You are sending a link to... Response to Annual Scholars Conference Recognition Award
Dr. Richard L. Rubenstein, noted theologian,
scholar and author of many works including
most recently Jihad & Genocide
I must begin by expressing my regret that I cannot receive this recognition in person. Because of the illness of my wife, truly my intellectual and spiritual partner over the years, I am reluctant to make the journey to Rochester. I am, however, grateful that my very good friend and, if I may say with a full measure of pride, my former doctoral student, Professor Michael Berenbaum, has agreed to accept it on my behalf.
I am profoundly moved by this recognition. Little did I realize 42 years ago when I participated in the first Annual Scholars Conference that I would be beginning relationships that over time included not only partners in dialogue but scholars who became lifetime friends. Chief among them were Franklin Littell and Hubert Locke and there have been many others.
When I learned of the recognition, I decided to read once again the text of the address I gave at the first conference. It was published in The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust, edited by Franklin Littell and Hubert Locke, and made available to a wider audience in The Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Reflections edited by John K. Roth and Michael Berenbaum. That address was especially important to me. Many of the issues that have remained lifelong concerns were briefly expressed there. Moreover, the address was the occasion of a memorable encounter with Elie Wiesel whose full stature was yet to be recognized. Elie was scheduled to speak after me on “The Literature of the Holocaust.” After hearing my talk, he decided to address himself largely to my remarks which, together with his rejoinder were later presented as a dialogue in the volumes referred to.
I had enormous respect for him then, as I do now, but the differences between us were striking. Immersed in and nurtured by traditional Jewish culture, Elie had experienced the full horror of Auschwitz and the death march that followed. Classified as a divinity student, 4D, by my local draft board, initially possessing only a minimal knowledge of Jewish tradition, I spent those years, 1942-1945, in the comfort and security of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, the training institution for Reform rabbis.
Nevertheless, both of us spoke out of our deepest and most personal insights. I told of my efforts to talk to my three children as each became aware of the Holocaust, the Germans, and the American refusal to bomb Auschwitz when they controlled the sky.
I also spoke briefly of my 1961 Berlin encounter with Dean Heinrich Grüber and our discussion of God and Auschwitz My view reduced itself to a stark either/or: either there is a Biblical God of History, covenant and election, Auschwitz is God’s handiwork, and Hitler is the twentieth century’s preeminent Nebuchadnezzar or Auschwitz was .the dire consequence of German power and abject Jewish powerlessness. If the latter is the case, as indeed I believe it to be, then we live in a universe utterly devoid of divine providence. Put differently, we live in the world of the death of God, by which I .did not mean atheism, but that is an issue for another time.
Elie did not attempt a logical rebuttal. Instead, he told tales of faith and doubt in the Kingdom of Death. Admitting his own doubts, he nevertheless offered an affirmation of faith and fidelity in a miserably broken world of overwhelming emotional power. The issues expressed in that encounter are as alive today as they were at that first Scholars Conference
In the essay, I cited Hannah Arendt’s 1951 observation that after Auschwitz “the only rights an individual has are those he possesses by virtue of his membership in a concrete community which has the power to guarantee those rights.” I have long held that position. Clearly, the victims of the Shoah had no such rights and paid the ultimate price. I also quoted Arendt who wrote that at the end of the war, the Italian government offered all Jews on Italian soil full Italian citizenship. Almost all declined. They understood that in times of stress, citizenship as a minority in a European nation-state might prove as worthless as had that of Germany’s Jews.
The sad wisdom of those Holocaust survivors was validated in a July 8, 2008 interview by Francesco Corriga, from 1976 to 1992 Italy’s minister of the interior, prime minister, president of the Senate, president of the republic, and senator for life. In that interview in Corriere della Sera, Cossiga revealed the existence of an agreement dating from the early 1970s between Prime Minister Aldo Moro and Yasser Arafat’s PLO in which the PLO was granted the freedom to come and go, as well as stock weapons on Italian soil, in exchange for immunity for Italy’s domestic and foreign interests. Cossiga admitted that Italian Jews had been excluded from protection. The results were soon forthcoming. On October 9, 1982, six terrorists fired on members of Rome’s Great Synagogue, wounding dozens and killing a two year old child. The congregation’s police protection had been withdrawn several hours before the attack. There were other such attacks. One of the worst was the Strage di Bologna, in which 85 were killed and 200 wounded. Italian authorities blamed Neo-Fascists, but in his interview Cossiga acknowledged that the railroad station explosion was accidental and that the real perpetrators were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who intended to target Jews, not Italians, with their explosives. Under the circumstances, the Italian government made no attempt to prosecute the perpetrators.
If the Jews of Europe had a fundamental flaw during the Holocaust, it was that they had neither the numbers nor the weapons with which to defend themselves. Put differently, they lacked effective sovereignty. This was, of course, nothing new, but the gravity of that deficiency had only become fully apparent when they were confronted with a unique foe determined on their extermination. Moreover, extermination invited repetition. From the end of the war to this day, there have been those who promised to complete Hitler’s work and their voices have become louder and more numerous recently.
Fortunately, bitter experience has taught a critical mass of Jews that an adversary that promises to destroy them and actively seeks the weapons with which to carry out the threat must be believed. That is at the heart of the crisis between Israel and Iran. It is also at the heart of the crisis between Israel and radical Islam. Ironically, Israel’s most potent weapons may be the Dolphin-class, attack submarines produced by German firms and partly financed by the government of Angela Merkel. These submarines are said to be capable of launching cruise missiles with 200 kg nuclear warheads at a range of 1,500 km or more. Put differently, the submarines and the Israeli air force provide that nation with devastating, second-strike, retaliatory capability. Unfortunately, even this awesome capacity will not defend against an enemy prepared to sacrifice millions of its own people out of messianic, apocalyptic zeal.
No one can predict the outcome of combat between Israel and its enemies, but how different is Israel’s situation from that of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War. Israel’s Jews have the one thing the Jews of Europe never possessed, the capacity, if necessary, to render catastrophic retaliatory damage to enemies that threaten them with annihilation. Incidentally, that capacity may be the ultimate significance of effective sovereignty and it may be the only thing that the Israelis can ultimately rely on. Certainly, they cannot rely on the United Nations, with its 56 Muslim member nations, or on the paper promises of the Israeli-Egyptian Treaty of 1979. Nor can it even rely on the friendship of the United States. As Charles De Gaulle and Lord Palmerston have observed, Nations have no friends, only interests. I would add, “as perceived, rightly or wrongly, by a nation’s leaders.”
In conclusion, these are, I believe, some of the bitter lessons I have learned, having lived through the age of actual genocide and, now, the threat of future genocide. At the age of 88, I hope to continue my writing, teaching, and religious and inter-religious activities, as long as I am blessed with the strength and mental clarity so to do. I thank the Scholars Conference for this honor and for the forum in which to share ideas and insights with colleagues over the years. I look forward to meeting with you again, hopefully at our next conference.