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We, the Accused

Holding the Victim to Blame

Whenever there is a terror attack against Israel, the world media finds some way to make Israel the accused, whether for provocation or retaliation, for people dying or failing to die, for killing the terrorists, or failing to kill them.

Yehuda Elberg, with rescued cousin now living in Israel

Yehuda Elberg, with rescued cousin now living in Israel

This is not a new phenomenon.  Two thousand years ago, a significant Jew was murdered by non-Jews, and for two thousand years the Jews have been persecuted for his death.  In the current era, Jews are being blamed by anti-Semites for provoking the holocaust.  They have been blamed for its horrible death toll, with their accusers putting the blame on Jewish passivity, and failure to resist.  It is this latter blame that my father Yehuda Elberg addressed in a lecture approximately forty years ago.  He was a holocaust survivor, a member of the Jewish Underground in Poland, and part of the Ghetto uprising.  Immediately following the war he worked on smuggling Jewish survivors to Israel (then known as Palestine).  Below are excerpts from his lecture We, the Accused.

***

On the 35th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, a great deal was written about this in Jewish newspapers the world over, especially in Israel. The influential Maariv carried an article by Chaim Baltsan entitled: “Yom Ha-Shoah 1978: Is it Different from Previous Years?” Among other things, Baltsan wrote: “Much has already been written and said about the heroism — and under the circumstances it was extraordinary — the heroism displayed by the Ghetto rebels and the organizers of the uprisings in the camps. We are proud of that heroism, we will always be proud of it. But not so with the Shoah, that dark and bitter phenomenon in which it is impossible to find even the tiniest spark of light. Yet we are compelled to couple it with the heroism and to utter words in the same breath. We have linked the Holocaust with the heroic uprising in order to conceal the unacceptability of the pain, more accurately the shame; when we recall how millions were led like sheep to the slaughter…”

the Armenian genocide

the Armenian genocide

In brief, they are ashamed of us, they are ashamed of the survivors as well as the fallen. We are guilty of having put on the yellow badge. Better we had all died than let ourselves be so degraded. We are guilty because we did not revolt against being locked up in ghettos; proud people do not allow themselves to be locked into cages like animals in a zoo.  We are guilty because we let ourselves be herded into cattle-cars and did not counter-attack the Germans with our fists…

I want to tell you about the individuals and let the Chaim Baltsans be ashamed of their own ignorance, their own narrow mindedness, their own heartlessness, their owned blindness to the heroism of the Ghetto even when that the heroism was not as spectacular as in the Hollywood film.

An episode from 1940:

They made gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground ... and they burned the Indians alive.'

They made gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground … and they burned the Indians alive.’

The Germans had given the Jews out of a shtetl in that part of Poland which had been annexed to the Reich. They packed in Jews into trucks. One young woman with a baby in her arms was having difficulty climbing up into the truck. A German soldier politely took the child from her and helped her into the vehicle.  When she stretched other arms to take the child, he throw it to the ground.  The woman jumped from the truck.  The German pointed his rifle at her.  She didn’t budge.  He raved and raged and threaten to shoot her and the child.  She still didn’t budge. He then raised the muzzle of his gun and threatened to shoot all the Jews in the truck.  The woman dragged herself back into the truck.  When they arrived in Warsaw, she was out of her mind.

Who can evaluate the greatness of that sacrifice?  Who can measure the boundless love for her fellow Jews, that gave her the strength to make such a decision and incredible courage to carry it out?  The knowledge of what was going to happen to her baby burned so fiercely in her brain that consumed it.  Her nerves were strung so tautly that they snapped.  Yet she still managed to weigh and measure.  Her hands — a scale of destiny. In one hand the compulsive desire to remain with the child; in the other the lives of the few score Jews.  She made her decision and even succeeded in carrying it out before her unbearable anguish destroyed her brain.

Babi-Yar original art by Esti Mayer

Babi-Yar
original art by Esti Mayer

Hunger, fear and pain weaken a human being physically, and diminishes his mental strength.  There’s no need here to recount what the Jews went through from the beginning of 1940 until the summer of 1942.  In the proceedings of the Nuremberg trials you can find the testimony of one Herman Graebe, a German who was present during the slaughter of the Jews at Dubno.  A group of naked Jews stood at the edge of a ditch.  Behind them we Germans were loading their rifles.  Among the Jews stood a woman with a child in her arms.  The woman tickled the child, and began singing to it, so the child was laughing merrily when the German bullets cut down the mother and baby, and they both fell into the pit.

Psychologists tell us that when a person stands face to face with death all the emotions are paralyzed.  Terror, hope, anger, love, hate, all disappear at the moment when one looks death in the eye.  Emotionally he is already on the other side of the fight.

Our martyrs, however, demonstrated that it is not necessarily so.  Maybe fear has vanished, maybe all hope has died, maybe anger and hatred have been extinguished.  But one thing in this woman continued to live—love.  The emotion of love remained awake, strong, self-sacrificing.  I do not know any poem more lofty.  I’ve never heard any song more beautiful, never seen any deed more holy than the singing of that mother to her child in Dubno.  The chuckle of her infant, on the edge of the grave, sent out into the world’s void a resounding testimony of Jewish love and self-sacrifice.  The giggle of that child is the most exalted ode ever sung to the Jewish mother…

I come back to the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto and I must begin with a prefatory observation.

Some years ago there was a fire in the movie theater where everyone pushed for the exits.  People stepped on each other.  More people died from the panic than from the fire.  Similarly, on a sinking ship, everyone tries to get to the lifeboats.  People grab the rope ladders out of each other’s hands.  The result: nobody gets to the boats.

ghetto sepiaThe Warsaw Ghetto was a flaming inferno, a sinking ship.  But what happened with the people there?

On the day before the uprising began it was like Yom Kippur Eve in a pious Jewish household.  People spoke quietly, walk softly.  A kind of reverential air spread over the Ghetto streets, a trembling, but not out of fear.  Out of exultation.  A decision had been made, responsibility assumed.  But it did not weigh onerously on the people.  It hovered over their heads like an aura.  A whole community of Jews went forth to meet the inevitable with the purposefulness, with a sense of mission, and one could feel the presence of the wings of history, the duty to future generations.  Some sixty thousand Jews marched forth into greatness within the almost festive tread…

We, the Accused

It burns me when I hear someone say that the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto saved the honor and dignity of the Jewish people. No! Jewish honor stood high even when Jews were expiring with a quiet, unspectacular death. It was the honor of the entire humanity that was in mortal peril. And it was the greatness of the Jews in the ghettos, with their sanctified life and their heroic death that saved the honor of the human species, and gave flesh-end-blood mortals back their image of God.

I said that Jewish heroism did not begin with the uprising; it also did not end with the uprising. I need not describe the terror, the anguish, the scientific dehumanization system in the concentration camps. According to all experience in history, according to all the laws of psychology, the survivors should have emerged from the camps embittered destroyers, venomous killers and incendiaries, filled with hatred for a world that had led to all this and then permitted it to go on. Their physical health was destroyed. Their homes were destroyed. But the image of God within them was not.

Overnight, upon the liberation of the camps, a social life was created, with culture, with ideologies. The skeletal fingers did not yet have the strength to hold a pencil steadily, but they were already writing books, issuing newspapers.

I could tell you a great deal about the wonders and the miracles performed by the brands barely plucked out of the fire. Instead, let me quote from a letter by Professor Zelig Brodestski, the then head of Britain’s Jewish community, written to the survivors in Bergen- Belsen after he attended one at their congresses, immediately after the war.

“It was difficult for me to accept the task of coming here to you.  I did not know what to expect, how beaten or wretched you would look But you presented me with e picture of a proud Jewish life, a picture which I shall use in order to instill more pride and more life into the Jews in England. I had thought that perhaps you had fallen in your own esteem. But I have never experienced a more dignified congress. I had thought you would look with anger upon the Jews from abroad, who were able to do so little to save you from the Nazi murderers: but you welcomed me with love and warmth, and you spoke to me candidly and earnestly.  I was afraid you would only weep and lament but you combined your tears with the smile of the eternal Jew.  I had feared your disillusionment and hopelessness, but you displayed a faith and a resolution which all the .Jews in the world would do well to learn from you.”

There is an old legend about the lack of Jewish faith and determination which has hoisted over the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Maccabees.  Two hundred and thirty five years later, when the Romans set fire to the Temple and the flames reached the mast, a whirlwind lifted the flag, the legend tells us, and carried it off to a faraway place to keep it safe for a future generation of Jews will redeem the Maccabean flag with their faith and determination.

To live and see this flag redeemed was my most ardent prayer and cherished dream since my childhood.  My dream came true in a strange and traumatic way. It was decades ago, the Warsaw Ghetto rose to fight a formidable enemy, and I was there when the blue-white flag was hoisted over the tallest building in the Ghetto.  It seemed to me that I had seen this flag before.  The dreamy blue and stark white flag was soon consumed by red flames together with the fighters.  It was then that I recognized the flag of my dreams.

Four years later in the Gulf of Lion, in the the harbor of Sete, over five thousand holocaust survivors boarded an old ship to fight the British blockade of the shore of Palestine, a ship later to be known as Exodus 1947.  Again I was there, watching the lineups of boarding passengers.  When I noticed the rolled-up banner under the arm of one of them, I immediately knew that this was the flag of my dreams.

I was not in the lines of battle during the Israeli War of Liberation and the subsequent wars of defense, but I knew that the Maccabean flag was there.  The legendary heroism, the devotion and self-sacrifice of the fighters are proof positive that the flag of faith and resolution inspired them.

***

We shall often be the accused.  But it no longer matters.  The flag that was over the Temple, over the Warsaw Ghetto, over Sete, is over Israel: it’s a flag that shall not fall again.

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Remember the Future Holocaust

This Wednesday evening, April 15th, 2015 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 an agreement was reached between Iran and the United States to lay the groundwork for another Holocaust, one much more technologically advanced, one much more capable of carrying out its goals.  On what day will we commemorate the future Holocaust against Israel? Or will there be anyone left to remember it?

Remembering Past Holocausts

After all, the Nazi Holocaust wasn’t the first; it was just more effective, using the most advanced technology of the mid-twentieth century. Weapons and instruments of torture based on seventeenth century technology led to the brutal destruction of three hundred thousand Jews in what was essentially a feud between the Cossacks and Tartars, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine, with a mix of rivalry between branches of Christianity.

Atavistic Hatred Original art by Esti Mayer

Atavistic Hatred
Original art by Esti Mayer

The gas chambers of the Nazis, the scythes and pitchforks of the Ukrainian peasants were nothing compared to the killing power of nuclear weapons. In the future Holocaust, Technology developed in large part by Jews may be used to rid the world of the Jewish state.

It’s clear that Israel cannot depend on the United States to protect its interests. The U.S. has abdicated its role as the world’s policeman, allowing gangs of religious fanatics and dictators to run rampant, pursuing their own evil agendas. It’s clear that Jews cannot depend on local police forces to defend their safety in cities and countries throughout the world.

It also seems clear that the Jews cannot depend on God alone to protect their physical well-being.

Many scholars and thinkers have been asking whether the unparalleled event of the Holocaust did not create a most serious existential crisis in which the text by definition was invalidated. After six million Jews, including nearly two million children, lost their lives within five years under the cruelest of circumstances, can we still seriously speak about a viable covenant in which God promised to protect His people?… The Holocaust, they believe, proved that we have only ourselves to rely on, and that even the return to Israel is to be understood as a secular liberation of the galut experience.

To write God out of the picture would be to write Judaism and the Jewish people out of the picture. So that too, is not a viable course of action.

Preventing the Future Holocaust

In fact, there is no correct answer, no proper course of action. There are too many variables, too many characters acting with their own free will; acting from a set of beliefs and values that are totally alien to us. Only hindsight may enable us to know what were the right and wrong choices in dealing with Iran’s promise to annihilate Israel, to destroy the Jews.

My great-grandfather was the senior rabbi in Warsaw during the Nazi holocaust. Prior to the war (following the death or Rabbi Kook), he was offered the position of Chief Rabbi of Palestine (Israel). Knowing difficult times were coming, he refused to leave his community in Poland, although he encouraged others to move there. At the outbreak of the war, Jewish leaders wanted to evacuate him to safety. Again, he refused to leave his people. When faced with a round-up by the Nazis, he made his decision. (A few rabbinic leaders made a different kind of decision)

Tirosh Veyaitzher

Tirosh Veyaitzher

Rabbi Zvi Yecheskiel Michelson, dean of the Warsaw rabbinate, deliberately remained at home while a large roundup was on. He did not go out as the Germans ordered, but put on his prayer shawl and phylacteries and stayed inside. He preferred to be shot on the spot, hoping that this his boy would be thrown into one of the wagons that accompanied the roundup and find a last resting place in the Jewish cemetery. So he willingly opened the door to the search party, but when the Germans saw the tall old man, with his long silver-white beard, they became uneasy. One of them mumbled, according to the Jewish policeman who accompanied the search: “This must be Moses in person.” They slammed the door shut and left the aged rabbi alone. He must have decided then that staying with his people in their last moments was even more important than being buried in a Jewish cemetery. He rose, went down to the courtyard, and joined the marching ranks of Jews towards the Umschlag, from which the people were sent to Treblinka. (p. xiii)

May the blood of my great-grandfather be avenged. May the future holocaust be prevented.

 

Your comments are welcome

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The Face of Evil Today

The Bible Names Its Enemies:

The Bible names its enemies: Egypt, Amalek, the Philistines, and many others.  For each of them the Bible spells out why they are considered the

Joseph Dwells in Egypt, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Joseph Dwells in Egypt by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

enemy, and what to do about them.  We are told not to hate the Egyptians because we were strangers in their land. We were also refugees there, and military allies.  Though Pharaoh did evil, Egypt doesn’t embody wickedness.

Amalek is the face of evil in the Bible,  the paradigmatic bad guy.  The nation attacked the Jewish people shortly after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. The Bible, in response, promised “a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.” Amalek is linked to Haman, who tried to eradicate the Jews of the Persian Empire. Even Nazi Germany is fancifully tied to them.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a global religious leader, philosopher and moral voice for our time. A towering intellectual and prolific author, he is respected and revered by Jews and non-Jews alike. He examined the face of evil in a recent essay in which he wrote that the Egyptians hated and enslaved the Israelites, because they feared their strength. When the reason for the hatred would disappear so would the hatred, because of rational self-interest.

Amalek, on the other hand, attacked the Israelites simply because they could. It was an irrational hatred that could not disappear when the reason disappeared, because there was no reason. Rabbi Sacks explains it is this irrational face of evil that the Bible demands we remember.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Face of Evil Beneath the Heart:

The Rabbi explains:

It is easy at times of peace to forget the evil that lies just beneath the surface of the human heart. Never was this truer than in the past three centuries. The birth of Enlightenment, toleration, emancipation, liberalism and human rights persuaded many, Jews among them, that collective evil was as extinct as the Amalekites. Evil was then, not now. That age eventually begat nationalism, fascism, communism, two World Wars, some of the brutal tyrannies ever known, and the worst crime of man against man.

In the peaceful times that followed World War II, many Americans, Canadians, and Europeans forgot again about the face of evil, the irrational hatred which dwells in many hearts. The troubles in the world were attributed to the evil acts of the strong and powerful, to legacy of colonialism. The violence in South-East Asia, the Middle East, were explained away as rational responses to the legacy of western imperialism.

the face of evil

the face of evil

Refusing to Recognize the Face of Evil:

On September 11, 2001, it became impossible to ignore the face of evil, casting its evil eye. Although many people still searched for explanations or conspiracies, there was nothing to rationalize the brutal terror unleashed upon America. Rabbi Sacks declares:

Today, the great danger is terror (emphasis added)

…That is why are commanded to remember and never forget Amalek, not because the historic people still exists, but because a society of rational actors can sometimes believe that the world is full of rational actors with whom one can negotiate peace. It is not always so.

The Rabbi Is Wrong:

Rabbi Sacks is wrong. The greatest danger is not terror. It’s radical Islam, which is the source of virtually all contemporary terrorism.

One cannot remember, never mind confront the face of evil if you refuse to call it by its name. We are not commanded ‘not to hate’ the chariot riders (Egypt), or to remember what the attackers of the weak (Amalek) did. We don’t identify these enemies by their military techniques. Terror is a technique, used to demoralize and crush. It is being used by the adherents of a specific religion, in the name of their religion. Victims may refuse to identify the purveyors of fear as Muslims, but the terrorists aren’t shy about it. A politician, a journalist, a Rabbi might say that terror isn’t Islamic, but the Muslims terrorists say it is. An Orthodox rabbi is not a higher authority on Islam than the many Muslims who proclaims terror as an integral part of their faith.  The Muslims who oppose them don’t deny the nature of their violence. A Brooklyn Imam, identifying radical Islam as a “cancer,” said:

“These scholars consider any verse that calls to treat people with kindness to have been abrogated. All that remains valid is ‘Kill! Slaughter!’ Is that the only thing that God tells us? …Muslims of the religious sector are time bombs.”

Put a Name to the Face of Evil:

Moses at the battle against Amalek

Moses at the battle against Amalek

If we refuse to name the contemporary Amalek, surely we cannot remember them.   If we’re too afraid to name them, they are winning.

In the first Biblical encounter with Amelek, Moses, the leader of the Israelites held up his arms during the battle, and the people were inspired to victory. The leaders of today such are not raising their hands, and the people hesitate to fight back. Rabbi Sacks says the evil is “terror.” The Dalai Lama says it’s not fair to associate terrorism with Islam.  Gandhi, the icon of nonviolence rationalized “…if Hindus became Muslims to save themselves from death, it was …not forcible conversion.”  The failure to identify, never mind remember the face of evil, the contemporary Amalek, is a violation of an obligation to God, of a responsibility to mankind.

Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama

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Are You A Man or a Mouse?

SmartMouse

A More Human Mouse

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently spliced the human gene associated with language into the brains of a mouse.  While the rodents didn’t say anything about the experiment, they were better able to find chocolate in a maze then regular mice.  This is perhaps another example of science mimicking science fiction.  In H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau an evil doctor attempts to humanize wild animals through surgery and psychological conditioning.  The animals rebel, overturning the pseudo society that the doctor tried to create.  The MIT mice are docile so far, lacking the drama of Dr. Moreau, or Planet of The Apes.

The joining of human and animal isn’t shocking for many aboriginal Americans; for them the animals see themselves as human,

Wari girl and friend

Wari girl and friend

just with a different form.  For example the Wari’ of Brazil know a jaguar kills its prey with tooth and claw, and eats it raw.  But for the jaguar, or rather, from the jaguar’s point of view, he kills his prey with arrows like the Wari’ do; he takes the prey home, gives it to his wife and tells her to cook it.  While jaguars look like cats to the Wari’, in the eyes of the jaguar humans look like pigs, like prey.

It’s not good to be a pig or a mouse when a jaguar is hunting.

A Mouse is Always Prey

jackal

more honorable than ISIS

There’s of course another group of people, over thirty thousand strong by current estimates, who simply erase the boundaries between human and animal behavior.  The members of ISIS, while retaining human form, are more like predatory scavengers.  According to Franz Kafka,  jackals are disgusted by Arabs.  Certainly, the jaguar bringing a meal home to his wife is more noble than the humans who chain a little girl to a fence.  Even a jackal is above that.

The blending of species through grafting of human genes into mice has the potential to advance our understanding of memory, cognitive flexibility, and the evolution of the brain.  The blending of species by the predatory behavior of ISIS scavengers has the potential to reverse centuries of human social, intellectual and moral development.  The Island of Doctor Moreau is a happy children’s tale by comparison.

under arrest

Syrian girl and foe

ISIS thus challenges the civilized world to respond: does it meekly acquiesce to the rape and enslavement of women, the torture and beheading of children?  Or does it act boldly to eradicate such savage, inhuman beings?  Will Western civilization behave as a man or a mouse?  It’s dangerous to be a mouse when jaguars, jackals, or ISIS supporters are on the prowl.

 

Your comments are welcome