Remembering the Yaldei Teheran
The final effort of the so-called Children of Teheran to be recognized as Holocaust survivors for the purposes of the reparations agreement between Germany and Israel was rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court last week. The Court did, however suggest that the Knesset should cure the problem by statute.
The youngest of the Yaldai Teheran are already in their late seventies or early eighties, and the memory of their story will likely perish with them, if it has not been already among the younger generation of Mishpacha readers. But that story, which was a cause celebre in the Orthodox world seventy years ago, continues to powerfully affect the Israeli chareidi mindset until today.
So for a younger generation: Who were the Yaldai Teheran?
Approximately 1,000 orphaned Polish Jewish children made their way to Teheran during the first years of World War II, where they were under the formal protection of the Polish-government-in-exile. Of those children, between 80-90% came from religious homes, and many had studied in chadorim and Bais Yaakov schools in Poland.
The Jewish Agency ran the camp in which the children were housed with the goal of turning the children from their previous lives as religious Jews. The food was non-kosher, and when a group of children refused to eat it, the camp director, a member of the rabidly anti-religious Hashomer Hatzair movement, responded, "Let one or two die of starvation, and the rest will soon forget about kosher food." Other children were forbidden from reciting Kaddish for their parents.
So intent was Jewish Agency on preventing the children from receiving any religious instruction from a number of European rabbis who were then in Teheran that it informed the Polish-government-in-exile that it would forego any funding if it insisted on religious instruction being made available.
The second major issue was the placement of the children once they reached Palestine. Eleven camps were created for them, eight secular and three under the auspices of Mizrachi. Agudath Israel prepared 600 places for the children to no avail. In one of the camps, 29 boys had attended cheder and 3 girls Bais Yaakov, yet not one was placed in an Agudah institution. And in another camp, the vast majority of the 446 children under 14 had attended chadorim or Bais Yaakov, yet again not one was placed in an Agudah institution.
Ultimately, only 30 out of the 1,000 children were placed in Agudah institutions. Yet another 70, who allegedly did not come from chareidi homes or were over 14 and had allegedly opted not to go to Agudah institutions eventually made their way to Agudah schools and yeshivos.
So outraged was Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog by what one Ha'aretz writer characterized as the blatant "soul-snatching" that he called for a boycott of diaspora funding for the Jewish Agency.
WHY DO THE YALDAI TEHERAN continue to matter today seventy years later? Because the Kulturkampf against religion in the early days of the state continues to color chareidi perceptions of the state until today. The treatment of the Ya;dai Teheran was not an isolated incident. When the Jews came from Yemen on Operation Eagles' Wings ten years later, the batei Knesset they set up in the absorption camps were put under lock and key. Children were, in Rabbi Herzog's words, prevented from "the study of Torah and G-d's commandments."
The children were separated from the parents – in order to subject them to reeducation. In the children's homes established, the peyot of the Yemenite boys, which served as the clearest mark of their distinction as Jews in Yemen, were cut. Parents who attempted to register their children for religious education were told that they would thereby lose their Histadrut work cards, rendering them basically unable to work.
Again during the massive North African aliyah of the '50s and '60s, Youth Aliya made every effort to convince parents to send their children ahead of them to Israel. The parents were assured that their children would be placed in religious environments, but the promise was rarely made good.
All this was done for the most humanitarian of reasons – the desire to save the children from their parents' primitive religious beliefs. A writer in Jerusalem's Kol Ha'ir, writing about the newly arrived Ethiopians in the early '90s, recalled the lessons of the '50s and '60s: "In order that at least the young would have some chance, the tradition had to be destroyed, the family structure had to be destroyed, respect for parents and elders had to be destroyed. The same sad, cruel choice – tradition or integration – returns today with respect to the Ethiopians . . . . This time, too, circumstances force us to face the cruel fact – better the salvation of the young, so that at least they can integrate."
The sustained efforts of the Jewish Agency to uproot religious belief, often with the acquiescence of the government, gave credence to the charge that the purpose of the state was to destroy religion.
And it was during that period that the chareidi attitude of complete separation from the surrounding society and cultural isolationism took hold most fiercely. For if the dominant ethos of Israeli society could condone deliberate attempts to uproot Torah and mitzvos from among the Jewish people, then obviously the state and its institutions all fell under extreme suspicion.
NOW, the chareidi impulse towards insularity and separation did not start with the Yaldai Teheran in the '40s. The Torah itself describes Israel as "a nation dwelling alone." Our national mission is to create an ideal society among ourselves based on the dictates of the Torah, and in that way to become a light to the nations.
In exile, the ghetto walls continued to externally enforce Jewish separation. But when they fell, many Jews, long cut off from the world, rushed to see what was on the other side. Torah leaders sought to recreate new ghetto walls to shield the remaining faithful.
There was, however, another response to the fall of the ghetto walls – that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He viewed the end of the ghettos with great optimism -- as a moment of extraordinary opportunity for Jews to now place on display before the world the nature of a life shaped by the dictates of Torah. The great Torah leaders of Eastern Europe respected Rabbi Hirsch, but nevertheless felt that his optimism was only appropriate when melded to his fierce yiras Shomayim. And they knew from bitter experience that such yiras Shomayim is not the norm.
STILL it could be asked today in Eretz Yisrael: Is there any place yet for a bit of the Hirschian optimism? We are no longer the small and embattled community of the '50s. We are a significant and ever growing percentage of Israel's Jewish population. The threats we face as a community are more often from within that without.
And in those circumstances, is it possible to ask: Must fearfulness always be the dominant impulse and defensiveness the only strategy? Or is it possible that one way to strengthen ourselves internally is by instilling in ourselves the confidence that the Torah we possess is so powerful that it is non-observant Jews who should be afraid that they will be changed by the encounter when we meet, and not we who are terrified of them?
The Yaldai Teheran remain a powerful warning. But they may no longer constitute the entire story.
Justice Antonin Scalia
Debates will long rage over Justice Antonin Scalia's place in the pantheon of Supreme Court justices, but few will deny he was one of the finest stylists and most acerbic wits to ever grace the bench. No one was better than he at piercing "showy profundities [that] are often profoundly incoherent" or demonstrating how words full of sound and fury may yet signify nothing.
Here is how he summarized Justice Kennedy's opinion in the Obergefell case: "The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie."
Yet remarkably that acerbic wit directed at his colleagues did not prevent his from maintaining warm personal relationships. His relationship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most liberal justices and a fellow opera lover, has itself become the stuff of an opera. The Scalia and Ginsburg families often vacationed together. In that they are both models of civility in our hyper-partisan age.
Not every one of his opinions was a masterpiece. I agree with Professor Michael McConnell, one of the leading authorities on the Constitution's religion clauses, that his casual distinction of precedents in Oregon v. Smith, in which he basically overturned the Court's previous requirement that states show a "compelling state interest" before burdening the free exercise of religion was particularly slipshod. That decision required Congressional passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to reinstate the compelling state interest test at the federal level. Most states followed suit with their own RFRA statutes, but those statutes are now under fire after Obergefell.
Scalia believed that in a democracy issues like the redefinition of marriage and abortion must be determined by citizens debating and persuading one another, and not by courts. He rightly expressed amazement at Kennedy's discovery that the Constitution now mandates recognition of relationships punished criminally in every state at the time of its adoption and for 200 years thereafter.
Justice Scalia, a man of deep Catholic faith himself, was particularly close to the Orthodox community, despite his opinion in Oregon v. Smith. He delighted in quoting Talmudic sources, and was once the major speaker at an Agudath Israel dinner. His loss at this juncture seems like another in a series of visitations from Heaven that includes the eight years of Obama rule and the prospect of an electoral choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
His passing now will assist the progressive cause, either by allowing President Obama to shift the balance of the Court with an appointment or by enabling the Democrats to make political hay of Republican obstructionism, if the president's nominee is not confirmed. In addition, a number of potentially high impact decisions – one dealing with workers' rights to withhold union dues and the other over whether for purposes of the Court's "one man, one vote" rule, all those living in a district are to be counted (as today) or only eligible voters -- will likely break 4-4, without any resolution.
But mostly he will be missed for his brilliant mind, his passionate defense of democracy, and his capacity for friendship beyond political or religious lines.