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‘Origin’ story: How Ava DuVernay’s new movie connects the Holocaust, slavery and caste

(JTA) — Early in the new drama “Origin,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Black author Isabel Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) calls her cousin from Berlin to share that, as part of her research into American racism, she intends to learn more about the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. 

Her cousin is unimpressed.

“Leave Jewish folks alone,” Marion (Niecy Nash) advises Isabel. They don’t need you. Write about us.”

But this movie’s version of Wilkerson can’t abide by that. In her mind, the fates of Jews and Black people are connected by the hidden system of “caste”: arbitrary societal hierarchies that encourage cruelty and subjugation. This is the thesis undergirding “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” the 2020 bestseller by the real-life Wilkerson, which deems Nazism and American racism — alongside India’s own rigid caste system — as the caste systems that have “stood out” the most “throughout human history.” 

And “Origin,” the new film by Ava DuVernay now in theaters and based in part on this book, is devoted to making those connections plain.

Here’s a Jewish guide to what “Origin” has to say about the Nazis and their connection to Wilkerson’s broader thesis.

What is ‘Origin’ about?

Written and directed by DuVernay (“Selma,” “When They See Us”), “Origin” is a dramatization of the writing of Wilkerson’s “Caste” that uses historical recreations and the author’s own family story to capture the book’s cerebral tone. 

The film opens with the 2012 murder of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, later recreating Nazi-era Germany, the Jim Crow South and other moments it connects through the idea of caste. 

Well-regarded 20th-century Jewish texts make up some of the onscreen Wilkerson’s research process, including a quote by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi and glimpses of the 1956 anthropological book “Israel Between East And West,” by Raphael Patai. Palestinians are also name-dropped at one point, with a scholar from the Dalit caste — the “untouchable” lowest tier of India’s caste system — telling Wilkerson he feels a kinship with them as well as Black people.

The book “Caste” itself has sometimes been attacked in recent years as an example of “critical race theory,” an academic analysis of racist structures that conservatives say amounts to indoctrination and have sought to ban from classrooms. Wilkerson’s book is one of about a dozen at the center of an ongoing lawsuit involving a Texas public library that had tried to remove a selection of titles against the wishes of some residents; another is the picture book “In The Night Kitchen,” by the Jewish author Maurice Sendak. 

“Caste” is also being targeted by a Texas Republican state representative as one of 850 books that he says “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

Jim Crow and the Nuremberg Laws

One Nazi-era event dramatized in “Origin” is the 1935 drafting of the Nuremberg Laws, the race-purity strictures that declared Jews to be racially inferior and outlawed relations between them and Germans. 

The film emphasizes the fact that the real-life Nazi officials who came up with the laws drew heavy inspiration from the Jim Crow South’s segregation laws, which made it a crime for Black and white people in the South to enter relationships, attend the same schools or share the same public spaces.

Wilkerson’s book notes that the Nazis could not understand why the Americans hadn’t included Jews in their race laws “when it was so obvious to the Nazis that Jews were a separate ‘race’ and when America had already shown some aversion by imposing quotas on Jewish immigration.” The film’s version of Wilkerson tells a relative at one point, “The Jews and the Nazis were the same color,” emphasizing that caste isn’t necessarily about skin color.

In a famous photograph of German shipyard workers in 1936 delivering the “Heil Hitler” salute, one man in the photo is standing with his arms folded, apparently refusing to pledge his loyalty. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

‘The man in the crowd’

Another Nazi-era event DuVernay dramatizes is a famous photograph of German shipyard workers in 1936 delivering the “Heil Hitler” salute. One man in the photo is standing with his arms folded, apparently refusing to pledge his loyalty.

It’s an image that has gone viral in recent years and that Wilkerson included as an opening anecdote in “Caste” to illustrate the power of being a lone voice against injustice. In the years since the photograph was taken, the man has been identified by a living relative as August Landmesser, a one-time Nazi Party member who had fallen in love with a Jewish woman the year before the photo was taken.

“Origin” imagines the courtship between Landmesser and his Jewish lover, Irma Eckler, as playing out in secret, via clandestine meetings in jazz clubs, defying the Nazis’ caste structures. Eventually, the couple have children and try to flee across the border but are arrested for violating the Nuremberg Laws, which forbade “pureblooded” Germans like Landmesser from romancing Jews.

In real life, according to a family history authored by one of the couple’s daughters, Landmesser was sent to prison and then drafted to fight for the Nazis in 1944, declared missing in action and believed dead before the war ended. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp and sent her last recorded letter in 1942.

A view of “The Empty Library,” Berlin’s memorial to books burned by the Nazis, Aug. 27, 2008. (חזרתי via Creative Commons)

Nazi book bans and Remarque

Perhaps inspired by recent book-banning efforts in the United States, DuVernay’s film also heavily emphasizes the Nazis’ own book-burning practices. A segment showing Wilkerson’s research visit to Berlin lingers on the city’s book burning memorial, “The Empty Library,” an underground illuminated sculpture of empty white shelves. Designed by the acclaimed Israeli artist Micha Ullman, the sculpture’s image in the film is given more screen time than even the city’s more famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and is accompanied by flashbacks of a public Nazi book burning taking place.

One book in particular is frequently name-dropped in the film as a target of the Nazis, although its Jewish history is considerably more complicated: the World War I novel “All Quiet On The Western Front.” The book’s German author, Erich Maria Remarque, was frequently accused by the Nazis of being Jewish, though he wasn’t; his antiwar novel, which is heavily critical of Germany’s military failures, was seen by the Nazis as demoralizing, as was its initial 1930 film adaptation, directed by a Jew. The book was recently remade into a Netflix movie that was heavily decorated with Oscar nominations

Subjugation vs. extermination 

Also during Wilkerson’s Berlin visit in the film, she gets into an argument with a German academic over the efficacy of linking slavery to the Holocaust. 

While slavery persisted for several generations and involved unspeakable suffering, the companion states, the fundamental aims were different: slavery was an arm of capitalism designed to exploit humans for profit, while the Holocaust was a project to exterminate all Jews from the earth. 

It’s an argument that has often proved heated in the U.S. in recent years, as some Jews have fought against race-based history concepts that they claim prioritize Black suffering over their own. A Jewish leader in the right-wing parent activist group Moms For Liberty told JTA last year that she was inspired to campaign against public education after her daughter faced a quiz question in school whose “correct” answer was that slavery was worse than the Holocaust, which she said she considered “a Holocaust-minimizing question.”

Undeterred, the film’s Wilkerson continues to insist on the resemblance between the two on the basis of caste: that both institutions served to designate a lower class of people who could be mistreated by an upper caste as “an undifferentiated mass of nameless, faceless scapegoats.” 

A late-in-the-film montage makes this point explicit, as it cuts between scenes of Jewish women and children being abused at a concentration camp; Black women being abused onboard a slave ship, and the murder of Trayvon Martin.

The post ‘Origin’ story: How Ava DuVernay’s new movie connects the Holocaust, slavery and caste appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Amid Security Fears, Muslim Access to the Temple Mount During Ramadan Will Be Limited

Palestinians walk at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 21, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

i24 NewsAs the month of Ramadan approaches, concerns over security have prompted Israeli authorities to implement limitations on Muslim access to the Temple Mount site, and Al-Aqusa Mosque.

The decision, made in accordance with recommendations from the Minister of National Security Ben Gvir, comes amidst opposition from the Minister of Defense Gallant, Shin Bet, and the army.

The restrictions include a cap on the number of individuals permitted to enter the site, with additional sorting based on age. While the details regarding the authorization of Palestinians from East Jerusalem are pending, the implementation of security measures proposed by Itamar Ben Gvir, which would allow security forces to intervene in response to provocative behavior, was rejected.

Under the current plan, only Muslim pilgrims aged 60 or above with permits issued by the Shin Bet will be granted access to the Temple Mount. However, domestic intelligence agencies have expressed reservations, fearing that such restrictions could exacerbate tensions and fuel Hamas’s rhetoric about Israel’s intentions to seize the site and deny Muslims access.

This sentiment was echoed by Walid Al-Huashla, an Arab MP from the Ra’am party, who condemned the decision as dangerous and racist. Al-Huashla warned of the potential consequences of the measures, accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of capitulating to provocateurs and exacerbating tensions in Jerusalem.

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Unopened Medicine Boxes Bearing Names of Israeli Hostages Found in Hospital Raid

Some of the drugs found at the hospital. Photo: IDF

i24 NewsThe Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Shin Bet forces executed a strategic mission at Nasser Hospital in Gaza, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of terrorists and the discovery of a cache of weapons hidden within the hospital premises.

Prior to entering the hospital complex, the forces engaged in intense battles, including face-to-face combat and repelling rocket fire from within the hospital compound.

The forces apprehended numerous terrorists and terror suspects who had sought refuge within the hospital including individuals linked to the October 7th massacre. These individuals were subsequently transferred to security forces for further investigation.

IDF releases footage of soldiers uncovering unopened boxes of medicine in Al-Nasser Hospital that were meant to be transferred to Israeli hostages – some of which should have been refrigerated but was found sitting out.

— i24NEWS English (@i24NEWS_EN) February 18, 2024

During the operation, a substantial quantity of weapons was seized, with some weapons concealed in a vehicle believed to have been used in previous terrorist attacks. Additionally, a vehicle belonging to Kibbutz Nir Oz, which had apparently been stolen, was recovered from the hospital vicinity.

IDF forces also discovered un-opened boxes of medicine bearing the names of Israeli hostages. The packages were found sealed and undistributed, raising concerns about the previous breached agreement in which Qatar would distribute medicine for the chronically ill hostages.

The medical assistance includes essential treatments such as inhalers for asthma patients, medications for diabetics, insulin injections, glucometers, medications for heart disease and blood pressure, as well as treatments for intestinal infections and thyroid gland imbalances.

During talks, Qatar had committed to providing verifiable proof to Israel that the medications will indeed reach the hostages. However the IDF finding the France-sent boxes with medicine, indicates the never reached the hostages.

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The Myth of British Exceptionalism

Britain’s former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacts after the general election results of the Islington North constituency were announced at a counting center in Islington, London, Dec. 13, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay.

JNS.orgThat old image of the Jewish family with a packed suitcase at the ready in case they are compelled to suddenly leave their home has returned with a vengeance across Europe.

In France and Germany, home to sizable Jewish communities, the “Should we leave?” debate is raging in earnest. Both of these countries experienced record levels of antisemitic incidents in 2023, most of them occurring after the Hamas pogrom of Oct. 7 in southern Israel. Similar conversations are also being held in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Belgium and Spain—countries with tiny Jewish communities that are nevertheless enduring a painful rise in antisemitism.

What about Britain, though? It’s a pertinent question insofar as there has always been a “British exceptionalism” with regard to the continent. During World War II, the Nazis failed in their quest to conquer the British Isles, in contrast to the rest of Europe. After the defeat of Hitler, the British supported efforts to transform Europe into an economic and political community that eventually became the European Union, even joining it. Yet Britain was never fully at peace with its identity as a European state, and as is well known, the “Brexit” referendum of 2016 resulted in the country’s full-fledged withdrawal from the European Union.

When it comes to antisemitism, however, Britain is very much part of the European rule, not the exception. Again, that’s important because while the British don’t deny that antisemitism is present in their politics and culture, they don’t believe that it’s as venomous as its German or French variations. “It is generally admitted that antisemitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding),” wrote George Orwell in an essay, “Antisemitism in Britain,” penned towards the war’s close in April 1945.

At the same time, Orwell conceded that British antisemitism was “ill-natured enough, and in favorable circumstances, it could have political results.” To illustrate this point, he offered a selection of the antisemitic barbs that he had encountered over the previous year. “No, I’ve got no matches for you. I should try the lady down the street. She’s always got matches. One of the Chosen Race, you see,” a grumpy tobacconist informed him. “Well, no one could call me antisemitic, but I do think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking. The way they push their way to the head of queues, and so on. They’re so abominably selfish. I think they’re responsible for a lot of what happens to them,” a “middle-class” woman said. Another woman, described by Orwell as an “intellectual,” refused to look at a book detailing the persecution of Jews in Germany on the grounds that “it will only make me hate them even more,” while a young man—a “near-Communist” in Orwell’s description—confessed that he had never made a secret of his loathing of Jews. “Mind you, I’m not antisemitic, of course,” he added.

I’d wager that were Orwell to tackle the same subject today, he would write a similar essay. The rhetoric he quotes echoes eerily in what we are hearing almost 80 years later, particularly the denial that recycling antisemitic tropes makes one an antisemite, as well as the digs against chosenness—because antisemites have never understood (or don’t want to understand) that Jewish “chosenness” is not about racial or ethnic superiority, but a duty to carry out a specific set of Divine commandments.

Last week, the Community Security Trust (CST), a voluntary security organization serving British Jews, issued its annual report on the state of antisemitism in Britain. The CST has been faithfully issuing these reports since 1984, and over the last few years, it has regularly registered new records for the number of offenses reported. 2023 was the worst year of all; there were a stomach-churning 4,103 incidents reported—an increase of 81% on the previous annual record in 2021, when 2,261 incidents were reported (largely due to that year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas for 11 days in May).

Instructively, the worst month in 2023 was October, in the days immediately following the rapes and other atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on that black day. Oct. 11 was, in fact, the worst day, with 80 incidents reported. As the CST pointed out, “[T]he speed at which antisemites mobilized in the U.K. on and immediately after Oct. 7 suggests that, initially at least, this increase in anti-Jewish hate was a celebration of the Hamas attack on Israel, rather than anger at Israel’s military response in Gaza.”

Of course, the present situation in the United Kingdom differs from Orwell’s time for two main reasons. Firstly, in 1945, there was no Jewish state, and antisemitism revolved around cruder tropes invoking supposed Jewish rudeness, clannishness, financial power and so forth. (Even so, Britain was also one of the first Western countries to experience antisemitic rioting linked to the Zionist movement and Israel; in 1947, after two British officers in Mandatory Palestine were executed by the Irgun, or “Etzel,” resistance organization, violence targeting Jewish communities broke out across the United Kingdom, thereby establishing the principle that all Jews, everywhere, are to blame for the alleged evils of Zionism.)

Secondly, in 1945 Britain was still largely a white, Christian society. In the interim, it has become far more diverse and is now home to nearly 4 million Muslims who constitute 6.5 percent of the population. Since the late 1980s—when the Iranian regime issued a fatwa calling for the death of the Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie, alleged to have slandered Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses—what was once a relatively docile population has become politically animated, with the Palestinian cause pushed front and center.

In the four months that have passed since the Hamas atrocities, with weekly demonstrations in support of Hamas in London and other cities, Muslim voices have been disproportionately loud in the opprobrium being piled not just on Israel, but on those Britons—the country’s Jewish community—most closely associated with the Jewish state. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every Muslim, and many of the worst offenders are non-Muslims on the left. Indeed, the Oct. 7 massacres have enabled the return to politics of a particularly odious individual whom I had forlornly believed had been banished to the garbage can of history; George Galloway, an ally of Hamas and one-time acolyte of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who is standing in the forthcoming parliamentary election in the northern English constituency of Rochdale for an outfit called the “Workers Party of Britain,” whose manifesto combines nationalism and socialism, but which would probably balk at the description “national socialist” in much the same way that some antisemites balk at the description “antisemitic.”

British Jews have weathered a great deal in recent years, especially the five years when the Labour Party, the main opposition, was led by the far-left Parliament member Jeremy Corbyn, who has since been turfed out of the party by his successor Sir Keir Starmer. Having survived that, the belief has spread that they can survive anything. But there’s another question to be asked: Is the effort worth it? Increasingly, and worryingly, growing numbers of British Jews are now answering “no.”

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