The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel

The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel

by

Howard Adelman

In the previous two blogs, I tried to show why Gregory Baum was wrong in arguing first, that Orthodox Jews hesitated to support Israel because they believed that Israel could only be recreated by an act of God – indeed, only a small Orthodox sect, the Neturei Karta believed that. Second, Gregory argued that had there been no Hitler and no Holocaust, there would have been no Israel. Though there is a thread of plausibility in this thesis, and a few arguments and pieces of evidence support it, and though this is a belief also widely held in the Jewish community, I offered a number of arguments to demonstrate it is an erroneous thesis.

In this blog, I want to take up the other six quantitative theses of Gregory Baum’s anti-Zionist position in a slightly different order than first presented. Before Gregory shifted to theology, he earned an MA in mathematics. Therefore, it is thus more surprising to read the gross numerical errors concerning Zionism. The six quantitative theses are as follows:

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.
  2. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.
  3. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  4. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism.
  5. The Creation Thesis: that mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.
  6. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration also led to the conflict with the Arabs.
  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.

Gregory is correct. Prior to Israel, Zionism was a belief held by only minority of Jews. But so was Bundism (Socialism), Communism, Orthodoxy, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Liberalism, Assimilationism, or the Reform Movement. This is certainly true compared to what emerged after the creation of the State of Israel. Zionism became the clear majority belief among all Jews; it has remained the predominant belief since then. The issue is not that Zionism was a minority ideology before 1933, but whether Zionists constituted a significant minority prior to the accession of the Nazis to power. World Jewry has never articulated its views in a single voice. Even currently, when a majority of Jews support Israel, there are many different ways in which that support is manifested and different beliefs supporting the myriad of voices.

  1. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.

There is a hint of truth in this thesis, but one which reveals its overall gross distortion. With the rise of Hitler, the level of support for Zionism in 1936, particularly in America, was significantly higher than in 1932. But that does not mean that Zionist support prior to the rise of Hitler was insignificant. More particularly, with the plight of German Jewry worsening and the gates closing on immigration to America, Zionists could promote resettlement in Palestine in a way they could not in the years prior to Hitler’s accession to power. Those efforts earned support among individuals who would previously had nothing to do with Zionism. On the other hand, Britain began to close the gates even more to Jewish immigration in 1935, just 3 years after Hitler was first elected. Given the growing trend in the pattern of Jewish migration to Palestine prior to 1932, and had the original number of Jews been allowed to stay alive, it is safe to assume that, by 1947, the total number of Jews interested in migrating to Palestine would have grown in at least the same proportion as it did prior to the rise of Hitler. At the very least, there would have been as many Jews in Palestine as there were after the rise of Hitler and the catastrophe of the Shoah.

My focus will be on the five decades between 1882 and 1932 to assess whether there were only “a few thousand” Jewish arrivals in Palestine during this period.

The numbers of Jews and Arabs in Palestine who arrived in each of the following decades after 1880 before the rise of Hitler is a matter of some controversy. So are the Jewish and Arab percentages of the total population. I do not intend to sort through the various positions. Nor do I have to, for it takes very little effort to demonstrate an overwhelming consensus that the claim that, prior to the rise of Hitler, only “a few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine,” is false. The claim is not only demonstrably false, it is so erroneous, regardless of the estimates used, that it constitutes a gross misrepresentation and misperception.

Without getting into the variation in estimates, in 1880, only 3% of the population of Palestine was Jewish out of a total population of about 450,000; 94% were Arabs. Jews lived in Safed and Jerusalem and constituted the largest plurality in the small populations in those two towns at the time.

In the Third Aliyah between 1917 and 1923, in spite of quotas imposed on Jewish immigration to Palestine, 40,000 more Jews migrated to Palestine, bringing the total number by 1923 to 90,000 halutzim or pioneers who had resettled in Palestine (see the August 1925 “Report of the Executive of the Zionist Organization.”) It was a period when marshes were drained, roads built and towns established. Even critics of the Zionist figures, such as Justin McCarthy, agree with the British census that the total population of Palestine had risen to 725,000 by 1922 of which 84,000 or about 12% were Jewish. Other estimates offer a percentage of 12.4% or 90,000.

In the Fourth Aliya from 1925 to 1931, another 80,000 Jews resettled in Palestine. The number of Jews had doubled and the percentage of the total population had increased to over 16%. Of the almost 225,000 Jews who resettled in Palestine in the Fifth Aliya between 1931 and 1939, in the first two years an estimated 60,000 more had arrived. Thus, Zionist migration to Palestine probably totalled about 230,000 by then. This is not “a few thousand.” In the next fifteen years, in spite of the British barriers to migration imposed in 1935, the total Jewish population of Palestine had risen to 630,000 representing almost 32% of the population by 1947.

Without the rise of Hitler, given the rate of increase of the Jewish population over the previous fifteen years from 1917-1932 and projecting forward, without even considering the constant acceleration in the number of arrivals, the Jewish population would have doubled again to 460,000 rather than 630,000. If the rate of acceleration is taken into account, bracketing the war, the Holocaust and British barriers, it is estimated that about the same numbers would have arrived that actually did. That is, without Hitler, without the Holocaust, the number of Jews in Palestine would have been at least as many in 1947 as ended up there.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”

Quite aside for the number of Jews numbering far more than a few thousand, the thesis that if only a few Jews had migrated into Palestine, the Arab populations would have received them in peace is even a larger falsification. First, the Jews who arrived did not displace any Arabs prior to 1947. Though there is a debate over numbers, there is a general agreement that the booming Jewish economic sectors in Palestine attracted an in-migration of Arabs. Yet, in spite of the economic benefit, in spite of the fact that in 1922 Jews only constituted 12% of the population and totaled only about 80,000 to 90,000, Haj Amin el-Husseini emerged as the radical voice of the Palestinians. He organized fedayeen (suicide terrorists) who began to attack Jews in 1919.

Thus, Gregory perpetuates a double misrepresentation. First, that Jewish immigration prior to the rise of Hitler was small. Wrong! Second, that the initial reception of Arabs was peaceful. Wrong again! The leadership was violent even when the in-migration of Jews, though significant, was not threatening at all. In 1920, the first of a series of Arab riots began during Passover. Attacks increased in 1921. In spite of that history, in spite of being arrested and sentenced for sedition, in 1922, the British government released el- Husseini and appointed him Mufti.

Further, from that position, he consolidated power over the Arab community, taking control of all the assets and income of the mosques as well as controlling the educational system and the administration of sharia law. Like many dictators in the Arab world that succeeded him, like Erdoğan in Turkey or Putin in Russia, and, frankly, consistent with the actions of Donald Trump currently, no one could hold a position unless personally loyal to the Mufti. Given the power he accumulated so quickly, the British mandatory authority tried to assuage him by restricting Jewish immigration to “absorptive capacity.” But even that was not sufficient. Husseini insisted on zero immigration. Gregory Baum’s thesis on this issue is just balderdash.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism

This causal analysis reminds me of the tale of the scientist working on the causes of drunkenness. He conducted an experiment giving his subjects equal amounts of gin and water on day 1, bourbon and water on day 2, vodka and water on day 3, scotch and water on day 4, and rye and water on day 5. After he observed that the subjects became equally intoxicated each day, the scientist concluded that the cause of the intoxication was the water.

Gregory’s error was rather more egregious, for there is a temporal factor. Mass migration took place AFTER the creation of the State of Israel with the huge influx of Jews from Arab lands as well as a good part of the survivors left in the DP camps in Europe. Yet evidence suggests that the support for Israel became a majoritarian perspective with the creation of the State of Israel. Majority support for Israel preceded large scale migration.

  1. The Creation Thesis: mass migration led to the creation of Israel

This is virtually the same issue, but applied to the non-Jewish world. Britain prevented mass migration to Israel from 1935 to 1948. The migration that took place mostly occurred in spite of British policies. In 1947, the UN members offered majority support for creating the State of Israel to get rid of the 250,000 refugees in the camps as well as for a host of reasons within Palestine. The creation of the state and the Arab resistance to that majority decision, the invasion of the nascent State of Israel by Arab states and, mostly, the persecution of their own Jewish citizens by those and other Arab states, led to the mass migration. Mass migration followed and did not precede the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

The above account also demonstrates the perfidiousness of this final thesis. I want to end, not by summarizing, but by asking how such a genuinely good man could arrive at such heinous conclusions. They are not the conclusions of Gregory alone, but of leaders in the United Church in Canada and of my other three friends and colleagues who joined with him in writing the terrible 1970s ecumenical paper based on more or less these same arguments.

One explanation is that none of the four were historians. But most of the information cited above was publicly available. One did not have to be a historian to avoid such egregious errors in judgment. Another approach to find an explanation examines the development of their ideas in the context of their personal and institutional histories. Gregory’s position must be viewed in such a context. He is a Roman Catholic. However, there has been a movement of reconciliation with Judaism in the last fifty years among Catholics. On the religious level, Gregory played a leading role. But not on the political level! The Holy See established formal relations with Israel only in 1993, well after Gregory’s influence had waned. Historically, the papacy had been consistently hostile to Zionism as an ideology. The Church actively opposed diplomatic efforts to promote the Zionist cause through resettlement of Jews in the first decades of the twentieth century. (Cf. Sergio Minerbi, The Vatican and Zionism, Oxford U.P., 1990)

However, I believe the main cause is mindblindness, an inability or unwillingness to see what is in front of you plainly in view. One final example. In that older seventies paper I recall one of the arguments was over the Crusades, an argument in which Gregory expressed a specific Christian responsibility for the Crusades that was the exertion of Western power against the Arabs in the Middle East. Whatever the value of that thesis, most noticeable was the omission of any effects of the Crusades on the Jews who had been devastated by pogroms perpetrated by the Crusaders.

When guilt over the Crusades was married to guilt over the desire to ethnically cleanse European Jews, the two premises were synthesized in the willingness and desire to dump Europe’s problems with Jews onto the Arabs. Whether or not neo-colonialism should be viewed as a modern extension of the Crusades, the assumption of guilt for pushing the Jewish problems onto the Arabs seems totally unwarranted, especially given that almost half of the Jewish population in Israel is made up of Jews forced to flee Arab countries. However, I do not believe that mindblindness should be viewed as a form of antisemitism.

Gregory Baum: Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

by

Howard Adelman

In my analysis of the claim that Christian churches supported the creation of the State of Israel because of “the historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism,” I tried to indicate that the Roman Catholic and prominent Protestant theologians a) expressed no such guilt in 1945-1947 and b) were not strong supporters of the creation of the State of Israel. In this blog, I want to go back earlier. Gregory Baum contended in his memoir that, “the distant cause of the seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism and the Final Solution engineered by him. Before Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Zionism was a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community.” (p. 151) Was the rise of Hitler and his genocidal ambitions and practices responsible for the emergence of Zionism as the dominant ideology of the Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s?

Though this position includes a sliver of truth, an examination of the various propositions making up this claim reveals a much greater distortion. The claim consists of eight theses which I first offer as quotes and then reconfigure as sub-claims:

  1. “Orthodox Jews had religious hesitations with regard to Zionism: the promised return to Jerusalem, they believed, would be a religious event, an act of God, not the result of a secular movement supported by political power.”
  2. “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.”
  3. Further, a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine.”
  4. Those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  5. “Because of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the self-understanding of Jews changed: looking upon their historical situation in the Diaspora as precarious, they now supported the aim of the Zionist movement – the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a safe haven for Jews experiencing persecution in their country.”
  6. “Now Zionism attracted vast numbers of Jews to Palestine.”
  7. “The mass migration, supported by the international Jewish community, led to the creation of the Jewish State.”
  8. That mass migration led, “inevitably to the conflict with the Palestinian population.”

It is one thing to make erroneous claims about Christian support for Israel and its origins. It is a calumny for a non-Jew to rewrite history without empirical support when speaking of the dynamics of the Jewish community. These eight theses, briefly stated, summarize the conceit of liberal universalists critical of Zionism, criticism that goes well beyond any just criticism that the government of Israel has earned. These universalists may be religious or secular, they may claim to offer a “balanced” view, but the foundation of their critique is deeply rooted in their alternative history, history, while sometimes having a thread of truth, is ultimately devoid of substantive empirical support. The eight theses are as follows:

  1. The Orthodox Jewish (OJ) Thesis:

The non-support of Zionism by Orthodox Jews before the Holocaust.

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust (H/H) Thesis:

H/H were jointly responsible for the creation of Israel.

  1. The Few Thesis:

Only a “few thousand” Jews lived in Palestine prior to H/H.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis:

The local Arab population only opposed Jewish migration when there were large numbers.

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM):

Only because of H/H, did Zionism become prominent in the diaspora.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM):

The shift from a minority to a majority position led to large scale migration to Palestine.

  1. The Creation Thesis:

Mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis:

Mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

Quite aside from the distortions of history, there are several contradictions among these claims. For example, there is the claim first that Hitler and the Holocaust (H/H) were responsible for the creation of Israel and, second, mass migration was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. One might argue that this contradiction is only apparent since if H and H were responsible for mass migration, therefore mass migration was secondarily responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. However, a historical examination quickly reveals that they are disconnected; the distortion in making the connection is revealing. We can examine whether this initially apparent causal contradiction can be overcome by empirical evidence.

If mass migration was responsible for both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs, if mass migration was a result of H/H, then that mass migration must have taken place after WWII and, therefore, both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs emerged only after WWII. This provides a key timeline for Gregory’s thesis as a stand in for a great deal of religious and secular anti-Zionism and the key events leading to the creation of the State of Israel. I will get to this point in subsequent blogs, but this blog will focus on the first thesis.

The OJ thesis contends that among Orthodox Jews there was little support before the Holocaust. In our contemporary period, only a very small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Neturei Karta – Guardians of the City, originally, for a very short period, Chevrat HaChayim) maintain that the creation of Israel before the messiah arrives is a sin. The recapture by force of the Land of Israel is a violation of divine will. The members of Neturei Karta number less than 5,000; no more than two-three hundred, led by Rabbi Moshe Hirsch in Israel, partnered with Moshe Ber Beck in Monsey, New York, are active anti-Zionists. (Hirsch served in Arafat’s cabinet as Minister of Jewish Affairs.) What about the period before the Holocaust?

This sect is not rooted in Hasidism. Rather, its adherents follow the practices of the Gaon of Vilna and trace their roots to Lithuania and Hungary. Neturei Karta is a Litvish sect. Their arrival and resettlement in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century preceded the rise of Zionism. Rabbi Kook, a leading Orthodox rabbi, recognized that return to Israel was first promoted by disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. Nevertheless, very early on he endorsed political Zionism as a secular movement leaving it to the land to determine who was deserving of it.

The fundamental moral force hidden in [the Zionist movement] … is its motto, the entire nation. This nationalism proclaims… that it seeks to redeem the entire Jewish people. It does not concern itself with individuals or parties or sectors…. And with this perspective, it reaches out to the land of Israel and the love of Zion with a remarkable bravery and courage.

Most Orthodox rabbis at the time did not follow his lead. In 1937, Rabbi Amram Blau of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, an activist in Agudat Israel (a political party of Orthodox Jews founded in Poland because of opposition to Zionism), left the latter movement because of its increasing rapprochement with secular Zionism. He was joined by Rabbi Aharon Katzenelbogen from New York. Together, they founded Neturei Karta in 1938. This clearly suggests that well before the Holocaust, only a tiny minority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism in 1937.

This did not mean that in 1937, Agudat Israel became Zionist. Rather, it moved from the anti-Zionist camp to become non-Zionist. The roots of Orthodox anti-Zionism, as does ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, go back to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik was anti-Zionist. So was Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. A number of prominent Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews were not simply hesitant about Zionism; they were strongly opposed to it at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1937, the Central Committee of Agudat Israel claimed an independent Jewish state would endanger Orthodox Jewry. It did not argue, as Neturei Karta did, that the return to Jerusalem had to await the messiah. Instead, it argued in terms of “pollution”; secular Zionism was a threat to Jews defined as a holy people. They offered to support the resurrection of the Jewish state only if its achievement was accompanied by Torah law becoming the foundation of the legal system in the state.

Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel rejects outright any attempt at despoiling the Land of Israel of its sanctity and considers the proposal to establish a secular Jewish state in Palestine as a hazard to the lofty role of the Jewish People as a holy nation. Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel declares that Orthodox Jewry could only agree to a Jewish state in all the Land of Israel if it were possible for the basic constitution of this state to guarantee Torah rule in the overall public and national life.

In the UN debate over partition, Agudat Israel urged the General Assembly to vote against partition. There is thus a thread of truth in the claim that Orthodox Jews, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists, opposed the creation of Israel and Zionism, even after 1937 and even during the UN vote for partition in November of 1947 after the Holocaust. With the creation of Israel, members of Agudat Israel became supporters of the government, but refused to take any seats in the cabinet lest the movement be perceived as pro-Zionist.

This has two implications. It means the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust did not convert this group of Orthodox Jews and the Hasidim to support Zionism. Secondly, if the followers of Hasidism and Agudat Israel constituted a majority of religiously practicing Orthodox Jewry, then Gregory would be correct about the OJ thesis even if incorrect about the H/H thesis. However, Ezra Mendelsohn in his essay, “Jewish Condition in Interwar East Central Europe” in the volume, The Vanishing World of Lithuanian Jews, noted that, “The vast majority of Lithuanian Jews, according to the census of 1923, identified themselves as Jews by nationality.” (81-82, my italics) It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Zionism was transformed into a political force, a force subsequently accelerated with the rise of Hitler. In spite of Agudat Israel and in spite of the anti-Zionist sentiments of Hasidism, the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe, led by the enlightened Orthodox leadership in Lithuania, supported Zionism. Even when Jewish socialists (Bundists) and communists were added to the mixture, supporters of Zionism possibly constituted the largest plurality amongst Jews in Eastern Europe.

In addition to Agudat Israel, most Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism, and were opposed well after the creation of the state of Israel. Since 80% of Haredi Jews perished in the Holocaust, one might argue that this could imply that the majority of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism. That thesis seems to be reinforced when it is recognized that Ahavath Zion, a pro-Zionist Orthodox party, never made any inroads with the Hasidim. In the nineteen twenties, the party was also opposed by the majority of Orthodox leaders. However, it garnered a significant following among rabbis and the populace in smaller communities. By the time of the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, excluding the ultra-Orthodox, the majority of sentiment among the Orthodox community in Eastern Europe favoured Zionism.

What about the prominence of Zionism among Jews in North Africa and in the Muslim states of the Middle East? The immigration of Jews from Yemen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in 1911 preceded large-scale migration of Arab Jews to Palestine, though the majority would only arrive with Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-1950. The first evidence of Zionist activity in North Africa can be traced to Tunisia in 1902; Ahavat Zion was established there in 1913. About the same time, stirrings of Zionist activity began in Morocco. It is true that Zionism never became a majority movement among traditional practicing North African Jews until after WWII, and even then only after the creation of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that in 1933, a majority of North African practicing Jews sympathized with Zionism, in spite of the fact that Zionism was a European ideology and almost all its leaders were of European origin. The shift to identification with, as distinct from sentiment for, Zionism may have begun with the Holocaust, but it only became reified with the creation of the State of Israel based on sentiments already widespread in 1933.

The same pattern was evident in the Middle East. In 1928, young Jews may have joined Maccabi sports organizations, but the Chief rabbi in Baghdad and the Jewish establishment opposed Zionism then. Even though sentiment among the masses began to shift in favour of Zionism, only a few thousand Iraqis migrated to Palestine in the 1930s under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. Many more came on their own. However, there is a record of an official shift even before the Holocaust in 1941-1942 before the Holocaust, though it took the Holocaust for the European leadership in Zionism to pay significant attention to Jews in the Middle East and then only with a condescending eye and “segregationist” policies, but that is another story.

What about Jews in America? Reform Judaism is the largest denomination in North America. They came very late to the table. Initially, Progressive Reform Judaism rejected Zionism as a nationalist ideology at odds with its ethical universalism. When they came around, it was not after the rise of Hitler. It was not after the Holocaust. It was not even immediately after the creation of the State of Israel. It was only after the sixties when the consciousness of the Holocaust became imprinted among Jews. Further, only in the Miami Platform of 1997 was this made official as Reform Judaism celebrated the rebirth of Am Israel, the Jewish people in Israel. But even then, it was conditional upon self-determination being exercised on universal principles of human rights, respect for minorities and preservation of democracy and the rule of law.

I have not even counted the Jews of the Soviet Union. It is not difficult to see that among worldwide Judaism, Zionism was indeed a minority movement among Jews in 1933. But so was Marxism. So was Bundism, secular socialism. So was Reform Judaism itself which was only predominant in North America. There was simply no majoritarian ideology then among Jews.  However, Zionism was not a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community in 1933. There is great deal of difference between not being a majority movement and being a small movement.

Further, Orthodox Jews in Europe opposed to Zionism in 1933 were not just hesitant in their support for Zionism. The establishment part of the Orthodox movement in 1933 was openly opposed. This was true of virtually all Hasidic sects. However, by 1933, among the Orthodox populace in Eastern Europe, a majority sentiment identified with Zionism, with many also supporting competing ideologies at the same time. Even then, although the establishment was still officially opposed, only a very small minority among them based opposition to Zionism on requiring the messiah to return as Gregory claimed.  Gregory was and remains wrong in each of the particulars of this thesis.

A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings

A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings

by

Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum began chapter 20 of his memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway, with the following: “After the Holocaust, Christian churches were prompted by their historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism to support the State of Israel and to refrain from criticizing its treatment of Palestinians. After the Second World War, yet a second historical guilt, their approval of the colonial conquests of the European empires, moved the churches to offer moral support to the anti-colonial struggles of peoples in Asia and Africa, eventually including the Palestinian people. The churches then affirmed their twofold solidarity, with the Jewish State and with the Palestinian people.” (149)

Ignoring the historical conflation of decades of history, immediately after WWII, did the churches express guilt over the Holocaust? Did that lead those churches to support the creation of the State of Israel? Did they refrain from criticizing the treatment of Palestinians then because of this guilt? I can only refer to this last question very tangentially. I will have to ignore the question of whether the churches felt guilty about colonialism at that time.

The theology in the declaration could not have bothered them because the declaration is notably devoid of any theological references. The Torah is significantly not cited to support the declaration of independence. Rather, the following foundational elements are cited:

  • The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people
  • That land shaped their spiritual, religious and political identity
  • On that land, Jews first enjoyed statehood
  • On that land, Jews developed their national cultural values
  • From that land, Jews contributed to world civilization both universal values and, more specifically, the Bible
  • When dispersed, Jews never lost faith in the quest for return over two millennia
  • Further, over those years, Jews not only prayed for return but strove in every generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland
  • More recently, tens of, hundreds of thousands did return and the population of Jews had reached 600,000
  • In that return, they made deserts bloom and created a vibrant community
  • In that return, they revived the Hebrew language

The declaration then went on to detail both its practical and ethical aspirations: financial independence, cultural enrichment, peace, justice, self-defence, progress. Did the churches in general, whether driven by guilt over the Holocaust or not, celebrate the revival of statehood for Jews or even one or more of the accomplishments of the revived Yishuv? Did they express their strong opposition to the plans and moves of the Arab armies to invade the nascent state the very next day? Did they acknowledge the legal right to establish a Jewish state by the United Nations that had taken back Mandatory Palestine from the British, who had served as a trustee? Did they support partition and the creation of an independent Jewish state? More specifically, ignoring some of the hyperbole and exaggerations in the Declaration, was there any reference to guilt over the Holocaust, the European catastrophe in which six million Jews were massacred, as motivating any possible support? In the light of this unprecedented event, did the churches by and large support the natural right of the Jewish people “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state” even if many nations did not then enjoy such a right?

It took the Catholic Church twenty years afterwards to even repudiate antisemitism in Nostra Aetate. But even then, the official Churches and even the major dissidents remained silent concerning the right of Jews to have their own state – a silence that was only confronted just before the Cold War ended. In its 1985 Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations distinguished between theological and political considerations. Christians, they advised, should understand the deep religious significance of the land of Israel to Jews and Judaism. Though international law was increasingly used to challenge Israel’s occupation of majoritarian Arab areas after 1967, the principles of international law (later cited as the basis for dealing with the occupation) as distinct from religious attachments, were not used to acknowledge the right of creation of a Jewish state. Certainly, the birth of Judaism in Israel many centuries ago conferred no right. Neither did the development of their ancient nation-state, the continuing attachment of Jews to the land when they were dispersed, or the miracles of their return, revival of the Hebrew language and initial economic development suggested as justifications.

The church had its own political interests and it objected to either a Jewish or a Palestinian monopoly over Jerusalem. Winning this point was a trade off by some Catholic countries that was used to push UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, to recommend that Jerusalem remain an international city independent of both an Arab and a Jewish state with rights established for all three religions. Rather than guilt propelling the Catholic Church to support the nascent Jewish state, the Church was intimately involved in the messy business of politics in a flawed and failed effort to retain a strong political foothold in Jerusalem, a political foothold lost many centuries earlier when the Crusaders were defeated after an occupancy of two centuries.

It also took the Protestant churches decades after the state was declared to recognize both the importance of the land of Israel for Jews as well as the principle that Jews were entitled to self-determination. For the first time in 1980, the Rhineland-Synod stated that, “the continuing existence of the Jewish people, its return to the promised land, and the establishment of the state of Israel are a sign of God’s faithfulness to his people.” Theology, not guilt, seemed to provide both the rationale and the motive.

Did those Zionists who issued that Declaration of Independence even appeal to guilt over the Holocaust as a reason to support Israel? Not at all. The Shoah is mentioned to show why it was urgent to take action concerning the 250,000 refugees left as a residue of that catastrophe and the plan to solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates of Israel wide to Jews needing as well as wanting to immigrate. The problem of the homeless refugees that no country then wanted motivated some Churches to support the State of Israel.

By the end of the century, the Evangelical Church in Germany conceded supporting the State of Israel with “just borders,” but the context suggests that even this belated statement was not heart-felt, but was offered to balance the Church’s concern with Palestinian refugees. However, we are here concerned with the late forties and not the post-1967 period so it might be helpful to look, not at official church doctrine and proclamations, but at Protestant dissident theologians who led the movement of reconciliation between Christianity and the Jewish community. To that end, to end this blog, I will summarily examine the views of Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth.

Whatever the many versions, Martin Niemöller became most famous for the following famous poem that he wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In some versions, incurables and Jehovah Witnesses were included alongside Jews. The general interpretation is that it is incumbent upon us all to defend those whose rights are initially attacked because, eventually, I too will find myself a victim of an oppressive regime. Unwillingness to take risks was not an excuse.

However, there is a more cynical interpretation, not based on Niemöller’s intent but on his behaviour, namely always ensure that the minority group next to you (Jews) is protected because otherwise you will be next. This black humour was suggested by Niemöller’s own history as a dissident in Nazi Germany who spent seven years in a concentration camp under a protective detention order which permitted his access to books and writing material, a period in which he requested release to serve in the German navy.

Niemöller was sent there, not because he defended socialism – he was a supporter of national socialism, voted for Hitler in 1933 and initially enthusiastically supported the Nazis coming to power,– not because he defended trade unionism, because he initially supported the Nazi coup and the destruction of the trade unions for he had always criticized Weimar Germany for its softness on communism, and not even because he opposed the Nazi persecution of the Jews, for he only opposed that persecution when it came to Jews baptised by the Lutheran Church. As he himself wrote in 1933 when he organized the pastors’ emergency federation (Pfarrernotbund), which became the foundation of the Confessional Church that stood in opposition to the official church when in 1934 it endorsed Nazi racist persecution of Jews, the fourth point in the founding charter objected to the Nazi ousting of ministers as ministers when they weere of Jewish lineage (Judenstämmlinge). Antisemitism became objectionable only when it was racial and affected the principle of baptism and conversion. Throughout the thirties, Niemöller continued to insist that Jews were guilty of killing Jesus and, without subjecting themselves to baptism, were deservedly being punished.

When he was released from prison after the war to eventually become president of the Hessen-Nasau Lutheran Church in 1947 and an extremely popular preacher in America, his revised theology was then stated most clearly in the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis) published months after his release. Did he express any guilt about the Shoah? Did he express any support for Zionism as an expression of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination? No. The collective guilt for which he insisted Germans accept collective responsibility was for the destruction in Europe generally and Germany more specifically. His criticisms of Nazi Germany remained restricted to the objections to interference in Church affairs. He insisted that he, and most Germans, were NOT guilty about the Shoah since he along with most Germans were ignorant of the scale of the atrocities and shocked by the event. Because of that ignorance, Germans had no cause to feel guilty about the Shoah.

Niemöller in his speeches around the United States made no reference to the Shoah, made no reference to any support for the creation of the State of Israel that I could find, but rather highlighted the resistance by the Confessing Church, a minority of Lutherans, to the Nazis. That resistance was based on his insistence on the absolute sovereignty of Christ as the backbone of the Confessing Church to which he had given witness. Non-converted Jews could be murdered, but “the Word of God can’t be bound and can’t be murdered.” His emphasis was on Christian brotherhood and not reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism.

These observations are not new. Eleanor Roosevelt made them at the time. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio did so as well. Silver criticized Niemöller because he had not opposed Nazi racism, only Nazi persecution of the church. Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress at the time, noted that Niemöller never once objected to the Shoah let alone felt any remorse or guilt for what had taken place. And Niemöller was a dissident.

Karl Barth, another founder of the Confessing Church, and acknowledged as one of the most significant pioneers in attempting to reconcile Christian theology with Jewish beliefs, is another matter. In Stephen Hayes book, Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology (1991) he claimed that, “it is not an exaggeration to say that Barth’s understanding of Israel had had the kind of influence on Protestant theology that Nostra Aetate has had on Catholic thinking about Israel.”

Unlike Niemöller, Barth had always opposed the general antisemitism of the Nazi regime and not only its effects on the autonomy of the church. “He who is a radical enemy of the Jews, were he in every other regard an angel of light, shows himself, as such, to be a radical enemy of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism is sin against the Holy Ghost. For anti-Semitism means rejection of the grace of God.” Barth went further. He saw in Israel [note, not the state but the people, Am Israel rather than Eretz Israel] “a new sign of God’s presence in Jewish history.” However, his support for Israel as a people was, for him, a sign of God’s revelation, not out of any guilt for the Shoah. His support for Israel fitted within his pioneering work in reconceiving the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in terms of a “double covenant” and celebration of the Jewishness of Jesus, but this should not detract from the fact that he still believed that Jews had been divinely punished for their rejection of Jesus and he remained critical of rabbinic Judaism.

I need not go into any detail into the theological presumptions behind his views. For Barth, man and God were not involved in a dialectical relationship whereby God as well as humans changed because of the encounter for the preservation of the covenant, Christianity depended on God alone and his embodiment in the person of Jesus as his “eternal mode of being” whereby Jesus takes on the burden of human sinfulness. “It is incontestable that this people as such is the holy people of God: the people with whom God has dealt in His grace and in His wrath; in the midst of whom He has blessed and judged, enlightened and hardened, accepted and rejected; whose cause either way He has made his own, and has not ceased to make His own, and will not cease to make His own.”

This acceptance of Jews as having an independent covenantal relationship with God was extremely enlightened thinking at the time, but in his conception even that relationship remained a matter of grace rather than a legal and ethical contract between two parties. Further, God’s relationship to the Jews was but a precursor and precondition for the realization of God’s historic promise to all humanity. This proposition became a foundation for the subsequent Christian strong support for the State of Israel as a precondition for the Second Coming. But not for Karl Barth himself. In Karl Barth, a respect for differences emerges, but no real understanding of or sympathy for either Torah Judaism or political Judaism in the form of Zionism. This will, in turn, subsequently lead to the position of the World Council of Churches which finds in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but one more case of Jewish obduracy and its continuing rejection of Jesus as divine. Israel remains the disobedient servant of God responsible not only for the oppression of the Palestinians, but for the continuing schism among humans preventing the Second Coming.

The end of WWII and the revelations of the Shoah did not in general produce in Christian churches guilt for its occurrence or a commandment to support the nascent state of Israel, but rather the recognition of the profundity of radical evil which struck Jews more extensively than any other group, but for which Jews were ultimately responsible because, as elected witnesses to God’s revelation, they still rejected the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus, champions of Christian-Jewish dialogue, of Christian acceptance of Jews having an independent relationship with God, such as Rosemary and Herman Reuther, could, in 1989, publish The Wrath of Jonah which sympathized and supported the State of Israel, but detailed the oppression of Palestinians.

In sum, in the aftermath of WWII there was no demonstrable guilt for the Shoah even among the minority of Christians in continental Europe who opposed Hitler, and no support for Israel based on that guilt. Christian Zionists were the exception; they dated back to a period before the emergence of Jewish political Zionism in the late nineteenth century and continued to support Israel as a state up to, during and after the creation of Israel. But both the mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, and even the reforming dissidents, including some within that group who recognized the Shoah as an expression of radical evil (das Nichtige) in our time, did not express any guilt for the Shoah or any support for Israel based on that guilt or even mention the Shoah, though the Shoah would subsequently have an enormous impact on Christian theology, especially in post-Holocaust theology.

But not when the State of Israel was declared.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Silence of Smell

The Silence of Smell

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday I began to probe the question about an appropriate or the appropriate way to deal with the loss of a loved one or with a mourner who suffered such a loss. In particular, I was concerned with silence as a response, a focus stimulated by my Torah study group that zeroed in on Aaron’s silence in the face of God’s murder of his two eldest sons for their error in using incense and lighting the fire in the holy of holies. Though the link to this passage was provided by Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance that begins this evening, almost everyone in that study session focused on the issue of individual responses to death rather than to a historic and unprecedented community loss.

Perhaps that is because the answer is simple in the latter case. A common trope in Holocaust literature is the inability of language or any individual emotional response to deal with the enormity and incomparibility of the disaster. In the face of the Holocaust, silence may possibly be the only appropriate response. This is true to Jewish religious tradition. In Lamentations 2:13, in the face of the destruction of the Temple, the Israelite asks, “what can I liken you, oh fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, oh fair maiden of Zion?” When disaster is overwhelming, when there is no pain like it, no response, not even silence, seems appropriate.

However, in reality, silence may not simply be inadequate. It may be wrong. It may be an inappropriate response. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of January, Donald Trump issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people. Admittedly, this is not exactly comparable, for it is the response of a sympathizer rather than the mourner. Further, it was not as if the White House remained silent. It issued a response that simply omitted any mention of Jews. It then doubled down on its error by attempting to explain in terms of an effort at inclusiveness for there were many other victims of the Nazi murder machine than Jews – Roma, homosexuals, liberals, trade union leaders, the victims of the Nazi euthanasia program of the disabled. The collective furor from the Jewish community, however, was understandable.

But they might have been thankful for small favours. Trump did not engage in an even more inappropriate response by shifting the focus to America’s sacrifices in the conquest of Nazi Germany. If silence becomes an excuse for ignoring the specificity of suffering, recollecting one’s countries positive efforts is surely an inappropriate response.

Contrary to my belief that Donald Trump never seems to learn from his daily errors, this time the White House responded very differently to Yom HaShoah. Trump sent out a video tape in which he said the following:

“On Yom HaShoah we look back at the darkest chapter of human history. We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge: Never again. I say it, never again. The mind cannot fathom the pain, the horror and the loss. Six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe and that the human heart cannot bear. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we tell the stories of the fathers, mothers and children, whose lives were extinguished and whose love was torn from this earth. We also tell the stories of courage in the face of death, humanity in the face of barbarity, and the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people.”

While the sentiments expressed were now appropriate, Trump still erred, this time by commission rather than omission, by going on to repeat another myth, one most frequently perpetrated by Jews themselves. The birth of Israel was a response to the Holocaust and testimony to Jewish perseverance. The latter may be true, but Israel would have come into existence without the Holocaust. There is no evidence that the passage of the UN motion on partition took place because of worldwide guilt over the Holocaust. Silence in the face of the Holocaust was the usual response at the time and is now generally perceived as “inappropriate.”

Further, an outpouring of grief is the usual response of young people when they come face to face with the Holocaust. In response to yesterday’s blog, a reader described a documentary I have never seen about Israeli youth visiting the crematoria and internment camps in Poland. Each young person is given the name of a specific victim and asked to research their lives, their history. The effort is painful. The youth do the work and cry and wail. They are not silent.

What a contrast with the depiction of visitors by Alex Cocotas in his article in Tablet entitled, “BLOW UP THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE.” The memorial is located in Berlin’s central government district near the Brandenburg Gate. If a visitor is not cavorting among the 2,711 stelae, he or she is bewildered and struck silent, not by the enormity of the deed, but by the disorientation of the maze that results. Quiet contemplation, as he has observed, is rare. Play and selfie photos are the norm. As he writes, “It is, for them, an Event, spreading from Instagram to Instagram, an item on the itinerary, somewhere between currywurst and the East Side Gallery, tethered to intention by a geotag.”

I have had only one very direct experience in encountering the mass deaths of victims of a genocide. In my study with Astri Suhrke of the role of bystanders in the genocide of 800,000 to one million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, we visited the disinterred bodies of a mass grave that held over 16,000 victims. The skeletons of children, of women with rods thrust up their vaginas, of body after body laid out on the school benches in each of the classrooms at the technical school where they were killed, was overwhelming. We were all struck dumb, but not exactly silent. We had to talk because our visit had a functional component – confirming the accuracy of the figures of the total number of victims. We counted and compared counts.

The bodies had been disinterred only weeks before. The mass grave had been so packed, that there was very little decomposition of the flesh. It hung on the skeletons like the rags left of their clothes. If the picture never leaves me of that scene, the most powerful experience was the horrific smell. I need only mention the incident and the smell comes back as if I was still there. The immediacy of the confrontation with mass death comes primarily from my nostrils, not my voice. My mind goes into overdrive, racing from one portrait to another, one reflection to another.

Nothing is as evocative as the sense of smell, more so even than any picture. Auditory and visual records, words formed to convey experiences – none of these seems to compete with smell. Therefore, I entitled this blog the Silence of Smell. I could have called it the Smell of Suffering but that would have ignored my major theme – the appropriateness or inappropriateness to giving voice to the suffering of others and one’s own suffering at the memory. At that time, giving voice was not the issue. Olfactory nausea and unfathomable emotional disturbance was the order of the day and was the source of the most recurring and disturbing memories.

We know our sense of smell is located in the centre of the brain. So perhaps smell, rather than debates over giving voice to the enormity of the crime, may be a more appropriate way of memorializing mass murder and death. After all, smell is central to many happy memories as well. That is how I best remember my children when they were infants. I can still smell the sweet scent of their poop and fragrance of the powder applied to prevent any rash from forming.

There may be another reason for stressing the silence of smell as a route to memorializing. Scent is associated with nostrils. And nostrils are associated with being nosy, with sticking your nose into affairs ostensibly not of your making or your concern. When it comes to genocide, the dictum of minding your own business, of remaining silent, is inappropriate. And the issue is not simply that you could have been the victim, that we ought to engage in humanitarian intervention because of our shared humanity. An abstract common identification as humans has not proven to be very effective in motivating risk and involvement.

In any case, the identification is a false one. I live a life of privilege in a land that not only guarantees freedom, but delivers on the promise, in a land that not only ensures my well-being, but goes a long way to delivering on that promise as well. But not all the way. Not for everyone. And if the promise proved false for me, it is possible that I might focus my attention exclusively on my and my family’s deprivation rather than the general deprivation of others.

But perhaps that is not the purpose of silence, not the purpose of the silence of smell or the smell of suffering. The issue is really not my identification with the victim. The issue is not whether, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. As I counted bodies disinterred from that mass grave dug three weeks before Juvénal Habyarimana was killed and three weeks before the Rwanda genocide began, the issue was not my identification with those killed, but with those who perpetrated the crime. But most of all with those who abetted the crime by their silence, by their indifference.

The victims of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide and the Armenian genocide and all the other enormous crimes against particular peoples, were victims because they were not responsible for taking their fate into their own hands. The genocide was perpetrated because that responsibility was removed from their hands. If we identify with that victimhood, we identify with our incapacity in some circumstances to take action when we need to be reminded that we are in a position of responsibility to intervene.

Further, it is almost impossible for us who live in privileged circumstances and enjoy the responsibility of guiding the course of our own lives to identify with victims who were denied that privilege. And if we had been so denied, at the time our response might just as likely have been the responsibility to protect ourselves, not other victims of the crime of cancelling that responsibility. Identification with victimhood has a tendency to inculcate either self-pity or passivity and not our sense of responsibility. The task of memorializing and of mourning is to remember, not that we or those who died were ineffectual and passive victims of the laws of nature or the realism of international political affairs, but that they lived lives of wonder and discovery and to discover how and why we betrayed them. For ordinary people allow the perpetuation of such atrocities by the few.

I was and remain a citizen of one such country that failed in its responsibility – not the main one, for General Roméo Dallaire somewhat redeemed a streak of Canadian honour. Canada did not live up to the responsibility to protect. The issue was not identification with the victim or identification with victimhood, but identification with perpetrators. In that, there can be and should not be any silence as the silence of smell always reminds me. The smell of mass death is universal. But memory must bring to life those who lived and became victims, individuals who had parents and children or were children themselves. Yom HaShoah for me is both the silent smell of mass murder and the need to talk about the personal lives of those who lived and died.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

by

Howard Adelman

From now on, when I want to go on a real holiday and escape my regular routine, I will take my laptop with me, as I always do, but take the wrong cord so that I cannot recharge the laptop. That way, I do not feel guilty because I intended to work, but do not work because I cannot – or so I tell myself. Leisure without guilt is heavenly bliss. This was my most important delusionary discovery of my trip to Ithaca, New York; Boston, Mass.; Princeton, New Jersey; and Savannah, Georgia from which I returned on Friday.

I had planned to write blogs about the trip, and still may. But I did not. After all, I told myself, I could not. Of course, I could have purchased a new cord on the trip or bought one of those new recharging devices that I had read about. But I did not. I was content to enjoy myself without feeling guilty, comforted by the convenient lie that I had made a mistake – not my fault – and, therefore, I could just enjoy the trip without indulging in my personal obsession of writing about it.

As everyone knows, when you go on a trip, no matter how excellent the experience, the greatest reward is often the return. “Home is where the heart is,” and all those clichés. I returned in time to attend Torah study yesterday morning. I was surprised at how much I missed it. As it happened, yesterday’s study of Torah was the most contentious and the most emotionally arousing of any I had ever attended – not only for me, but for many of the participants.

This evening, Yom HaShoah begins – the day for remembering and mourning the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. That was the ostensible reason for focusing on the small section of the Torah that was chosen for study. More formally, the day of remembering and mourning is called: Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”).

But I, and I suspect many other Jews, tend to forget it is about remembering heroism and not just the huge number of tragic deaths. Further, I remember my deliberate or insensitive obliviousness to the Holocaust altogether when I was a callow youth. Not so young that I should not beat my breast for my ignorance. I was then married with one child and was in graduate school studying philosophy. I also was a tenant of a house at 586 Spadina Avenue that I had rented from a Holocaust survivor who had moved to Montreal. He had told me about The Black Book he had compiled and self-published on the murder of Hungarian Jews in the last year of the war.  He not only could not sell the copies, but he could not even give them away. They were piled up in boxes in the basement. He asked modestly that if I had a chance, I should find places and people to give the book.

I went down the basement and retrieved one copy. It sat on my shelf for a year. I never even cracked the binding to skim it. Yet I remained convinced after reading Hannah Arendt that Jews had not resisted and had been complicit in their own death. When I had a chance to check directly with a survivor and with his account to confirm or falsify Arendt’s account, I failed to do so. In my many moves, I even lost track of the copy of The Black Book that I had. On Yom HaShoah, I remember not only the Holocaust, but my own ignorance and indifference to the resistance of the Jews. I remember my silence.

I mourn my mindblindness. I did not know that the date of remembrance originally chosen was the 14th of Nisan to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto uprising and would only learn of this when I and my family visited the Warsaw Ghetto Museum on a kibbutz in Israel a dozen years later and two decades after the holy day had been declared. However, the day originally chosen fell immediately before Passover, so the final date for the holy day was almost two weeks later, the 27th of Nisan, eight days before Israel Independence Day. Tomorrow, I will attend a memorial service.

However, other than Aaron’s silence, it is difficult to make a connection between the passage of Torah chosen for study and Holocaust Remembrance Day. The focus of discussion was virtually entirely about mourning personal loss and the appropriate way to do so and not about a horrendous collective loss. The passage goes as follows:

Leviticus Chapter 10 וַיִּקְרָא

א  וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. 1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.

God just killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron stood in silence:וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.

Moses, instead of wailing at the death of his two nephews and instead of commiserating with Aaron at his terrible loss, merely used the occasion to reprimand Aaron and remind him that the way God reveals his holiness (and his power) is by insisting that people, and, more precisely, the priests, do exactly what God tells them. God’s instructions were to be followed to a “T”.  Neither Aaron nor Moses remonstrated God for His utterly disproportionate response to the failure of Nadab and Abihu to follow God’s precise instructions. The two had sinned for using incense in the fire pans to start the fire. God insisted that He and He alone would light the sacrificial fire. Further, only the incense from the sacred bronze altar was to be utilized. They had offered before the Lord alien fire. They had sinned for not following God’s protocol. God smote Nadab and Abihu. Moses chastised Aaron. Aaron stood in silence.

It gets worse. Moses ordered that the two be buried outside the camp. Eleazar and Ithamar took the places of their two older brothers. Moses told them and their father, Aaron, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.” (Leviticus 10:6) When the sister of Aaron and Moses – Miriam – died (Numbers 20:1), there is no account of mourning as there was when Sarah, Abraham’s wife, died (Genesis 23:2) or when Aaron himself subsequently died as reported in the same Parsha Chukas that recorded Miriam’s death. Abraham wailed at Sarah’s death. The whole Israelite community wailed at the death of Aaron. The Torah records Miriam’s death with silence.

But, at least, there was no prohibition against mourning and warnings of dire consequences if one did not follow God’s instructions. Mourn not. Bewail the alien fire not the death of Aaron’s two sons. Failure to do so would have stark consequences, not only for the leaders of the Israelites, but for the entire community. Was the silence “appropriate”?

Rashi said it was. In fact, God rewarded Aaron for his silence by subsequently addressing him and not Moses to pass on the commandment not to engage in sacrifices if drunk. The implication is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they employed the “alien fire.”

On the other hand, in contrast to Rashi, Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508) condemned Aaron’s callousness. Aaron’s heart had turned to stone when he did not weep or mourn as a grieving father usually does. Because he had lost his soul, he was speechless. Was silence a sign of deadness, of a loss of soul, or did the silence connote “inner peace and calm”? (R. Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein)? Was the silence and forbearance a sign of Aaron’s holiness because he refused to chastise God for his own personal great loss?

Was Aaron shocked into silence or did he retreat into an inner blissful state of being? Baruch Levine argues that Aaron both mourned and did so in silence. He was not in shock forיִּדֹּם  means to moan and mourn, as well as to do so in silence. Aaron mourned inwardly while the community wailed outwardly lest Aaron as high priest be defiled by participating in the normal way in a grieving session. In Braakhot 6b, Rab Pappa went further and insisted that maintaining silence in a house of mourning is precisely the appropriate response. In Job 2:13, silence is perceived as the proper and respectful response to horrendous grief. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite “sat down with him (Job) upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:13) Rab Yohanan (Moed Katan 28b) taught that “comforters are not permitted to say a word until the mourners open a conversation.”

Is silence the appropriate response to horrendous loss? What is appropriate for a mourner to do who suffers a great loss? What is the appropriate sentiment of a friend or a relative to be expressed to one who suffers such a great loss? Is silence the right thing to do? I have my own experiences to guide me.

Son of Saul I

Son of Saul I

by

Howard Adelman

Watch this film, and you must watch it, BEFORE reading the review below. I wrote a reader of my blog of Hungarian background who now lives in Germany the following note:

Have you seen Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes and co-authored with Clara Royer that won an academy award as Best Foreign Film as well as a Golden Globe in the same category? Stop reading if you have not seen the film and wait until you have. If you have seen it, is there a difference in watching and listening if you know Hungarian? What did you think of the film? Is the “son” real, legitimate or illegitimate, or an imaginary construct of Saul Ausländer? What is the significance, if any, that the young boy was still breathing after being gassed? Does Saul deep down know his Greek rabbi was a fake or does it even matter whether he knew or not as he obsessively pursued his self-appointed mission of giving the boy a proper Jewish burial? What did you think of the tension between picture-taking as witnessing, rebellion and adherence to religious ritual, especially since all three options fail? I have still not yet been able to make any sense of the order of events in the film. Do you have any idea?

I saw the film for the first time on the plane on my way back from Israel and that was probably the worst context to see the movie, that is, on a plane and not because I was returning from Israel.

I would appreciate any other comments you might have such as the cinematography of the constant close-ups on Saul and the vague sense of background, on the enormous importance of sound which seemed almost as important as the cinematography.

All the best.

Howard

She replies below. Her response is excellent. I now have no need of writing a review though the answer to my key question did not satisfy me because I tended to take an opposite interpretation of futility rather than affirmation of life – that life-affirming gestures are themselves madness when the world has gone mad, especially when the gesture is so obsessive and driven by fantasy. The film deservedly won its awards, but for such an accomplished film, it is absolutely surprising how few people that I know and who seek out great films have seen it. The subject matter of sonderkommandos was perhaps enough to turn them (and me) off. But it is a Must Watch film.

Hi again,

Prompted by your questions, I promptly set out to find a copy of the Son of Saul movie. It is available for online watching, but purchasing it as a DVD or blue ray won’t be possible before July 21 (at least in Germany). My internet connection is not very strong and so I did not think I would be able to watch the whole movie, but, in fact I managed to watch it, in its entirety, a pirated version with Chinese subtitles (!), online. Here is my immediate, first-impressions feedback:

I have never seen this subject matter filmed quite in this manner: it is an acoustic and visual masterpiece. It definitely should not be watched on a plane ride, with cheap disposable earphones, on a small screen, munching stale peanuts from a crackling cellophane bag. Not sure who got what prize for it, but those responsible for the sound effects alone deserve all sorts of accolades. Ideally, it should be watched in a theatre with state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound…

It does not matter whether or not one understands the language of the subtitles, and it also does not matter if one understands the Babelian cacophony of the many languages spoken by the prisoners against an ongoing, horrifying background of German commands screamed, dogs barking, shots exploding, the dull noise of random blows on people’s backs and heads, metal doors banging shut, the constant whoosh of huge flames ablaze, chaos, and people screaming in agony: Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, French, or German whispered in surreptitiously hurried sentence fragments, the voices hoarse from the air polluted by the constant presence of death, poisonous gas, smoke, flames, and ashes. It does not matter that the main character happens to be Hungarian like the makers of the film: he could be from any nation; his name is, tellingly – Ausländer (foreigner).

It is hard to understand the dialogue alone acoustically. I think this was done on purpose: it gives you, the 21st century viewer sitting in your comfy armchair, a bewildering, frightening, physical, first-person experience at the gut level of what it must have meant to be thrown into this hellish environment, literally and figuratively not being able to grasp what was happening around you and to you (prisoners got shot on the spot simply because they did not understand the German commands, and did not remove their cap in time – I always wondered about the added stress the multilinguality of the environment must have caused). Other Holocaust movies tell a well-scripted story to the interested bystander, accompanied by sentimental violin solos (which normally I am a sucker for): this one pushes you physically into the middle of hell and bangs the door shut behind you. There is no escape here.

Visually, too, the movie does not narrate: it grabs you and forces you to be in the middle of it, peering through half-opened doors, being pushed and shoved amidst panicky crowds, lining up for the roll call, amidst vague shadows backlit by fire and shrouded in smoke, working feverishly on horrific, mindless tasks, must not stop, must not speak, must not think, just keep shoveling, sorting mountains of effects, scrubbing floors, dragging bodies, feeding the fire, and most of all, avoid calling attention to yourself.

The images are blurry (sometimes repetitive, just like the real daily routine of the Sonderkommando), except for the close-ups of the main character and his occasional interlocutors; your grasp of the events as a viewer is also blurry. You keep asking yourself: What is going on? What is happening? What are these people doing? Where are they going? And again, I think this is done on purpose: rather than hammering into your brain the horror with the sledgehammer-like force of explicit, meanwhile sadly familiar images, you get only glimpses of it, which is the more alarming as you can never quite be in the know of what is happening and why. And even when you get a glimpse, you cannot quite believe you are seeing what you are seeing: you become one of the new arrivals, and don’t have time to think it through; you are just thrown from one scene to the other, never knowing how it will end. Life is precarious, and death can become yours at any moment. This is precisely how it must felt to be dragged into a camp. This movie affects you like music: viscerally, not intellectually. You feel like being carried helplessly by the wild torrent of pointless, industrial-scale killing. How could have one gone on doing this if one had clearly understood what they were forced to do? The blurred background imagery is a perfect visual depiction of one’s possible mental state in such a context.

That prisoners, especially members of the Sonderkommando, “enjoying special privileges” for a limited time in exchange for their services would engage in picture taking and religious ritual is a symptom of maintaining “normalcy” even under the most abnormal circumstances. (And in fact, photos, drawings and diaries made by prisoners were found after the war, and religious ritual was adhered to as much as it was possible. There were philosophical discussions and poetry readings held. Gustav Mahler’s sister organized an orchestra and was very tough with them and criticized them for not being good enough – like it mattered… Did these attempts failed, just because the people performing them died? No, because the survivors reporting them are witnesses of the survival of humanity). The abnormal becomes the new normal. The normal human brain is designed to get “accustomed” to standard repetitive stimuli, and the synapses will fire only when something new and unusual stimulates them. This innate “attention deficit” has a definite survival value. The expressionless face of Saul reflects these comatose synapses, only lighting up for one purpose: the proper burial of the boy. That gesture is his poetry reading. It also does not matter if it is his own boy, a boy he would have loved to have, or a total stranger: the boy is the embodiment of his Mentschlichkeit.

There is also another quasi musical aspect to the film: a forever growing crescendo, acoustically, visually and in terms of the sequence of events, moving from a mechanical well-organized daily routine of gassing masses of people through the frenetic dialogue between the SS and the Sonderkommando about not being able to manage the volume, towards the uncontrollable chaos of burning the victims alive in that humongous fire at the pits (one of the rare images with a strong colour, other than the constant grey, black and brown) and the shots and explosions during the uprising: things really get out of hand (which, we know, is historically accurate – but we are not regaled with historic facts, instead, we are made to feel like we are among the crowd pushed and shoved and killed).

In contrast to the crescendo from a chillingly well-coordinated routine to uncontrollable chaos, there is one constant throughout the movie: Saul’s quest to give a proper burial to the boy. The boy’s survival under the circumstances is miraculous (although we heard of survivors crawling out from under several layers of dead bodies from a pit they were shot into, and possibly some people were also found alive after the gas). That the boy is killed by the doctor does not at all diminish this fact. That murder is predictable (part of the camp routine – so to speak), but that it was possible to survive the gas, survive the camp, survive the entire Holocaust is an idea we must believe in; we must hold on to this belief, it is what gives us hope that life is precious and worth living, no matter what. It is a fundamentally Jewish credo, put to fiery test throughout history and never given up or forgotten, despite all. This life-affirming attitude of the Jewish people is quite contrary to that of other people dismissing the value of earthly life of the here and now, and positively extolling the virtue of death, and of martyrdom as the key to that dubious other realm (Paradise and 72 virgins notwithstanding).

The boy is a metaphor of this life-affirming idea, in the most unlikely context, but precisely because of it. During the many close-ups on Saul, his face remains expressionless, just a part of the machinery he is forced to submit himself to; the first time we see a hint of gentleness and love on his face and hear him breathing heavily is when he lifts the shroud of the boy he has already thought lost. We then see a close-up of his back, while he is standing there, gazing at the boy’s wax-like face, and there is pain in that slightly crouched, much beaten and tormented back of the man the first time. Later, we see the gentlest gesture of his hands washing the body of the boy.

That the would-be rabbi is not a rabbi for he does not even know how to say Kaddish, does not make a difference. Real rabbis during particular hardship were known to give permission for modifying the rules, understanding that the intention to follow the rule may be superior to the actual ability to do so in reality. See the differentiation between accidental versus purposeful breaking the law in this Sabbath’s Torah portion: the penalty is lesser for the former.

During the climactic uprising, Saul manages to smuggle the body outside (as he comes up and outside from some basement we see a perfect blue sky in the door frame the first time (a quasi-reverse image of the victims filing down the stairs to the gas-chambers) and the subsequent images show the green of trees, the river, the sky, outdoors, freedom, the first time after all the grey of smoke and ash. We very much want to believe in this moment that he will succeed in his quest. Saul attempts to give the body a proper burial as much as it is humanly possible under the circumstances. He could just drop the whole project and run. Only the appearance of his mates, with the noise of the pursuers makes him move. He drags the body with him into the water, but accidentally loses it while struggling across the river with his mate (the real rabbi). You just know he will not go under, martyr-like with the body (that would be nauseatingly kitschy): His own struggle against drowning becomes the new metaphor for life. They survive initially (again, by sheer miracle) and hide in a hut in the forest. The peasant boy, accidentally finding them and standing there staring brings the first smile on Saul’s face. We breathe a cautious sigh of relief seeing that the boy does not tell on them (as you would expect in the Hollywood version of the story). He is being pushed out of the way by the approaching SS and runs for his life. He runs for LIFE which goes on with him and his generation, even if we hear (but don’t see) the predictable shots finishing off the escapees.

Even if individual attempts failed, life itself did not. Somebody said poetry after Auschwitz was not possible. This great movie, despite the horrifying experience watching it is, assures us that not only poetry and great art, but life as such, is possible, even after Auschwitz.

Terrific depiction of the film!

With the help of Alex Zisman

UNSCOP and the Partition of Palestine I

UNSCOP and the Partition of Palestine I

by

Howard Adelman

Introduction:

After completing the latest phase of my research on the role of UNSCOP in the partition of Palestine, I started writing this article on 14 May 2016, sixty-eight years to the day, 14 May 1948, on which the British Mandate over Palestine expired, and sixty-nine years after the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was established by the United Nations on 15 May 1947. One year later, in the Tel Aviv Museum, the Jewish People’s Council approved a proclamation declaring the establishment of Israel, not simply as a state, but as the restored state of and for the Jewish people.

The Proclamation of the State of Israel read: “The land of Israel [Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and the restoration of it and their political (national?) freedom.”

It was a statement of national belonging, return and restoration. Further, the assertion went further and claimed that the efforts at restoration had been continuous throughout history. “Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma’pilim [(Hebrew) – immigrants coming to Eretz Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation] and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.”

This was historically remarkable. How did this happen? How did the Jewish people gain the support of the UNSCOP that recommended the partition of Palestine and the creation of two states, one state for the Jews from everywhere and another for the Arabs then living in Palestine? Had UNSCOP bought into the Zionist narrative of restoration and continuous national rights, of the right of the Jewish people to rebuild their national home, that such rights were recognized in the Balfour Declaration and reaffirmed by the League of Nations?

The declaration was linked to the Holocaust. But not in the way a contemporary observer would think. “Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland. In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom – and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.” Thus, the linkage was not because six million died and the world was and should feel guilty. The reason was a specifically Zionist one – the struggle to migrate to Eretz Israel – had been continuous and, secondly, Jews had fought as a nation in WWII against the Nazi menace.
This statement was a declaration of national rights confirmed by the resolution (181 II) of the United Nations on 29 November 1947 that permitted the inhabitants (not just the Jews) “to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. The UN recognized “the right of the Jewish people to establish their state.” Did the UN do any such thing? Did the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) that looked into the situation of the Palestine Mandate and make proposals for resolving the conflict there, base its recommendations on the national rights of the Jewish people? If not, why did the members of UNSCOP recommend the creation of a Jewish state alongside that of an Arab state in Palestine?

The resolution (181 II) passed by the United Nations General Assembly just six months earlier (29 November 1947), based on the recommendations of UNSCOP, was much more complex. First, the resolution envisioned a transition period of about four months; the creation of the Jewish and Arab states was to take place no later than 1 October 1947. Second, the plan was based, not on contiguous areas allocated to each state, but rather on three enclaves assigned to the Jewish state and three to the Arab state. A seventh enclave of Jaffa entirely within the Jewish state was to be allocated to the Arab state.

Most interesting of all, the eighth segment, Jerusalem, was, as everyone knows, to be allocated to and governed by the United Nations Trusteeship Council. If the Jewish people’s national rights in Israel had been recognized, why was the application restricted to three enclaves and not applied to all of Palestine and not even Jerusalem, for the call for return in the Jewish sacred texts was not to Palestine or Eretz Israel but to Jerusalem? And why did Recommendation XII (with two votes against and one abstention) insist that, “In the appraisal of the Palestine question, it be accepted as incontrovertible (my italics) that any solution for Palestine cannot be considered as a solution of the Jewish problem in general.”

Other than the territorial divisions, the resolution recommended an economic union, transit rights, how citizenship of the members of each of the polities was to be determined, how religious sites and minority rights were to be protected, and a transitional administration was provided to oversee the implementation of the recommendations and the assumption of UN power over Jerusalem by the United Nations Palestine Commission. That the plan read like a Rube Goldberg creation should have been no surprise since it was the product of enormous political jockeying, beginning with the make-up of UNSCOP and the proceedings within that committee. More surprising to some, however, there is no recognition of the national rights of the Jewish people to set up a state in their traditional homeland or, for that matter, the “natural” rights of the Arabs in Palestine for self-determination.

This paper does not deal with the full scale civil war that took place in the aftermath of the resolution, the rejection of the resolution by the Arab states and the Palestinian Arabs on the basis that the resolution contravened the doctrine of self-determination to replace imperial edicts, the conditional acceptance by the Jewish Agency and the abandonment of the terms of the original resolution by the Special Session of the United Nations in the month preceding 14 May 1948 and the appointment of a mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, and of a Truce Commission, and certainly not on the Jewish declaration of independence and the war that ensued.

Instead, the focus of this paper is on the machinations within UNSCOP, in particular, the role of Ivan Rand of Canada, in recommending the series of compromises that made up Resolution 181 (II). This is the first in a series to explore the rationale and decision-making of UNSCOP by analyzing the thinking of each of the eleven members of UNSCOP. Though this paper does not start with the zeitgeist of the times, the emergence of a particular kind of globalization that would march forward in the next seven decades and the East-West collisions that emerged in that process, it does explore how the new state of Israel was caught in those tensions through an examination of the minds and voices of those who recommended partition.

Why Ivan Rand? Because, as I will illustrate, Rand was a key player who resisted partition, who helped persuade certain “eastern” representatives to support a federal solution which he, in the end, abandoned. Why? The answer, I believe, will not only throw some insight onto why Israel inherited the added problem of UN precedents without any recognition of the rights of the Jewish people to national self-determination, but will also indicate why, twenty years after UNSCOP, Canada would emerge from its hundred years of sleep and emerge from it cocoon as a leader of Western democratic values.

There is another reason. Ivan Rand was a member of one of two sub-committees set up by UNSCOP. The Working Group on Constitutional Matters, as distinct from the one on Boundaries. In addition to Ivan Rand from Canada, it had three members: Justice Emil Sandström of Sweden who served as Chair of UNSCOP, Dr. N.S. Blom from the Netherlands. and Dr. Jorge Garcǐa Granados from Guatemala. All four came from Western countries. Sir Abdul Rahman, a Muslin judge from India, Nasrollah Entezam from Iran, the two representatives of Eastern countries, were not on the sub-committee or working group. Neither was Vladimir Simic, the representative from Yugoslavia, who so adamantly opposed partition for understandable national reasons.

Why did Blom resist the recommendations of the Constitutional Working Group? Why was there so much tension between Rand and Sandström? And why and how did Garcǐa Granados play such a critical role in resolving those tensions? Next: a summary introduction to those three other members of UNSCOP, their predispositions and values.

Corporeality IIIB: Justin Trudeau and Canadian Identity

Corporeality IIIB: Justin Trudeau and Canadian Identity

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday I wrote about Justin Trudeau’s policies with respect to the war against Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. I tried to show that on the basis of strategic considerations alone, Canada’s plan not to renew the deployment of the six CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft as part of the allied mission in Iraq and Syria, did not make rational sense. At the end I suggested that the account could not be left at the level simply of strategy, but the explanation lay deeper in Trudeau’s conception of the Canadian identity and the way, sometimes erroneously, that he envisions enhancing that identity.

The energy his government has put into resettling the Syrian refugees in Canada is a major expression of the view of the Liberal Party under Trudeau of Canadian identity. Though overwhelmingly cheered on, the initiative has not been without criticism, usually on security grounds rather than humanitarian ones. But some critiques have emerged that argue that we are importing a population which has values diametrically opposed to our own, particularly in the treatment of women. The following op-ed by the brilliant son of two very old (now sadly deceased) friends, David Frum, was published on 16 March 2015 in The National Post:

Trudeau now urges Canada to enable and assist those who define women as inferior — and who require women to wear special identifying badges of their inferiority. In his Toronto speech, Trudeau said: “one of the highest aims of Canadian political leadership is to protect and expand freedom for Canadians.” He is so determined to expand freedom, in fact, that he now proposes to expand it to include the freedom to treat women like chattels. This is not the freedom that Trudeau’s hero Wilfrid Laurier had in mind when he called freedom “Canada’s nationality.” The freedom Justin Trudeau defended in Toronto is the freedom Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee fought for: the freedom to dominate and subordinate.

Canada stands for human rights. Canada stands for freedom. Canada stands for gender equality. It is wrong, the argument goes, for Canada to bring in people who do not share those values. What the Justin Trudeau government is asserting by its initiative is that it is absolutely wrong to label a whole region and the people who live in it as discriminatory against women, let alone a whole religion. For the region contains many people. Yazidis and Chaldeans do not define women as chattels. Neither do most Muslims. Engaging in such labeling is un-Canadian and runs directly counter to Canadian values of tolerance and respect. Of course, among those refugees from Syria there will be some refugees who do not share in our values of gender equality which Canadian immigration officers will be unable to detect, especially given their focus on security issues. Trudeau trusts that Canadian values are so powerful and so winning that, even for those who do not share the Canadian values of gender equality, over one or perhaps two generations, given past history, and given Canada’s excellent multicultural and integration policies, even most of those will incorporate those values into their cultural praidentity, valuesctices.

The lesson about Canadian values encompassing respect for the Other goes even further. I will illustrate this by a story which I hope I have not written about before. When I was in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 auditing the number of residents made homeless by the war, I was traveling around in a Red Cross vehicle. We came across a woman sobbing in the middle of the road. She was covered in blood and fresh blood was still seeping from her head wounds. The Red Cross vehicle stopped and bundled her into the back. A long interrogation and conversation proceeded in Arabic as her wounds were being treated.

Not understanding Arabic, I presumed that the woman was somehow a casualty of the war that had primarily moved up to the Beirut area. While the woman was being treated in the back, the Red Cross vehicle first drove to one location from which it received directions to another. We arrived at a home with posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme religious leader of Iran after the overthrow of the Shah, plastered all down one wall on the side. [As a total aside, and a bit of the good news coming out of Iran, his reform-minded grandson, who was initially vetoed by the Supreme Religious Council in Iran, has had his candidacy reinstated.]

No one explained to me why we were not at a hospital. I presumed we were at the home of a Hezbollah leader given the posters. I had to move over in the front seat and a gentleman joined us and chatted with the driver and with the woman and her attendant in the back as we drove to another village. There at a house we dropped off the woman and the man we had so recently picked up after a brief discussion with the Red Cross driver before we proceeded on our way. The driver then explained what had happened.

The woman had been beaten up by her husband. We had gone first to the home of the local religious leader who delegated one of his acolytes both to warn the husband never to repeat the beating of his wife and to live with the family for 30 days to protect the wife, to give daily lessons to the husband and to report back to the Imam on the treatment of the wife over a month. When I heard this I had to admit to myself that although I still regarded Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and as a religious organization that supported the doctrine of the superiority of males over females, when it comes to responding to domestic violence, the organization seemed to have a social system of protection of women light years ahead of our own.

The lesson: do not be complacent and simply dogmatically believe that your practices of instantiating gender equality are by definition not only the best, but had nothing to learn from other practices. Ironically, other practices, from sources one would least suspect, can be superior to your own.

I tell this story because two Canadian values complementary to gender equality are tolerance and respect. They are best taught by example. The intolerant comments of the writer critical of the Canadian Syrian refugee program above in defense of Canadian values, reveals him or herself to be subversive of those values. Further, the writer revealed profound ignorance as well as negative exaggerations about peoples and religion in insisting that the niqab is a “symbol of oppression: the garment’s purpose, after all, is to deprive women of their individuality; to render them invisible in public space.” The writer was. I believe, obviously thinking of the burka rather than the niqab. With respect to the niqab, in my own studies of the controversy in France over its being worn by Muslim girls in the French schools, I learned that it was worn for many different reasons – to protect privacy, as a style statement, as an identifier with one’s tradition, as a religious identifier, as a means of diverting the male gaze away from them, and by two school girls whose last name was Levy and who had a Jewish father and a Muslim mother, as a political statement of rebellion against the arbitrary edicts of the French government in its efforts to ban the wearing of the niqab.

One reproach to Justin Trudeau took place in the context of his comments on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trudeau said:

“On this day, we pay tribute to the memory of the millions of victims murdered during the Holocaust. We honour those who survived atrocities at the hands of the Nazi regime, and welcome their courageous stories of hope and perseverance… The Holocaust is a stark reminder of the dangers and risks of allowing hate, prejudice, and discrimination to spread unchallenged. It also reminds us that silence must never be an option when humanity is threatened… As we pause to educate ourselves and our families on the bitter lessons of the Holocaust, we also strengthen our resolve to work with domestic and international partners to continue defending human rights and condemning intolerance.”

Many took umbrage at the statement – not for what it said, but for what it left out. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not Human Rights Day. Holocaust Day is specifically intended to commemorate the deliberate murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime during WWII. Yet there was not one mention of Jews in the speech. Instead, Trudeau said that, “We honour [all] those who survived atrocities at the hands of the Nazi regime.” The day was reinterpreted as a day of remembrance for all victims of the Nazis.

Further, the statement took place just a few days after Stéphan Dion, our Foreign Minister, said that Canada, as a steadfast ally of and friend to Israel, “calls for all efforts to be made to reduce violence and incitement and to help build the conditions for a return to the negotiating table.” This was said in the context of the intifada of the knives. Though very occasionally Jewish extremists have killed innocent Palestinian civilians deliberately, those rare occurrences have been deplored by political authorities in Israel. In contrast, the now almost daily terrorist attacks against civilians by Palestinian extremists may be criticized as an inappropriate tactic by Mahmoud Abbas, but at the same time, the perpetrators are celebrated as heroes. Further, the various practices of the IDF as an occupying army of a civilian population antithetical to that occupation, such as demolishing a number of Palestinian homes “illegally” erected on land reserved for the IDF for military practice, may be deplored, but there is no equivalence whatsoever between the deliberate attempts of Palestinians to murder Israeli civilians and the unacceptable and deplorable practices of the Netanyahu government.

Since Justin Trudeau misspoke about the Holocaust in leaving out any reference to Jews that followed Stéphan Dion’s mistaken equation of Palestinian violence and Israeli political practices which may separately be worthy of extensive criticism, the government received a number of criticisms from various quarters, especially Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), but Fogel also noted that in each case the government issued an immediate apology and corrections. Dion made an explicit clarification which pointed at the exclusive responsibility for the intifada of the knives on Palestinians themselves and pointing to the ways in which they followed incitement by Palestinian leaders. Trudeau addressed the issue of the connection between the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

There are two lessons here. The first arises from the pattern and propensity to make such mistakes. Secondly, there is the willingness to immediately apologize and correct the errors. The first is not just a case of being careless, thoughtless and insensitive. In Otherwise than Being, Emmanuel Levinas dedicated it, “To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the Nazi Socialists, and the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism” (my italics) Though Levinas did not make the same error of simply putting a generic face on the singularity of the Shoah by omitting that the Nazis targeted Jews most specifically, he also wanted to universalize the lesson to all cases of racist thought. This, I believe, is what lay behind Trudeau’s misstep. The error was not in the effort to draw universal lessons, but in the omission of reference to the specific victims from which the lesson was being drawn. This is also true of the erroneous equivalence – the tendency to universalize, to apply to all patterns of injustice, but at the expense of forging false equivalences.

The willingness to correct the errors, the way they were corrected and the speed with which the corrections were made speaks to the strengths of the Trudeau government value system and its willingness to amend whenever it gives way to sacrificing the particular and significant differences to convey a universal message. What has this got to do with the Canadian decision to not to renew the deployment of the CF-18 Hornet fighter planes in the Middle East? I know analogical reasoning is the weakest form of argument and in many quarters is unacceptable, but it is my belief that this young government has a proclivity in general to such errors. In its desire to enunciate and give witness to universal values, there is a propensity to get the particulars wrong.

The government should, and I believe it might, demonstrate that it recognizes that it cannot combat evil only with giving witness to universal values. It can, and, in my mind, should continue to insist that upholding those values is the best bulwark against creating conditions for homegrown terrorism to flourish and grow. THIS MUST BE THE FIRST PRIORITY OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE BATTLE AGAINST TERRORISM. It is well exemplified in Canadian policies to take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. It is well exemplified in the unwillingness to target Islam as a religion because of the small number of terrorists that are spawned in part from that religion. But first priorities are not to the exclusion of other priorities down the line. The Canadian government must also engage with and combat that evil on the ground and in the air that is flourishing in the Middle East and even Africa.

What do I expect the government to do?

  1. Announce that it has not had enough time to reconsider its overall policies and plans for combatting Daesh (ISIS);
  2. Until it completes that reconsideration and review, it will extend the mission of the six CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft for another six months;
  3. Nearing the two-thirds mark in that extension, the government will announce that, out of consideration for its responsibilities to the mission and its allies, out of consideration of the continuing threat posed by Daesh, the deployment of the six CF-18 Hornet fighter planes will be renewed for a further six months;
  4. That the government will enhance its contribution to the fight against evil in a number of ways, including going beyond a combat role and offering advice to the Iraqi government on how to implement multicultural practices that uphold the values of rights, respect for others and minorities and reinforcement of democratic institutions;
  5. That, in the meanwhile, Canada will continue to take in more refugees and to treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve, thereby offering the most important lesson through witnessing in combating terrorism.

Will the Canadian government do what I expect? “Expect” is an equivocal term. On the one hand it means setting standards for a party to live up to. On the other hand, it is a prognostication for the future. I leave it to the reader to decide whether I mean the first or the second or possibly both.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Black Book: A Review

Black Book: A Review

by

Howard Adelman

This past Wednesday at Holy Blossom Temple, one of the best of the Holocaust historians, Michael Marrus, gave a superb lecture as part of Holocaust Education Week. His thesis was straightforward. The evidence was overwhelming to support the proposition that the Holocaust did not end with the conclusion of WWII. The sources of evidence he offered were quite varied and often complex.

Michael did not put forth the thesis that anti-Semitism, which had such a vicious expression in the Nazi murder of six million Jews, gradually morphed into a new alleged form of anti-Semitism – anti-Zionism and the disproportionate attacks against the Jewish State of Israel. Rather, Michael took up the historian’s argument that the Holocaust continued in the immediate aftermath of the war. As he began his lecture, there could be no focus on the Holocaust immediately after the end of WWII itself because neither the international community, nor the lands where those Jews were slaughtered, nor the Jews themselves, had any way to specifically identify what had happened to the Jews. The word “Holocaust” took a much longer time to settle into our language.

As Michael documented, for the USSR, the Jews who died sacrificed themselves in the fight against fascism. French Jews died for the greater glory of de Gaulle’s mythological re-creation and vision of France. There was then no discussion of the degree of collaboration, though many collaborators and alleged collaborators were dealt with swiftly and cruelly after the war. Nor did those creating the new myth of a France reborn from the resistance ever pay much attention to the fact that an estimated 15% of Frenchmen on average over the years were active or ideological collaborators, that almost 85% percent were standbys, that is, servile, reluctant collaborationists, who stayed out of the fray. Only perhaps .1% actually participated in the resistance. All of these figures fluctuated over the course of the war and shifted with its fortunes.

In Holland (a long time supporter of Israel), it is worthy of note, and of great relevance to the movie I will be reviewing, that one of the highest if not the highest proportion of the 140-150,000 native-born Dutch Jews and approximately 35,000 former German Jews were sent to concentration camps from Holland than from any other country in Europe. An estimated 75% died in the Holocaust. At the same time, Holland had fewer rescuers recognized as righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem than Poland, in spite of the number of killings and even pogroms in Poland in the immediate aftermath of the war. This discrepancy could be explained because the population of Poland was much larger than that of the Netherlands. [I expect Michael Marrus to correct me if these estimates are way off the mark.] More importantly, for the purpose of Michael’s lecture, the death of the millions of Jews was almost always made part of a larger story of valour and sacrifice. In the popular imagination, Jews were not killed because they were Jews. They were killed and were martyrs for a variety of different mythologies.

The overall numbers of Jews killed constituted a significant number, but still only a small number of the overall death toll from the war. In terms of survivors, the surviving Jews, the 200,000, were an even much smaller percentage. Besides, in a devastated Europe after the war, few had time to think about the death of the Jews, including the Jews themselves. Virtually everyone was focused on survival.

After the talk, a survivor came up to me and discussed her experience after the war, effectively confirming Michael’s thesis. Though she tended to stress the disinterest of the gentiles in what had happened to the Jews, I reminded her that I myself was preoccupied with other matters and had not paid much attention to the Holocaust from 1945 to 1960. In university as an undergraduate, the plight and flight of the Hungarians in 1956 and the Suez War, the fear of strontium 90 and the atomic arms race, were at the forefront of my mind. It was not until the Eichmann trial in the early sixties that the Holocaust come to the forefront of my concerns.

In 1960, my family with a newborn baby (Jeremy, now a renowned historian at Princeton University), took possession of a rented house at 586 Spadina Avenue; we rented the upper two floors to effectively reduce our rent while I was a graduate student. The landlord was moving to Montreal. It turned out he was a Holocaust survivor. He belonged to the small minority of Jews who survived the Holocaust when it reached Hungary in the final year of the war, though tens of thousands of Jews had died in Horthy’s forced labour camps before the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944. Only then did the wholesale deportation of most of Hungary’s 800,000 remaining Jews begin.

Our landlord was not just a survivor. He had compiled a book documenting what happened to memorialize the Hungarian Jews who had died in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. It was called The Black Book. It had been self-published. As a condition of the rental of the house, I had agreed to make an effort to find libraries and individuals to purchase the over thousand copies he had stored in his basement. Though I am sure I did not try nearly as hard as he did, to the extent that I did, I found very few takers for the books, though I took a copy and read it. Was I appalled at what I read? Not really. It certainly made me weep, but my main reaction is that he could have used a good editor.

I only make this point to reinforce Michael’s thesis that the Holocaust did not end with the termination of WW II. It continued, not only with the physical persecution of returnees, with the resistance to giving up property to those few survivors, but in the second visitation of the Holocaust, the initial disappearance of the slaughtered Jews from memory and from history in the immediate aftermath of the war.

This is important. For in restoring the Holocaust to memory, and doing so in such a pronounced way, unfortunately a new heroic mythology replaced the previous repression. One dominant theme was that the gentile nations helped bring Israel into existence because of their guilt over the Holocaust, or, at least, over their guilt about the death of the six million whose slaughter still had no-name. Michael cited the Harrison Commission Report after the war. Harrison and his team visited devastated Europe and looked at the situation of the Jewish survivors after the war. In Michael’s recounting, as a result of the Harrison Report, the Jewish survivors were brought together into one camp under the auspices of the United Nation Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), treated much better and given a great deal of self-government within the camps.

I recalled another side of the Harrison Report. The reason the Jews were still in camps after the war is that no one wanted the remnants of the Jews of Europe. By 1947, the 200,000 Jewish refugees soon became a bone of contention between the United States, a country that wanted to settle them in Palestine, and Britain which did not. When I read the Report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Report (UNSCOP), the minutes of its meetings and the diaries and memoirs of its members who participated in the Committee that would recommend the partition of Palestine, what stood out for me was that there was not one mention of the Holocaust or of the six million who died. The focus was on what to do with the 200,000 refugees that countries were still unwilling to resettle.

The belief that Israel was created because of guilt and as a recompense for the Holocaust, a myth shared by many if not most Jews, is just that – a myth. It is has no basis in historical fact. It is a myth perpetuated in many Holocaust films, perhaps most notably in the most famous one of them all, Schindler’s List. The film ends with the refugees leaving Europe as the wretched of the earth and reappearing coming over a hillside, healthy and alive in a reborn Israel that has arisen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

Last night we watched a movie on Netflix that by chance was called Black Book, Zwartboek, not The Black Book. I had not caught the title of the movie before we began to watch it, though I noticed it had been co-authored (with Gerard Soeteman) and directed by the Dutch-Hollywood filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven on 2006. I recognized his name, but my shrinking brain could not at that time recall the names of the films he had directed. (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) Further, it did not help that the selection of the film to watch yesterday evening was a matter of complete happenstance and was totally unrelated to Michael’s lecture earlier in the week and my discussion after the lecture. It was only after we finished watching the film that I learned that the title was Black Book.

As it turns out, Paul Verhoeven is my age, actually six months younger. He lived in The Hague during the war while I lived safely in Toronto. But though shaped by very different experiences, we have a number of personal historical factors in common. For example, we both switched careers at an early age – he went from a PhD in mathematics to filmmaking while I went from medical school into philosophy. He is mesmerized by religion, particularly Jesus. He even flirted for a short time with evangelical Christianity. But we are very different in our tastes – like my youngest children, but unlike me, he thinks Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the greatest thing since the invention of the bagel. Ignoring these differences, and some other coincidental similarities, quite aside from the radical differences in our experiences and expressions, I truly believe I can get inside Verhoeven’s head and see what he wanted to portray in the movie.

The movie is a classic Hollywood film in that the narrative pushes and, indeed, rushes the film forward, even though the mechanics of the plot are quite complex. But it is also a movie about character, about virtue and vice and the difficulty in distinguishing the two. Unlike a typical Hollywood narrative film, this one is rich in irony. Further, the film was inspired by real historical characters.

A kibbutz in Israel provides the frame of the film. It begins when a busload of tourists to a kibbutz in Israel disgorges a redhead and her Canadian pastor husband. Suddenly the visiting tourist recognizes the teacher in the kibbutz, Rachel Rosenthal, née Stein. As a spy for the Dutch Resistance, she infiltrated Nazi headquarters, under the assumed name, Ellis de Vries. The two women had been together in occupied Holland at the end of the war. We learn during the film that both had become intimate with the Nazis, but for very different reasons.

At the end of the film, we see the other half of the frame, which I will not give away. But one part I will describe. The movie ends, not only in revealing a key piece of information about the kibbutz that had been withheld from viewers, but it is clear that we are suddenly at the beginning of the start of a new war, the Suez War, and the message of eternal recurrence rather than a phoenix arising out of the ashes of the old is unequivocally broadcast.

The movie is at once a war action flic, a spy movie, a film about magic and deception and a detective whodunnit to discover who was behind one trap after another for the Resistance, even discovering that each disaster had been a trap. The movie is even akin to the serials we saw in Saturday matinees as children, often about a damsel in distress rescued by a hero when the heroine is tied down on the tracks as a locomotive approaches, along the lines of The Perils of Pauline from the silent film era. And the situation keeps recurring in different guises. After all, this film is not just a fictional narrative, it is pulp fiction, but a pulp fictional representation of reality with a very serious theme. The movie offers a profound exploration of morals and atrocities in Holland in the final year of the war and its immediate aftermath. As it happens, the most horrific scenes in the movie take place after Holland has been liberated by the Canadians. And the most painful moments come just before those scatological scenes, before liberation, when the anti-Semitism on the part of the Resistance is portrayed.

The final scenes are adumbrated when a farmer is hiding the main heroine, the Jewish Rachel Stein girl, alias Ellis de Vries, played brilliantly by Carice van Houten (to my grandson, Eitan, in Israel – yes, this is the same actress who plays Melisandre of Asshai in your favourite series, Game of Thrones). The farmer asks Rachel to say the Christian benediction for the dinner they are about to eat which she had just memorized. Rachel says it flawlessly and, in my mind, I commended the farmer for helping her develop her gentile disguise as a hidden Jew. But suddenly the farmer remonstrates her and insists that the Jews would not be in such trouble if they had followed their saviour, Jesus.

This coming Friday, I believe I will be writing about Rachel as I wrote about Rebekah this past Friday. Rachel married Jacob to become the mother of Israel. I believe the naming in the film is no coincidence. At the same time, Rachel is a universal character, echoing those lines in The Merchant of Venice. But instead of her eyes and her mouth being in common with non-Jewish women, it is her breast and her hips.

That scene, and the scene of the Resistance just before Liberation, reminded me of the role of Dr. N. S. Blom, the Dutch delegate on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Holland is generally lauded by Israel for its strong support of Israel after the war. Except Blom was one of two delegates on the Commission required to follow the dictates of the Dutch foreign office. (The other was the Australian delegate, John Hood.) Blom had strict instructions to abstain or vote against partition lest his vote alienate the Arab vote which Holland needed to support its colonial position in Indonesia. (Blom was an ex-senior Dutch foreign service officer who had served in Indonesia.)

By luck, only weeks after, the peace negotiations between the Dutch government and the Indonesian rebels seeking independence led by Sukarno broke down in July of 1947, Subsequently, there was an impasse between the Dutch and the Indonesians over independence. The Arab High Committee voted to lend its support to Sukarno for independence. Only then, just two weeks before the partition recommendation, was Blom freed up from the instruction to abstain and allowed to cast a vote supporting partition. The Dutch, as it turned out, had another, a darker side to their heroic support for Israel.

That is one of the best elements in the film, the upturning of myths about the Resistance, including the one in his own 1977 heroic war epic, Soldier of Orange. Unlike that movie, The Black Book thrives on ambiguities and displacement, the magical inversions in which the best are revealed as among the worst and the worst emerge as virtuous souls, the cerebral underpinning made all the richer by the pulp realistic portrayal of death, of bodily functions and of the body itself. The film is not so ambiguous that it frees itself from the stereotypical vulgar Nazi war murderer, portrayed as Günther Franken as the deputy Gestapo chief, the Obergruppenführer, and a stereotypical villain in spite of Verhoeven’s insistence that all his characters are neither just good or bad. In fact, the ambiguity about Franken is that he is not just a crazy killer and a loutish pursuer of the female flesh, but that he is a thief and a crook to finance his life and planned escape after the end of the war, incidentally a far worse evil for Hitler’s regime than the cold-blooded killing of Jews and resistance fighters.

The film was justifiably voted as the best Dutch film ever and won numerous awards and three Golden Calves from the Dutch Film Academy. Many critics are bothered by the numerous coincidences that propel the plot – such as Rachel Stein as Ellis de Vries who first meets the head of the Gestapo, commander Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), accidentally on a train, a meeting which saves her from her Nazi pursuers. Coincidences do not bother me, any more than the coincidence of my discussing The Black Book on Hungarian Jewry lost in the Holocaust and then watching Black Book unintentionally three evenings later.  Coincidences are only a problem when they are improbable. And it was not improbable that Rachel would seek a haven and flash her smile at a German officer sitting alone in a train compartment in the search for an escape. Further, the series of coincidences are congruent with one dominant theme in the movie, the issue of moral contingency.

I have not really said much about the plot – it is such a plot-driven film that I do not want to spoil it, or the musical score and the cinematography and editing, but they all mesh together beautifully.

So don’t let anyone tell you that this is just a soapy melodrama. Watch the film if you have not already seen it.

Haunted by Humans: The Book Thief

Haunted by Humans: The Book Thief

by

Howard Adelman

Last night, we saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the delightful elegant comic book movie with more extravagant action scenes than a Batman, Superman or 007 movie. It is chock full of deadpan sight gags and visual delights. Nothing more needs to be said. Enjoy yourself.

Some movies provide a different sort of delight and pleasure even when set against the background of the Nazis and the Holocaust. I did not see The Book Thief when it first came out in theatres. We had been intrigued by the preview, but we were deterred by the reviews so the movie somehow dropped to the bottom of our priority list. Basically, the movie is an adaptation of a coming-of-age very popular and excellent novel by Marcus Zusak about a girl in Nazi Germany from 1938, three month after I was born, until the end of the war, with a postscript about her death of old age in her Upper West Manhattan apartment after having lived a wonderful and fulfilling life.

Two days ago we watched it on Netflix. We were delighted. So I wanted to see what in the reviews had turned us off. Most reviews repeated the story line and served as spoilers. Almost all the reviews applauded the acting, especially the French-Canadian actress, Sophie Nélisse, in the starring role of Liesel Meminger. The excellent cast included the kind Geoffrey Rush and the outwardly hard-hearted Emily Watson as Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann — named as a true understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche’s űbermann, one who does not give into the sentimental demands of mob morality but overcomes oneself and one’s inner fears to evince a higher level of values. Reviewers also heaped enormous praise on the score written by John Williams that was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, but one critic used its quality to further undercut the movie – John Williams’ score, “a quieter, more somber echo of his music for ‘Schindler’s List’ — lends the film an unearned patina of solemnity, for ‘The Book Thief’ is a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch.”

That theme ran through almost of all of the reviews. While acknowledging that the movie was faithful to the novel, the movie was considered soppy, contrived and sentimental and the Director, Brian Percival (of Downton Abbey fame), was generally judged as having reinforced and even over-emphasized that propensity of the original work of fiction on which the film was based. Review aggregations were generally bad, ranking the movie below 50% approval – Rotten Tomatoes 46%. Metacritic gave it a 53 rating, that is a so-so movie.

“The years-spanning film, which observes traumatic historical events through Liesel’s eyes, looks and tastes like a giant sugar cake whose saccharinity largely camouflages the horrors of the war…Except for the Nazi flags hanging from every building, the town, under a glistening blanket of snow, could be the cozy setting for a holiday greeting card. The pieces of the story, which begins in 1938, are so neatly arranged that the movie has the narrative flow and comforting familiarity of a beloved fairy tale.”

“Brian Percival’s adaptation retains much of Zusak’s hefty source material (including that narrator), but the chill is replaced by a chocolate box prettiness, making it cousin to those respectable lit adaptations Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Reader. And Percival’s own episodes of Downton Abbey.”

“Bringing this qualified idealism to crooked-grinned, bittersweet life is Rush’s Hans, a man quietly outcast by acquaintances for not joining the Party and whose remorse at an act of quick, but dangerous heroism captures ever-present fear in a fascist state. But, while an accessible entry point to WW2 for younger viewers and never less than watchable for adult audiences, this is ultimately too Oscar showreel polished for its own good.”

“The use of Death as the narrator, and the artfully dream-like set – which looks almost as if it has fluttered out of the pages of an illustration – lend an artistic gloss to the horrors of Nazi repression…I felt manipulated. One can understand why storytellers and filmmakers are drawn to Nazi Germany: its choices were so stark, and the price of courage so great, that it arrives already freighted with emotion. Still, I came away from The Book Thief with the uneasy sense that history had been subjected to a wealth of sentimental fictional tweaking, a kind of self-indulgent wallowing in the human drama of the era without a profound understanding of its reality. And that, combined with the detailed croonings of an imaginary Death about how he garnered the souls of the dying, began to make me feel a little queasy.”

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote that the movie looked like “a creepy new version of the Anne Frank story”. Brian Viner headlined his review: “It’s Downton with Nazis: Lightweight and glossy, you can tell this war film is made by an ex-director of ITV’s hit costume drama.”

“The Book Thief will undoubtedly have its admirers and, indeed, has one in my 15-year-old god-daughter Lydia, who pronounces it one of the best films she’s ever seen. That might be significant, for the book has been categorised as young-adult fiction, and that’s probably how the film should be marketed, too.”

Even a favourite reviewer, David Denby, wrote, “Markus Zusak’s enormously successful young-adult novel seems to have been adapted as a movie for middle-aged children. The brute facts of the Second World War in Germany—Nazi oppression, hunger, people hiding in basements—have been turned into a pleasantly meaningless tale of good-heartedness, complete with soft lyrical touches and a whimsical appearance, as a narrator, by Death, who should have laid this movie to rest.”

If you happened to read one or two of these reviews, would you have seen the movie? The exceptional critic who praised the movie was not much help either.

“And now for my first fight with my fiancée Debbie Ross. She did not like the film The Book Thief. She thought it too photogenic. I thought it the best film of the year by far… The trouble with critics nowadays is that they know about life under German occupation from Hollywood. I know about it first-hand, over the course of three long years. Most German officers acted impeccably, as did simple soldiers…the great majority were civilised and acted within the rules…The Red Army raped close to three million German women, the German army in occupied Europe raped nearly zero. Go see The Book Thief.”

Such reviews, even though they praise the film, are terrible because they too think that the movie is about a realistic depiction of Nazi Germany when it is clearly and unequivocally a modern fairy tale told within a realistic format. After all, the narrator, Roger Allam in a deliberate British accent, is DEATH. We are told that many times throughout the movie that we are not dealing with realism. The Grimm Reaper would not begin the film addressing us if it were. The fairy tale setting and characterization are intrinsic to the poles necessary to depict the contrast between the horrors of Hitler’s regime and the delightful empathy of the main characters.

Reviewers of the book got it. John Green, when he reviewed Zusak’s novel back in 2006 in The New York Times called it brilliant, beginning with Death and fear of death and loss of the other that is central to the invocation of empathy and sentiment. Why did the vast majority of film critics fail to understand at least what was being tried even if they still might disagree on whether it succeeded?

I believe it did succeed and did so exceptionally well. First of all, the Grimm Reaper is not grim at all. He does not come from the riches of a Grimm fairy tale. However, he exudes the same indifference to the living as the Grimm Reaper in the Grimm story, “Godfather Death”. But when the Grimm Reaper lets his feelings undermine him when he has a godson who grows up to be a physician whom he rewards with the ability to both prophecy and prevent death by using herbs, and that son betrays him, he eventually, overcomes his feelings for his own godson and extinguishes his life. Death, however, in this movie is British rather than German. He is dressed in a long frock coat and a bowler hat when we glimpse him from the rear near the end of the movie. The foster daughter does not die but leads a long and successful life even though everyone she loved, but Max, the Jew hidden in the basement by her foster parents, does die.

It is no surprise that the first book which she found on top of her young brother’s grave, and from which she first learned to read with the help of Hans, is called, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. It is no surprise that the book she returns to read over and over again, and one which she reads to Max in the basement, is H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, written from a third-person perspective rather than the first-person point of view of The Time Machine or The Island of Doctor Moreau. For The Invisible Man as a science fiction novel anticipated how stealth aircraft could be unseen by radar by playing with refractive qualities of radar instead of light to make an object invisible. Somehow, the film worked too well and made the film as seen and felt invisible and deaf to most reviewers.

There are two invisible men in The Book Thief, Hitler, who is omnipresent seen only through flags with Nazi swastikas, and Max who is hidden in the cellar under a swastika flag when the Gestapo search the cellar. He can be seen only by Liesel, Hans and Rosa. Like Well’s science fiction novel and virtually all of Grimm’s fairy tales, this story takes place in a small town, though in The Invisible Man, it is a British town and, in that story, the man responsible for the invisibility, Griffin, is captured, beaten and killed by a British mob, whereas in this German town, the citizenry sing Deutschland Über Alles, burn books after Kristallnacht and watch as Nazi thugs bash in the windows of Jewish shops and assault the Jewish owners.

However, I do not think the film reviewers miss the genre of the film simply because they are caught up in the performances, the visuals and the sound track and ignore the literary references and symbolism, even when the film (and the novel) has an ironic title like The Book Thief, though not one reviewer I read who felt quite comfortable with retelling the whole story and serving up spoilers, ever made mention of any of the literary references. I think they just do not understand the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. Contrary to their erroneous judgments, the movie is totally unsentimental while its main theme is a celebration of sentiment which even the Grimm Reaper cannot prevent himself from being touched by. For it is that quality of humanity that haunts him. The inversion of Death haunted by life seems also to have escaped every reviewer that I read.

The philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment – including Francis Hutcheson, Lord Shaftesbury, David Hume and Adam Smith, yes the same Adam Smith whom the cold-hearted neo-liberals cite as their guru – saw sentiment as the key to understanding morality. Sentiment is NOT sentimentality. Whatever the original connection of the two terms, sentimentality now means an appeal to shallow emotions at the expense of reason and disproportionate to the occasion. Sentimentality means playing on one’s heart strings to turn one’s heart into mush instead of a centre for acute discrimination. The pat pathos awakened and feeding on itself rather than the Other is naive and usually excessive, a contrived product of artificial stimulation rather than a natural impulse.

In contrast, sentiment is the foundation of morality rooted in a universal human empathy and concern for others indifferent to self interest. It is benevolence or kindness. Unlike reason, sentiment motivates action, but, to avoid naiveté, requires reason as a complement to assent to, explicate and order those moral decisions within a matrix of understanding built on justice that enables different circumstances and relationships to be comprehended within a system. Sentimentality dispenses with reason. Sentiment requires reason to validate its intuitive sense.

After Death introduces the fairy tale, when Liesel arrives in the little town and Heaven Street where Hans and Rosa Hubermann live, Hans first greets his new foster daughter as a princess rather than a foundling as in a standard Dickens novel, and addresses her as, “Your majesty”. His wife turns out to be a real momma and not the pretend mean stepmother of a Grimm tale as she at first displays. For this is a British fairy tale told by Death with a British accent and not the Grimm fairy tales that Hitler praised as portraying children with sound racial instincts seeking racially pure marriage partners in the spirit of a sentimentalized romantic nationalism even though the Grimm brothers satirized such sentiments as in the story of Hans and his fiancée Gretel who gives a gift to her each day by mindlessly following the instructions of his mother from the day before and each time destroying that gift. “That’s how Hans lost his bride” tells the story with the moral that he failed because he was dis-engaged – like Godfather Death.

Liesel, like Zusak’s previous protagonists, is a fighter who at the very beginning beats up the town’s young bully who mocks her for illiteracy, but she soon learns to fight back with more than her fists through the magic of words and learning to read. And she reads and re-reads The Invisible Man to the Jewish fighter (unless I missed it, the film for some reason leaves out the important reference that Max was a boxer) and insists that he, like everyone else in her life, must not disappear. And true to his word and the magic of the word and her diary that she wrote on the painted-over pages of Mein Kampf that Max made for her, Max returns and he too defeats death, the same death that visits her best friend, the lemon-haired archetypal Aryan, Rudy Steiner, acted with impeccable youthful intelligence by Nico Liersch. Rudy loves Liesel but he too is a worshipper, but unlike the Nazis who select him for an elite corps, he worships the black fastest man in the world, the runner, Jesse Owens. Liesel and Rudy both hate bullies, especially Hitler.

Do movie reviewers ignore the script and therefore miss the allusions? Max Petroni’s screenplay was not flawless, but clearly some key scenes that would have helped viewers understand the message were either elided or left on the cutting room floor. One is Max’s dream sequence in which he boxes endlessly with the Führer for whom he is just a punching bag until he lands one punch and knocks Hitler down. Hitler, in defeat, heartlessly whips the crowd into a furious mob with his evocative words so that the “fists of an entire nation” can be used to attack Max and beat him to a pulp. However, through Liesel, Death learned what it meant to have a heart and Death has been haunted by humanity ever since.