Kol Haposel b'Mumo Posel
Efraim Zuroff and I have crossed swords in public debate and print more times than I care to remember. The man harbors an astounding animus for chareidi Jews.
That animus came bumbling to the fore once again this week in the pages of the Jerusalem Post. A kiruv rabbi, who will remain nameless, made some outrageous and repugnant remarks about the number of halachic Jews killed in the Holocaust. Not more than one million, he asserted, because of the huge rates of intermarriage in pre-War Europe.
Had Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office, addressed himself to the speaker's "abysmal ignorance," he would have been on solid grounds. But he could not resist the temptation to take the speaker – who is not himself the product of the chareidi educational system – as a "classic example of the abysmal ignorance about the Holocaust in sectors of the chareidi world."
"The attitude in the hareidi world to history is totally instrumental, while accuracy and facts aren't important and the only that is important is what you can use from history to advance your agenda," Zuroff told Jerusalem Post reporter Jeremy Sharon.
I have followed Zuroff's career with some interest since 2000, and not once have I seen him address the distortions of the presentation of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, including the near total omission of the activities of religious Jews in the ghettoes and extermination camps. Nor am I aware of his addressing the work of chareidi professional historians such as Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein, wife of Chevron Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Moshe Farbstein, or Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of HaModia.
IN ANY EVENT, it turns out that Zuroff is not free of his own distortions of the history of the Holocaust, and, in particular, of rescue efforts undertaken during the War. Thus my interest in his career dating back to 2000.
That was the year that similar headlines appeared in leading media outlets highly critical of World War II rabbis: "Book Blasts WWII Rabbis" (Associated Press); "New Book Slams US Orthodox WWII Rescue Efforts" (Jerusalem Post). Those blaring headlines were followed in each case by an almost identical lead paragraph.
The lede in the AP story sent to thousands of media outlets worldwide captures the flavor: "During the Holocaust, ultra-Orthodox American rabbis focused on saving several hundred Talmudic scholars, ignoring the suffering of millions of other Jews who were eventually murdered by the Nazis, a new book charges" (emphasis added).
It was not hard to figure out the source of the charges. It was Zuroff trying to boost sales of his book The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of the Vaad ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee 1939-1945.
To gullible reporters who had obviously not read his book, Zuroff peddled two charges. The first was that the chareidi rabbinic leadership had shown wanton disregard for saving Jews in Europe other than a handful of Torah scholars. (In point of fact, the majority of rabbis active on the Vaad Hatzala were affiliated with the Mizrachi movement.) And second, the Vaad refused to join forces with the mainstream Jewish organizations, which were committed to rescue.
Over the next few years, the late distinguished historian David Kranzler and I, sometimes writing together and sometimes individually, repeatedly demolished these charges and demonstrated the bad faith that lay behind them. I would urge all readers to read my summary of that debate in a lengthy August 2005 Jewish Observer article entitled "Anatomy of a Slander." (Available at www.JewishMediaResources.com and cross-currents.com) No need to rehash that dispute here.
But the most effective refutation of Zuroff came from Zuroff himself in his various writings, including the book whose sales he hoped to boost. In the Afterword to his book, he describes the lasting legacy of the Vaad to the Jewish people as "dedication to saving Jewish lives." And he credits the "foreign-born, non-English speaking rabbis [who headed the Vaad]" with having led efforts to unite American Jews around rescue work.
In 2003, Zuroff wrote an effusive review of Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust, which consists primarily of two interviews conducted by eminent historian David Wyman (The Abandonment of the Jews) with Hillel Kook (alias Peter Bergson) about the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe that he created. In his review, Zuroff fully concurs in Kook's harsh judgment that mainstream Jewish leaders did everything possible to undermine the Emergency Committee and behaved, in Zuroff's words, "as if large-scale rescue operations by the American government were either impossible or doomed to failure." So much for the unity of mainstream American Jewry around rescue.
The pressure of the Bergsonites, working together with Orthodox rabbis, eventually resulted in the creation of the War Refugee Board, which, in Wyman's estimation, saved 200,000-400,000 Jewish lives. Zuroff made no mention in his review of Hillel Kook's own comments on his Orthodox allies: "[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." Specifically discussing his close relationship with Vaad ha-Hatzala, Kook comments, "They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of 'He who saves one soul, saves the whole world.'"
In short, Zuroff knew very well his charge against Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Avrohom Kalmonowitz, and Rabbi Eliezer Silver of "disregard to the fate of other endangered Jews," apart from a number of distinguished talmidei chachamim trapped in Europe, was baseless slander.
Can a more "instrumental" abuse of history be imagined than making slanderous charges to a media always eager to present great rabbinical leaders in a negative light in order to sell a few more copies of one's book?
We are all confused
Entering my building recently, I greeted my neighbor and asked how him how he was. "Confused," he replied.
Since this particular neighbor is also a long-time rav of mine and someone whom I go to when I'm looking for clarity, his response left me even more disconcerted than before.
I didn't have to ask what he was confused about. Ever since the government announced that the murderers of the Dawabsheh family from the West Bank village of Duma were about to be indicted, we have been preoccupied with the case.
The mind recoils at the thought of any Jew, much less religious ones, wantonly taking life. When Mohammed Abu Kdheir's charred body was found in the Jerusalem forest, shortly after the discovery of the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach, H"yd, in July 2014, I concocted a "proof" that it was not Jews who killed him. I even succeeded in convincing myself until the Jewish murderers confessed.
The same thing took place after the Duma arson attack. Once again, we came up with irrefutable "proofs" that it could not have been Jews. The Dawabsheh's were the only Christians in the village, one friend informed me. And they have been involved in a decades-long dispute with another local clan. Then there was the implausibity of a Jewish attacker targeting homes in the center of the village and not on the periphery from which escape would be far easier.
But after the "hate wedding" video no one could any longer say, "Jews could not possibly have done this." If one can laugh and sing, while stabbing blown up photographs of a slain baby, enough of one's basic humanity has been compromised to make murder possible as well. Capability, of course, does not prove culpability.
And after listening to one of the late Meir Kahane's grandsons proclaim on the radio the intention to set off a war in Israel, in which Jews will have to choose on which side they are on, we know as well that the same youths are prey to a warped ideology in which murder could be seen as a "mitzvah."
At the same time, the attorneys and families of those questioned have charged the Shin Beit internal security services with using the most brutal interrogation techniques – e.g., being held in extreme positions, severe sleep deprivation, female interrogators provoking those being questioned. Numerous "suspects" held for weeks incommunicado were released without being charged and confirmed the "aggressive" interrogation techniques.
Clearly the Shin Beit is terrified of what the so-called "hilltop youth" represent and of the danger of them doing something really insane. They sought and received from Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein the right to question the suspects as if they were Arabs in a "ticking bomb" situation.
Naftali Bennett and other right-wing politicians rushed to defend the Shin Beit. Bennett's party represents the settler movement, and does not wish to undermine the Shin Beit in such a way that it might be less effective in preventing terror attacks in Judea and Samaria. In addition, the settler movement is also terrified of the "hilltop youth," whom it fears will completely delegitimize the entire settler movement.
Many would prefer to believe that the "hilltop youth" are just misplaced flower children, and that the Shin Beit used such enhanced techniques that any confessions extracted are of no probative value. Certainly the confessions would be inadmissible in an American court. And as Martin Sherman points out in the Jerusalem Post, the Shin Beit appears to have no physical evidence beyond the confession of the indicted Aviram Ben-Uliel, and that confession contradicts all the reports of alleged eye witnesses and the Shin Beit's own suppositions.
Others would prefer to believe that the security forces are pristine pure, and that proper procedures are in place, even when the Shin Beit invokes antiquated emergency powers from the time of the British Mandate.
The scariest possibility is that both sides are half right. Meaning that the three members of the Dawabsheh family were murdered by Jews. And the Shin Beit acts free of restraint when they perceive a great danger. Those accused of heinous crimes may have indeed committed them, even if their confessions were forced out of them in brutal fashion.
Or perhaps one or both of these conclusions is wrong. No wonder we are all confused.