Controlled Historical Experiments
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 1, 2009
In general, there is no such thing as a scientific controlled experiment in history. It is never possible to repeat the same events changing only one variable. Sometimes, however, we can compare the reactions of two identifiable groups to the same events and draw certain conclusions.
The radically different response of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in the United States to the Holocaust is an example of the latter. (I'm currently in the United States speaking on the subject for Torah Umesorah's Zechor Yemos Olam Program.) As such, it is a powerful teaching tool. For those opposed responses demonstrate that being raised in an environment of Torah values leaves its impact not just with respect to mitzvos between man and G-d, but also with respect to mitzvos between man and his fellow man.
In addition to being an important lesson for our own children, the contrasting responses of the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities constitute a potentially powerful kiruv tool. No one would deny today that the Orthodox response was morally superior. And that acknowledgment does not require the prior acceptance of a single Torah value.
The Orthodox community was characterized by its focus on rescue activities as the highest priority, its dedication to rescue, and its willingness to put aside all other divisions to work with other groups on rescue. By contrast, the mainstream Jewish leadership, according to Raul Hilberg, author of the classic The Destruction of Europe's Jews, was characterized by "complete paralysis."
Far from focusing on rescue activities, the most politically influential mainstream Jewish leader, Stephen Wise, gave higher priority to President Roosevelt's re-election. Even after news of the Nazi atrocities reached America, two national gatherings of all mainstream Jewish organizations in 1943 devoted almost their entire energies to a post-War Jewish state in Palestine.
Rather than unite around rescue work, the mainstream and Zionist organizations forced the cancellation of a pageant dramatically highlighting the fate of European Jewry, which was produced by the Revisionist Zionists (the Bergsonites). That pagean featured prominent Hollywood stars and had already been viewed by 100,000, including the First Lady. The mainstream Zionist organizations also tried to scuttle in Congress a Revisionist-sponsored rescue resolution. That resolution ultimately led to the formation of the War Refugee Board, which saved between 100,000 and 200,000 Jewish lives, according to historian David Wyman.
Revisionist leader Hillel Kook (alias Peter Bergson) offered this assessment in an interview with David Wyman: "[The Orthodox rabbis were] more courageous. . . . [They] were simply more responsive, more – more Jewish, in a sense. They were more sensitive to the issue, and less affected by the environment. They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of 'He who saves one soul, saves the whole world.'"
ONCE AGAIN TODAY, we witness a stark contrast between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. President Obama enjoys a favorable rating of over 80% among the latter; among the former, his ratio of unfavorable to favorable would likely be reversed While the disparity may owe to many factors, the level of concern over the safety of 6,000,000 Jews living in Eretz Yisrael surely ranks high. Tellingly, the views of Orthodox American Jews much more nearly dovetail with those of Israeli Jews, only 6% of whom describe the Obama administration as favorably disposed to Israel.
The brazenness with which the Iranian regime rigged the recent elections strongly suggests that it has no interest in conciliation with the United States and that the mullahs are not the moderating force behind the façade of the mad Ahmadinejad that we were led to believe. Six months of a new policy of engagement have not even elicited an Iranian nibble. Yet President Obama says he will not review "engagement" until the end of the year. The Iranians have been given a free year-long pass to go on developing their nuclear capabilities. Nor will there be any meaningful sanctions, Obama has tied his hands by requiring international agreement, including that of Russia and China, on any sanctions. In short, the administration has reconciled itself to a nuclear Iran.
And so it would seem have those American Jews, who can find no wrong with the President. Why so little worry about the six million Jews under direct threat from Iran?
For some, Israel is an embarrassment, just as some American Jews during the Holocaust worried that tens of thousands of strange looking refugees from Eastern Europe would cause increased anti-Semitism. In 2003, Tony Judt published an article in the New York Review of Books, in which he called Israel an "atavism," a state based on religious identity that has no place in the modern world (unlike, of course, dozens of Moslem states). He made it clear that Israel had made conversation unpleasant for Jewish academics at faculty sherry hours.
Others naively assume that only a lack of Israeli good will prevents peace from breaking out all over. An advertisement for Hadassah Hospital, with the picture of an Israeli child over the caption, "Will he be the one to lead Israel to peace?" assumes that a lack of Israeli leadership, rather than the Arabs' determination to wipe Israel off the map, constitutes the crux of the problem.
Most importantly, the non-Orthodox simply care less about their fellow Jews. The 50% of American Jews under 35 for whom the destruction of Israel would not be a "personal tragedy," are saying that the death of six million Jews might be sad, but it wouldn't be touch them personally.
In one respect, however, there is no comparison to the Holocaust era: We have no obvious contemporary parallel to the Holocaust era rescue work. That means that the task of the hour is primarily spiritual, and, accordingly, falls most heavily on Torah Jewry.
Rav Moshe Schapiro already said last year: "The signet ring is fastened" (see Megillah 14). Nothing less than a powerful movement of teshuva is needed in the face of an adversary as cruel as Haman. In the face of such a threat, how can we carry on, as if we had nothing to worry about. How, for instance, do we allow strife and machlokes to flourish in Torah communities around the globe.
B'ezras Hashem, the current situation will never give rise to the pointing of recriminatory fingers, like those pointed after the Holocaust. But if it does, we might find it pointed at us, as well.
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