Arabs, Israel and Terrorism

An Interview with Primo Levi

Given the tensions in the Mediterranean region, how do you see the issue of the relationship between countries on the northern Mediterranean rim, such as Italy, and those with an Islamic culture on the southern rim, such as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria? What do you think we should do, think, or write in order to avoid exacerbating these tensions as we have done in the past? Finally, do you think there are some areas where our knowledge is incomplete in this regard?


Knowledge is always a good thing, but our knowledge of the Arab world - objectively speaking - is very limited. This limited knowledge is partly our fault and partly theirs, because it is undeniable that very little good news has come out of the Arab world, or Islam in general, for centuries. They use technology but have not contributed to the digital revolution, they are Marxists without having contributed to a renewal of the ideology. They are, in short, on the sidelines of both western civilization and the communist world. My view is quite pessimistic. I wouldn’t trust any of the leaders right now: neither Mubarak, nor Khomeini, nor Gaddafi. They are all unreliable, ready to jump onto any bandwagon out of their own interests. I don’t think they are just cynical and unscrupulous; they are insecure and ambiguous.


As far as Gaddafi is concerned, there is nothing about him I like. That does not detract from my deep repulsion regarding the bombing of Tripoli. This should not have happened. It was like trying to swat a fly with an iron bar: absurd. The way it happened, the way it was justified. The Americans actually said openly that they wanted to kill Gaddafi. I don’t like the man, but I don’t think we should go around killing people we don’t like. Eliminating him politically is one thing; eliminating him physically is another. The way they did it, without picking up the phone and asking their European allies what they thought until after the event, in my view it was truly a political crime which cannot be justified even at a level of realpolitik. It is not useful. This is not the way to fight terrorism. Headlines in the American press today announced ingenuously: “we will commit clandestine actions.”  It is is a contradiction in terms. If it’s clandestine don’t say it.



Was there a positive reaction on the part of Islamic governments at Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Roman synagogue?


Positive? Let me just say one thing: I was in the UK at the time so I read about the visit in the British press that I just skimmed through, and on the television news. So I missed quite a bit of detail. What you are saying interests me a great deal, but I didn’t know it. I heard that Khomeini has declared that he has nothing against the religion of Moses but that he does hold Jews in contempt. Is that true?


Yes, something of that kind. However, I think other governments mostly approved. That’s a good sign at least.


I watched the meeting between the Pope and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, ElioToaff, from a distance, from an observatory that was not my usual viewpoint. A priori I feel pretty diffident about the whole thing. It was certainly a good thing, but I have nothing in common either with the Pope or with the Chief Rabbi. There can only be positive consequences I suppose. Were reactions internationally all positive?


As far as I know. If someone did not approve they did not say so.


Outside the Arab world there was relative silence. But orthodox Jews were definitely not on the side of dialogue, as you know. American orthodox rabbis and Islamic preachers were ready to object.



We are emerging from a long period when we’ve been hearing only a distorted echo from the other side of the Mediterranean. The European Left used to sympathize, or identify, with Arab, or Islamic authors. Take Algeria: many of the leaders of the revolt had graduated from French universities, studied Sartre in Paris. They were slighter darker versions of Sartre. Today these countries are far more American in their consumer goods and much less European in their cultural outlook. They pose new problems. They may well become a different phenomenon to understand and deal with.


Understanding is always positive. I would really love to read or hear a sensible opinion from the Islamic world. The idea of barricading yourself behind a text such as the Koran which is fourteen centuries old, illustrious as it may be, shows total rigidity. It is integralism. Perhaps that is why the Islamic leaders approved of the meeting between two integralists such as the Pope and Toaff.


Don’t you think anti-terrorism measures, rather than blocking terrorists, present an obstacle to hundreds of thousands of people who would like to come to Italy to work and live in a country with a clear and transparent legal system that allows them to do so?


Until a few months ago I would have said no to any discriminatory measure. Nowadays there is a practical problem. If there really is the risk that a suitcase may contain ten kilos of explosives, we have to do something about it, even at the risk of limiting the rights of innocent people. If we are talking about financial loss, it is not relevant. It is a necessary evil. We need checks in the airports. It is discriminatory towards Islamic and Arab immigrants who want to come and work here. It is a painful reality we have to learn to accept.


Some commentators trace tensions between the US and Libya to the primary cause of the Palestinian diaspora.


This is one of the causes in my view. I don’t know if it’s the main one. It is very hard to write history with ‘what ifs?’. That is, asking oneself ‘if there had not been a Palestinian diaspora, what would have happened?’ I think it is a cause, maybe one of the most relevant, certainly not the only one. There is clearly a reawakening of Islamic fervor, a quest for identity, a new awareness. We extend, they seem to be thinking, from the Atlantic coast all the way to Malaysia, there are 500 million of us, we are a potentially powerful force, numerically if not otherwise. I know very little about this world. I am sure there is a lot to be said for it. In the past, Islam made many important contributions to our civilization. There was a flourishing Islamic culture in Spain throughout the Middle Ages that mediated between Greek philosophy and the thinkers of the time. In this climate of tension it is obvious that the Palestinian question must be addressed. I am sorry to find myself in agreement with Giulio Andreotti on the matter. At times our allies surprise us. Caution is of the essence, and reciprocal knowledge. There were 8,000 Italians in Libya, now there are only 3,500 left. An Italian government policy that addresses their issues is essential. The Palestinian problem must be solved as well, of course. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how, though. There have been too many divisions and terrible discrimination regarding the questions of independence, autonomy or confederations, or whatever solution was in the air. I am convinced that if the Palestinians were called to the negotiating table they would be able to agree on some acceptable solutions. Not necessarily all of them, but at least some. I heard Geddafi is despised by religious leaders, because he lets women take up arms, for example, or lets women enroll in universities, liberties they disapprove of. The world is so varied. We would need to be able to speak and read Arabic to understand their newspapers. We can’t be sure that the translated version we see has not been manipulated. Maybe even Geddafi says something right every now and then.


What do you think of the fact that states increasingly tend to violate rules, such as engaging in military actions against other states in response to single terrorist acts without declaring war?


There is no doubt that responding to terrorism with an armed military attack, sanctioned by government force, is – I don’t know how to define it – Nazi? Many people have said the same thing. The Americans themselves say it. Can anyone tell me what will happen in the future? Maybe they’ll be bombing Damascus next? It’s all pointless because there is no greater glue for binding the Islamic people than this. We are condemned to choosing episode by episode between morality and realpolitik. But this time neither works. The US intervention in Libya cannot be justified on any grounds.



Do you think it makes sense in a democracy to demand that governments respect the prevalent ethical mood of their citizens – in the spirit of a separation between an ethical and a political judgement?


My generation witnessed the Nuremberg Trial. It was illegal, but it had to be held, in order to establish precisely this distinction. Some things are just not acceptable, period. They may be useful in theory, but they must not take place. Our deepest conscience – Christian conscience if you like - dictates that. Our country can make mistakes. In this case we preserve the right to distance ourselves from the actions of our political leaders. This is true in the US too. Every American citizen has the right to disapprove, and the sum of every disapproval of every individual must carry some weight.


from: «Ex-machina», 1986.




Post Scriptum

The circumstances of the Interview

by Francesco Ciafaloni


It would be a legitimate question to ask how a little-known and short-lived magazine such as ‘Ex Machina’ (sponsored by the CGIL Trades Union of Piedmont), succeeded in gaining an interview with Primo Levi in 1986, a year before he committed suicide. How come the famous author accepted to talk about the US bombing of Tripoli and the Israel-Palestine conflict?


The answer is both general and personal. The general answer is easy. Although the left-leaning union in the mid-1980s was by no means an assembly of enlightened intellectuals grappling with the problems of the world – union members had far more pressing issues to deal with, which they could never leave aside, and if they did they were out. However, far more than today, CGIL card-holders held universalist ideals and aspirations. Bruno Trentin – who was to become General Secretary in 1988 - was the inspiration for the internationalism of the time. He had an office in Johannesburg that kept up links with the confederate unions (COSATU) and Mandela’s ANC Party. There were few organizational barriers or hierarchies. It was in the small office where ‘Ex Machina’ was produced that I first met Luisa Morgantini, then a member of the metal-worker’s union (FIOM), who spent her working life fighting for the rights of those in other countries, in particular in Jordan. There was no need to ask permission to write about on ethical or political issues.


Primo Levi, for his part, had worked in industry all his life. He knew the labor market and its problems, and he was neither suspicious nor supercilious about our little union rag. He was a universalist, but he knew when a fight was required. He was always concerned with distinguishing good from bad, and was particularly disturbed by ambiguity. His novel, ‘If Not Now, When?’, came out in 1982. ‘The Submerged and the Saved’ was first published in 1986.


My personal answer is more complex, but I will attempt to summarize it here. Before working for the CGIL union I was a copy editor at Einaudi and Boringhieri, the two most influential publishers in Turin. No surprise, then, that I was interested in the world around me. Before that, I had been an engineer at ENI, the Italian multinational oil and gas company, following an MA from Austin University in the year of the Cuban Missile crisis and the assassination of ENI President, Enrico Mattei. Among the 34 people killed at Fiumicino airport in the 1973 terrorist bomb attack, there was Raffaele Narciso, my boss in the Gela office of ENI. He was a dedicated engineer who respected workers of every color and creed, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, taking a plane to Tehran. Again, no surprise that the second Fiumicino attack, in December 1985, and the US bombing of Tripoli, affected me more than it affected others.


An additional twist of fate, rather than my editorial work, led me to the interview. I was a friend of Primo Levi’s, and I knew practically all the members of both Primo’s family, including Carlo, Riccardo, Giovanni and Stefano, and Franco’s (designer of the Turin Palavela arena and inventor of pre-compressed reinforced concrete). The ‘Ha Keillah’ Jewish study group used the family as an example of Piedmont Jewish traditions in the exhibition by the same name. At the time, Judaism and universalism were practically synonymous in Turin.


Primo and I had a common friend called Bianca Guidetti Serra. We all loved hiking in the hills, walking in the woods and open pastures, even close to the city between the Orsiera and Musinè. Primo liked telling stories, as well as writing them. I told him some of mine. We talked with other friends about his earlier book, The Monkey’s Wrench (1978), about nature, about the past that repeats itself, as it always does. He hardly ever spoke about his life or about personal issues.


The walks became rarer. Primo, with his wife, had to look after his elderly mother and mother-in-law, two beautiful old women with perfectly groomed white hair – like Primo’s beard – who were sadly no longer self-sufficient. I saw them, with their daughter and son-in-law, in their house in Corso Umberto when I went for the interview. I also saw the square stair-well, with the banister that was too low, that would become famous a year later when Primo threw himself off of it. Primo was nervous, although he had accepted the interview with good grace. He had other things in his mind. If the interview appears a little bit schematic compared to ‘The Submerged and the Saved’ it is because of this intrusion.


Together with Primo Levi’s interview in the ‘Deus Ex Machina’ magazine there was another interview on the same topic. This was with the anthropologist, Vanessa Maher, a British-Italian dual national who had conducted some important research in Morocco, but had spent most of her life with her father in Kenya and the Middle East. With Maher’s professional help, together with the passion of a researcher from Asti whose mother was from the Oramo ethnic group from Ethiopia, and some institutional support, we put together a research group of about 20 immigrants that worked together for many years. There were three Somali girls, one Tutsi, two Kurds, one Eritrean, one Libyan, several Moroccans and one Peruvian.


In the quarter century that has passed since then things have changed, often for the worse.Totaling the number of deaths in civil wars and ordinary wars that have involved all of these geographical areas we reach the devastating figure of 2 million. The long group sessions, that were much more enriching than formal interviews, and the reading we undertook, taught me over the years to be wary of single-cause explanations. In the past, religions were explained by society and economics. Nowadays whatever is not economics – presented as being the only rational route to take, a necessary path – is explained by religion. The protagonists in the old days gave social justifications for their ethical choices. Now they give religious justifications even for social rebellions. In the past the socialist international (and the ideals of social-democracy) were behind every revolt. Now behind every revolt the Islamic international lurks.


Of course there are organizations. Hitler and Stalin were leaders of organizations, and they may be emulated. There has also been American imperialism. And yet, there are many different subjects in this battle that threatens us today. It is harder to separate good and evil, as we must if things involve us directly.


Because of this, my reaction to recent killings is one of mourning not of anger. As far as distant wars are concerned, about which I know too little, I claim the freedom to cultivate doubt.

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