And as for the outcry coming from our country, we should know that all the Allied nations are spilling much blood. If we shall not make sacrifices, with what shall we buy the right to sit at the table when the division of the nations and countries takes place after the war?

And therefore it is nonsense and even impudent on our part to ask from the nations who are spilling their blood that they permit their money to be brought into the land of their enemy to defend our blood - because only in blood shall we have the land.

This is as far as the community as a whole is concerned. As for your members of the Group, you take a walk [namely, escape], and for this purpose I provide you with money illegally by means of this messenger. (Quoted from Michael Dov Weissmandl, Min ha-Meitzar (From the Depth of Distress), Emunah Press, 194 Division Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, 1960).

I was also struck by a personal affinity. Perdition is a powerful court-room drama. Ruth Kaplan, the researcher who raises the charge of Zionist collaboration with the Nazi occupation authorities, is portrayed in the play as having studied Philosophy and Arabic at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; worked for a time with the Encyclopaedia Judaica; and became a pacifist and was active in the civil rights movement in Israel. I had never met Jim Allen and I found the coincidence amazing. The portrayal of Ruth Kaplan in Perdition reflected main features of my personal history. Only later did I learn that among the books Jim had researched for the play was Dissent & Ideology in Israel: Resistance to the Draft 1948-1973 (Ithaca Press, London, 1975). The book included my personal and political history among 13 other profiles of leading dissidents in Israel.

I was resolved to assist in any way I could.

My next meeting with Ken Loach followed soon after. I suggested getting the play published in book form as soon as possible. This would be a first step towards the stage production. The idea had already occurred to Jim Allen. The text was given to Saqi Books and they began typesetting. But the threat of litigation was real, and the company felt they would be unable to support legal costs over a protracted period regardless of the outcome. So Saqi Books returned the text to Jim Allen, who, on my advice then approached David Wolton at Ithaca Press. After consulting our common solicitor, Benedict Birnberg, on the possibility of libel, David decided to publish on the understanding that Jerusalem & Peace Service would be responsible for fund-raising to cover the cost of prospective litigation. Under UK law only individuals can claim to have been libelled, and we assumed that Nathan Schwalb was either dead or unlikely to challenge the quotation of his letter, which had been published many times since Weissmandl.

Perdition was published by Ithaca Press in collaboration with Jerusalem & Peace Service. The date of publication was set for 8 July 1987. I was determined to raise money not only to cover the cost of possible legal action, but also to stage the play in London.

So many criticisms of Perdition had been made before publication that David decided the only way to present the play was with a wealth of supporting matter. The Ithaca Press edition of Perdition included as Part I the text of the play and Jim Allen's bibliography as well as an article on Zionism and rescue by Lenni Brenner; a long outline of the Kasztner case by Akiva Orr; and letters of support to the Author by Erich Fried, Noam Chomsky and Maxime Rodinson. Part II included a note by David Cesarani and a rejoinder by Jim Allen on the genesis of the text along with a list of press comments in date order and reprints of a large selection of articles and letters.

Continue to the Schwalb's law suit denying  writing "the letter" (part 2)