A Heartfelt Apology From Benny Ziffer: 'I Reached a Height of Monstrosity'

In a penitent farewell offering, Haaretz's controversial columnist explains how he allowed his role of 'amusing devil' to take control of his life - and his conscience.

Benny Ziffer at Haaretz's Culture Conference in Tel Aviv on March 6, 2016.
Benny Ziffer at Haaretz's Culture Conference in Tel Aviv on March 6, 2016. Moti Milrod

In the end, what I feared so much came to pass: I got up in the morning, looked in the mirror and discovered that the mask beneath which I’d hidden my true face in order to amuse the readers of this column would not come off.

Some time ago, I took on the role of the amusing devil, and the game was good and I earned applause, the audience loved it and asked me for more and more and more segments of devil games. I became intoxicated with success. And with the intoxication of success came a blurring of the boundaries between game-playing and reality.

The height of monstrosity came last Friday. I wrote an article (for the Hebrew edition) that now, upon rereading it, leaves me shocked at myself – an article justifying crime in the name of art – and now I have nowhere to escape from myself. Because, who will believe me now that it was written by my mask and not by me, when the mask and I have been glued together inseparably? Who will believe that I wrote that horror in the deceptive security that as long as I wear the mask, I am exempt from my humanity?

Seemingly, I am a regular human person who goes to work in the morning and comes home from work, and on weekends is visited by his children and grandchildren. But people close to me warned me long ago that I had embarked on a dangerous path.

A former colleague from Haaretz wrote to tell me she was sorry to see the corruption of the human, modest image of the serious literary-supplement editor she had so greatly esteemed in the past, and that I had become a satanic clown. Inwardly I mocked her, because I was drunk with success, with the same mirage-like success offered by television programs on which you are a guest and are asked for your opinion, and you feel important, strong, not noticing that with every such appearance another slice of your soul is missing.

Until the soul apparently emptied out completely, so that I had no compunctions about writing that crimes carried out in the name of art can be justified. And it still took me a day or two to grasp the horror of what I’d written, because the radio and the television and the journalists found it quite amusing to observe the person in the clownish devil’s mask crossing the permissible boundary into the realms of darkness, and amusing, too, to watch those who were appalled by what he wrote.

A lengthy list of poets called for my removal as artistic director of the poetry festival in Metula – a post to which I had recently been appointed – and still I shrugged my shoulders and said: What do I care?

Now I am crying, but the tears that are falling from my real eyes beneath the mask are not visible through it. I ask for forgiveness from everyone who was hurt by what I wrote, but the voice that comes out of my real mouth doesn’t penetrate the mask. I write, “Please, forgive me,” but I do not delude myself that I will be believed. People will say: The only thing he knows is how to pretend, and this is one of his pretenses.

Please allow me to bury my column from last Friday in a pit and cover it over with heavy stones. I am tired of the expectation of seeing my real face in the mirror anew. I want to flee from here, to empty shores. Without media, without applause, without mirrors.

On Sunday, as I left the Haaretz Culture Conference, an elderly woman came over and said quietly, in an American accent, “You are a disgusting person.” And still I refused to believe that she was referring to me. I was still under the illusion that I was not the one who wrote the disgraceful article that appeared under my byline last Friday, justifying crime in the name of art, but that it was the imaginary, satanic character in which I had cloaked myself for amusement. I laughed aloud and made a dismissive gesture.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, left, at the home of Haaretz writer Benny Ziffer, right.
Ilan Biteltom

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that forgiveness is possible if the request for forgiveness comes from a completely submissive heart. The poet Yehuda Amichai, too, talked about mercy, which I am now asking readers for, even though I have no right to ask for mercy, having myself been merciless. But my heart is now totally submissive.

Another participant in the Haaretz Culture Conference, someone I don’t know, came over to me and asked offhandedly whether I am the son of Dr. Nira Ziffer from the Katowice Clinic of the Clalit HMO. My mother, it turns out, was the woman’s parents’ family doctor for many years. “She was humane, she was a true human being,” the woman said to me, giving me a look saying that it was too bad I had strayed so far from the path my mother had walked.

“Look what a pass you’ve brought yourself to, son,” I hear my dead mother saying to me. “Is this why we immigrated to this land and worked and suffered? For you to write such monstrous things? I hid the paper from Dad last Friday, so he wouldn’t see the disgrace and wouldn’t get an ulcer. I’ve already taken a pill to lower my blood pressure and half a sleeping pill, too. I can’t sleep from worry. Go and ask for forgiveness. Show them your pictures from when you were a boy. I’m sure they will forgive you when they see what a cute boy you were.”