Thursday, January 07, 2010

LESSONS TO LEARN FROM 1944

From a lecture delivered by Aryeh Rubin at the Wyman Institute’s national conference, “The Failure to Bomb Auschwitz: History, Politics, Controversy, held on September 13, 2009 at Fordham University School of Law in New York City, focussing on:
  • the shortcomings of Jewish leadership during the Holocaust and continuing through to the present;
  • the threat posed to Israel by Iran;
  • the complicity of European nations who are providing parts for Iran’s nuclear program; and
  • the position taken by world Jewry today.
 [Brief excerpts from the lecture are posted below. It is also available online as a pdf on the Targum Shlishi website. Click here to view the 33-minute video of the lecture.]:

...if a Holocaust victim could rise up from one of the mass graves for ten minutes and speak, he would ask three questions:
  • One, Why didn't the Jews of the world move heaven and earth to stop the massacre?
  • Two, Why was so little done to bring the Nazis to justice after the Holocaust?
  • Three, Why didn't we as Jews have the self-respect as a people to find the mass graves, to discover where and how the Jews were killed and to say Kaddish?
Today, I am adding a fourth question: Is American Jewry, in its misguided complacency, repeating the same mistakes it made prior to and during the Holocaust?

...American Jews during World War II were not without power and resources – they could have made a lot more noise. At the very least, they could have pushed for one bombing run on the tracks to Auschwitz. But they didn’t.

Today, American Jews are more powerful than we were in 1939 and arguably more powerful than at any time in the past two thousand years. We are powerful because the Jews of the Diaspora have a voice in the United States and Europe, and we are powerful because of Israel’s military strength.

And yet, today we are facing enormous threats to Israel that are every bit as serious and in some ways more frightening than in 1939, with the potential for devastating consequences. One nuclear device can do the unthinkable in an instant. Israel’s very existence could be at stake if Iran attains a nuclear weapon.

...I don’t believe we’ve learned our lessons from 1944. ...We need to do everything in our power to raise the alarm. We need to speak up, to agitate, to make the world take notice. At the same time, we must respect Israel’s autonomy, its right to steer its own course and make its own decisions.

I believe that American Jewry is in danger of repeating mistakes of seventy years ago in the way it is responding, or rather not responding, to the current American administration’s position ....

...this administration is putting unusual and unwarranted public pressure on Israel. American Jewry’s attachment to pacifism is often admirable, but currently is not in Israel’s best interest. There are many critical lessons to be learned from World War II. One is that sometimes it takes war to end evil, as it did with Hitler. The lack of visible action to date vis-à-vis the Iranian threat – as a community and as individuals – suggests that we have not yet integrated these lessons.

The Iranian threat
Today we have cause for fear. A nuclear Iran is looming on the world’s horizon. Iran has made no secret of its intent, which is to exterminate Israel. Because of its size, Israel could be obliterated with one bomb, which means it could be imperative that Israel attack preemptively.

I believe that when Ahmadinejad declares that “Israel must be wiped off the map,” he is declaring his intention, just as Hitler made his intention clear in Mein Kampf in 1925. When Hitler declared that his aim was to destroy the Jews, he meant it. He spelled out his intention. And nobody listened.

When Hezbollah’s Nasrallah says that it’s good that Jews are gathered in one place, in Israel, because, “it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide,” he means it.

When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, on Iranian television in 2000: “Iran’s position...is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region,” he meant it.

...The lesson learned from World War II is that waiting is not the answer. Imagine how many lives would have been spared, how much sooner World War II would have ended, if the United States had gone to war against Hitler in 1939, instead of waiting two years and two months until Pearl Harbor. ...instead, the isolationists in both parties held sway, much as they are today.

Europe and the United States
One of the most important questions to consider in the event of a crisis facing Israel is whether the free world will stand with Israel today, or whether it will abandon the Jews as it did seventy years ago.

Can Israel count on the Europeans? I have my doubts....Historically anti-Semitic, the European masses are largely anti-Israel and I believe there is a very thin line – probably no line at all – between today’s anti-Israel sentiment and yesterday’s anti-Semitism. Europe’s rising Muslim population and its complete dependence on Arab oil indicates that these European countries will not play any meaningful or constructive role regarding the Iranian threat to Israel....

American Jewry’s commitment to liberalism
...the majority of the Jews, and I count myself among them, have remained loyal to the platforms of the left. This despite the fact that the evolution of the American right has become more philo-Semitic and more pro-Israel. And the hawks and evangelicals among them are the most fervent and committed supporters of the State of Israel. From the perspective of our own survival, we should gravitate towards those who wish us well and support our standing in the world.

Let me make my position clear. An attack on Israel is effectively an attack on the Jewish people. When they’re coming to chop our heads off, the items that Jews care about as a matter of political heritage and tikkun olam – issues such as women’s rights, reproductive rights, universal health care, separation of church and state, education, diversity, the arts, and all other agendas must come second. The sanctity and security of the well-being of the State of Israel and the well-being of its citizens are what count and are of paramount importance. ...It is not our intellect, not our Nobel prizes, not our supposed financial acumen. ...the only antidote to Auschwitz is Israel – and its military might. As such, Israel is fighting not only for itself, but for all Jews – and I would argue that by extension it is fighting for the well-being of the Western world and its values.

Jewish leadership during World War II
Looking back, the failure of American Jewish leadership during World War II is no doubt due in part to a desire to hold onto the relatively newfound security of living in America, a safe haven and an ocean away from the turmoil of Europe.

...There were other groups trying to rescue Jews and they were also essentially silenced by America’s mainstream Jewish leadership. 

...I would argue that in some Jewish circles, with some minor differences, we are in a similar situation today.

...Jewish leadership failed us during the Holocaust and it’s failed us since. We had a rare success with Soviet Jewry and we should learn from that.

Soviet Jewry movement
But even with the success story of the Soviet Jewry movement, the establishment did not lead. ...It took a grassroots uprising ...for the establishment to finally step up. When it did, the establishment was extremely effective – we witnessed the possibility of unified action, the potential of the Jewish community to influence the course of history. We need to do it again, and we need to do it now.

Today’s Jewish leadership
What of today’s Jewish leadership? Has it learned from World War II? From the Soviet Jewry movement? ...Throughout history, we’ve had court Jews who did what they thought was best for the Jewish community. Today is no exception. Today’s agenda in the White House is being set by people who ...believe they are the authorities on what is good for Israel and that they know better than Israel’s elected officials, who face down rabid enemies every waking moment of their lives.

And this conviction of knowing what’s best for Israel is not limited to our leaders. ...while seventy-eight percent of American Jews voted for Obama and believed he felt strongly about Israel’s safety, a recent poll found that only four percent of Israeli Jews believe that Obama’s policies are pro-Israel. This disconnect between the perceptions of American Jews and Israeli Jews points to a disconnect between Jews on the front line and Jews in America.

Israel’s right to self-determination
All signs are pointing to a near future in which Israel will face many difficult choices regarding Iran. ...Those of us sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks on the West Side of Manhattan, drinking cosmopolitans in Chicago, bicycling in the Bay Area, sunning ourselves in Miami, or praying in Borough Park are not qualified to impose our political will on Israel. ...the Israelis know a bit more about the neighbourhood they live in than do the policy wonks in Washington.

Israel has the right to make its own decisions.

...At this point, we hope that President Obama will be successful, and if he isn’t that he will change direction quickly. For our part, though, I hope that we have learned our lesson from 1944 in this regard, which is that if the United States is not doing the right thing, and Israel is in danger, then we must protest, as our grandparents should have done in the 1930s and ’40s...

So, what lessons can we learn from 1944?
...If we behave as we have in the past, during World War II and in many of our crises throughout history, we are in deep trouble.

Second, the world should not appease tyrants. Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was disastrous, yet the western world went along with him ...Today the West is appeasing terrorist regimes. Stop. It won’t work.

Third, Jewish leadership has failed us in the past. It is failing us now in Iran. ...We need to light a fire under our leaders.

Fourth, presidents are not infallible. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a popular and revered president, took a stand on not bombing Auschwitz, on not providing havens for escape, on not letting the SS St. Louis dock and unload its passengers, he was wrong. The eventual result was that millions died. If President Obama, another popular president, pushes his own agenda in the Middle East, and we believe that it may be detrimental to our people, we have a duty as American citizens and as Jews to challenge him and his administration.

In conclusion, for the Jewish people, Israel is our haven and to many of us, central to our beings as Jews. Yet Israel is also the canary in the coal mine – as goes Israel, so goes world Jewry and the values of the Western world. We must make Israel and the survival of the Jewish people the raison d’être of our political activity. Whether we agree with Israel’s politics or not, each of us has a personal stake in the outcome. We need to reach within ourselves to find the grit we had in 1948, not the complacency of 1939...
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