Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
While no one can predict the outcome of what will happen in Egypt, surely someone should have considered the possibility of a popular uprising against an 82-year-old ruler who was widely unpopular with large segments of his population and whose economy was failing, whose most educated youth faced dminishing prospects for employment and had little hope. With corruption rampant, resentment high, such an uprising in the name of democracy should have at least been considered and contingency plans formulated.
The real surprise is that what has been occurring in Egypt seems like such a surprise.
The second surprise is that with so much changing so few minds have changed, at least within the Jewish community.
Our far left is celebrating the triumph of democracy as if a democratic outcome is certain and as if there is no possibility of a one repressive regime that has a cold peace with Israel can be replaced by another repressive regime – Islamist or otherwise—that seeks to abrogate the peace treaty or make it ever more frigid. They also are failing to grapple with a second unexpected reality: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not play a factor in this uprising. So the expectations that such a peace treaty will calm the reason are overblown. The uprising was all about Egypt and only about Egypt, at least for now.
The right sees the current situation as vindication of its own belief that peace is not for this generation and that the status quo is to Israel’s advantage, now as before, even as there is no status quo and no likely return to the status quo ante.
The less extreme people I have spoken with in Israel and the United States are conflicted. I hear the words: “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” I suspect that is why there is little criticism of the manifest ambivalence of the Obama Administration, which has reflected the incoherence of its own ambivalence. We are on the side of democracy, but we are also on the side of those who support us and cooperate with us, those rulers who have been our friends and welcome American leadership.
Perhaps none are more conflicted that the neo-cons who had push for a democracy agenda and who presumed that such an agenda would surely serve America’s and Israel’s interest. Such an outcome is at best uncertain, perhaps even unlikely at this moment.
Israel seems paralyzed, overwhelmed by events that have overshadowed the other manifestly important pre-Egyptian development in the Middle East.
Pay heed: Palestinians on the West Bank do not share the Egyptian complaints about their own rulers. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has created economic conditions that have allowed for 9% growth on the West Bank, more than three times the growth of the United States. He has done so without the benefits of an oil based economy and on the talent of the Palestinian people.
Salam Fayyad, a competent economist who is Prime Minister, has shaped Palestinian institutions in anticipation of statehood that are far more transparent and less corrupt than before and through cooperation with Israel have also created security among the populace. Even those who despise Israel have been exposed to the advantages of democratic institutions, the rule of law, elections, freedom of speech and the press.
The economic developments are on part of the equation. Important political developments have also taken place.
Parents who have divorced know that the worst moment of all, the moment of greatest hesitation, is telling the children. The leaked cables of Palestinian conversations with Israel and potential concessions to Israel for a peace treaty were designed to embarrass the Palestinian leadership and result in street demonstrations that would delegitimate, if not topple the regime. Instead, there were demonstrations against Al Jazeera, attacks on its offices. The children, Israeli and Palestinians, have now been told the fact of divorce and the price of divorce and they did not behave a predicted. So we are one step closer to a divorce – euphemistically known as a peace—between Israel and the Palestinians.
I have long believed that the language of divorce rather than peace makes the most sense. In a divorce, people separate because they cannot live together, cannot trust each other. They divide assets not because they do not want all the assets but because if the assets are divided, both sides can build a future independently of each other, survive and ultimately thrive on their own. Divorce means that you can not share the same home or sleep in the same bed, but cooperation is required if children are to be raised. And an outside party is needed to enforce the terms of the divorce.
I was both pleased and chagrined to see the leaked cables; pleased because they spoke of the possibility of reaching an agreement, of Palestinian realism, of a Palestinian partner. Chagrined, because once again a shift in Israeli leadership – remember the assassination of Rabin in 1995, the defeat of his successor Shimon Peres, the defeat of Barrack, and the resignation of Olmert because of his own corruption – has taken us back to square one.
With no status quo ante possible in the Middle East, I think I know what the Obama administration would like to see emerge. I also know what Fayyad’s strategy is and frankly I wish him well in the economic and institutional plans he is developing for Palestinian statehood. I wonder what Israel’s strategy is. Don’t you?
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January 17, 2011 | 2:03 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Jews have no right to register an opinion on whom the Roman Catholic Church beatifies and whom it considers a saint. After all, it is a matter of faith to believing and Roman Catholics and has no theological meaning to Jews.
Nevertheless, this has not stopped us from asserting our disapproval of the efforts to canonize Pope Pius XII, the man who served as Pope during the Holocaust or Pope Pius IX who would not return to his loving parents a Jewish child forcibly kidnapped and baptized by the Church. So if we register our vocal opposition, we also should register our approval.
I want to celebrate the efforts to speed up the beatification of Pope John Paul II, the immediate predecessor of the incumbent Pope Benedict XVI who did so much to transform the world. While I suspect, the process is being speeded up because of his conservative theology and not even for his historic role in delegitimating and defeating Communism and liberating his native homeland of Poland and certainly not because of his decisive role in changing Catholic teaching regarding the Jews, it is important that we recall and emphasize the unique contribution of this very great Pope to Jewish Catholic relations.
Pope John Paul II took the transformations initiated by Pope John XXIII another series of steps further.
A word of biography is in order. John Paul II is probably the first pope who could truthfully say that “some of my best friends are Jewish,” and mean it literally. He was in direct contact with Jews during his pre-priesthood days and knew them from the soccer fields, where he often played on the Jewish side when they were short of a player, to the university and the theater; one local was among his closest friends and remained a friend throughout the pontiff’s long life.
Yaffa Eliach has documented in legendary form that when still a parish priest, Karol Józef Wojtyła refused to baptize Jewish children who had been saved by Polish – Roman Catholic – families when their parents were deported in 1942-43, unless they were informed that their biological parents had been Jews. This was an act of singular integrity and, in fact, it was not quite in keeping with the instructions of the post-war Church that was interested in saving the souls of all people – including, perhaps even especially, Jewish children. It was also an act of courage, as his parishioners must have felt this conversation burdensome. Allow me to explain.
If you trusted a neighbor with your child’s life and your child had a certain type of appearance, meaning that they did not look “too Jewish” and they were pre-verbal, Jewish parents might ask a Polish family to take care of their child while they were about to be deported. The child could not be told that he or she was Jewish then, as the information would be lethal to the child and also to the family that was sheltering him. If the parents returned, the child might not remember them or even recognize them. Often the child had been treated with love and responded in kind, feeling his/her parents to be strangers who had abandoned him – remember feelings are not logical − and loving his adopted family. Even if the parents survived, the child often wanted to stay put. Even after the war, it became dangerous to reveal to a child that he or she was Jewish as this might lead to the parents being labeled as “Jew lovers” and to their ostracism. So such information was not easily revealed, but Father Wojtyła insisted.
As Pope, John Paul II visited the Roman synagogue and met with the community and its chief rabbi who was attired in the traditional Jewish prayer shawl. In his remarks he said
“All that remains for me now, as at the beginning of my address, is to turn my eyes and my mind to the Lord, to thank Him and praise Him for this joyful meeting and for the good things which are already flowing from it, for the rediscovered brotherhood and for the new and more profound understanding between us here in Rome, and between the Church and Judaism everywhere, in every country, for the benefit of all.’
He recited part of a Psalm in the original Hebrew:
hodû la-Adonai ki tob
ki le-olam hasdô
ki le-olam hasdô
yomerû-na yir’è Adonai
ki le-olam hasdô (Ps 118:1 - 2.4).
O give thanks to the Lord for He is good,
His steadfast love endures for ever Let Israel say,
His steadfast love endures for ever!
Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures for ever!”
He treated the synagogue as a house of God and the Chief Rabbi of Rome as a fellow religious leader. He established diplomatic relations with Israel and went to Israel in 2000, visiting both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. At Yad Vashem, he condemned antisemitism in the name of the Church. He said: “As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.’’
A man of the theater, he well understood that “the media is the message” and that his words would echo throughout the Christian world. His letter inserted into the Western Wall bears reiteration:
“God of our fathers,
You chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring Your name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behaviour of those
who in the course of history
have caused these children of Yours to suffer,
and asking Your forgiveness
we wish to commit ourselves
to genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.”
Jerusalem, March 26, 2000
Signed: John Paul II
Though he did not say everything I would have liked him to have said, what he said was all important, and the place from which he uttered these statements was even more symbolic. Pope John Paul II visited the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism, and by his visit recognized the form that Judaism took after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. He placed a prayer into the wall, as is the custom of the devout. His visit to the office of the Chief Rabbinate, certainly not the most ecumenical of religious offices in the world, was also compelling. Prepared by Jewish history and memory, the rabbis expected polemics, great disputations. Instead, he greeted them as one religious leader to another. The rabbis were shocked by how moved they were by the Pope’s visit.
Not all problems were solved, not all issues were settled, but there was tremendous progress and unprecedented warmth in Jewish-Roman Catholic relations.
Though I have no vote; were I to have vote, I would be honored to consider Pope John Paul II a saint, not a saint without flaws, or human fallibility but a saint nevertheless.
December 23, 2010 | 4:58 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
The recently released new batch of Richard Nixon’s recordings of Oval Office conversations were chilling. Nixon is revealed for what he was an antisemite and Henry Kissinger a craven Jew.
I suspect that the damage to Kissinger’s reputation will outlast the damage done to Nixon’s. Anyone who followed the former President’s career knew of his antisemitism. He was acting in character, perhaps more candidly than he would want known, but Kissinger’s weakness stunned his admirers and even his detractors.
The former Secretary of State has asked that his statements be examined in context; fair enough. Yet once examined in context they seem even worse than initial appraisal given to them by the press, most particularly The New York Times.
What is the context? We have long known that Nixon and Kissinger opposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment that linked favored nation status for the Soviet Union with progress on Jewish emigration. Jackson, an arch foe of the Soviet Union and Vanik, deeply proud of his Czechoslovakian roots and equally antagonistic to Soviet invasion of Prague the summer of 1968, were teamed up by two Jewish staff members, Richard Pearl and Mark Talisman who were anxious to advance American interests and Jewish interests, American values and Jewish values, to attack the Soviet Human Rights policy. For a realist such as Kissinger, this was needless moralizing in the balance of power between the two giants, an encumbrance to the progress that he and his President could make with their Soviet counterparts without such domestic interference.
Clearly, his realism was revealed as timidity and short sightedness. The Soviet Jewry movement was one element that helped bring down the Soviet Union by demonstrating the flaws in its policy, by denying it as a model society and showing that elite members of that society were willing to pay a heavy price in order to leave.
The process of the Soviet Union’s demise took more than 15 years; it included Pope John Paul II’s visit to his native Poland in 1979, President Jimmy Carter emphasis on Human Rights as and essential part of American Foreign Policy, President Ronald Reagan’s military expansion and his dressing down of the Soviet Union, internal economic failures, an inability to compete militarily and economically, and the Human Rights movement within the Soviet Union itself, but the emigration of Soviet Jewry was a defeat for the Soviet Union. Kissinger lacked foresight.
On a personal level, let us examine the context.
Dayenu, it would have been sufficient, had Kissinger merely said that the emigration of Soviet Jews was an internal Soviet matter and not a matter of American Foreign Policy. Sad, wrong and tragic as that remark was, it would not have been craven. Many have argued that domestic policies that violate Human Rights are not a central American Foreign Policy concern. Those voices can still be heard among the Foreign Policy elites that see no linkage between Saudi policy toward non-Islamic religion or Egyptian violations of democratic principle and American support for the regimes. After all, we need a reliable supply of oil and a coherent energy policy would be bad for business.
But the first Secretary of State of “Jewish origin” to use Kissinger’s self description went one step further. He upped the ante and said: if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern, but a humanitarian concern, maybe?.”
He knew full well that the President was aware that he was from a German-Jewish family that had escaped Hitler’s Germany just in time and that relatives of his were killed in those very concentration camps. He was crawling on his hands and knees, betraying his family, his people. He lacked elemental dignity and decency.
Those who have called him a “court Jew” are giving Court Jews a bad name.
Nixon was an antisemite but supported Israel in its hour of need during the 1973 War when military resupply was a matter of life and death. Let us recall that that decision was made by an antisemite – Richard Nixon – a man, who had had a Bar Mitzvah and converted to Lutheranism while at Harvard – Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger – and a craven Jew – Henry Kissinger.
Israel was fortunate that the battle between Israel and its neighbors was seen as a surrogate battle between the client state of the United States and the client states of the Soviet Union. Otherwise? One shudders to think of otherwise.
But Israel was also stunned: committed to its own independence and ability to act on its own, it faced the historic circumstances exilic Jews dependent on the good will of mighty rulers for its very survival.
Recall as well that throughout the 1972 campaign, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Yitzhak Rabin had urged the American Jewish community to support Richard Nixon because he was good for Israel. True to their instincts the American Jewish community supported McGovern far beyond any other white Americans.
This is a vivid demonstration that Israel’s interests and Jewish interests – in this case the interests of the American Jewish community and Soviet Jews – do not always coincide. We would be wise to remember that as other Israeli officials tell us how to vote.
Thankfully, and in keeping with this week’s Torah portion, a new generation has arisen confident in themselves as Americans and confidents in themselves as Jews, who are not hesitant to press American and Jewish concerns, American and Jewish values, and that view such cravenness with appropriate disdain.
December 9, 2010 | 1:37 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
It’s been a dreary week in the world.
Fires cost the lives of more than two score Israelis, burned more than 4 million trees—each planted as part of the Zionist enterprise of reforestation— exposed the structural vulnerability of the nation and the irresponsibility and massive incompetence of successive governments of the right and the left.
The leadership of the United States government – right and left – demonstrated that it too was unwilling to solve a national problem. No sooner had the bi-partisan debt commission reported on its finding and called for shared national sacrifice, increasing taxes, raising the age of retirement when the President and the Republican Party entered into a grand compromise giving away $900 million of tax giveaways over the next two years. The President capitulated; he gave in to Republican blackmail. If we could not give tax breaks to the rich, to those making over $1 million dollars a year, or to the near rich, those making over $250,000 a year, then unemployment benefits would not be extended for those who have been jobless for years and taxes would rise for the near poor and the middle class. We were told in no uncertain terms that no one is serious about reducing the debt, no national sacrifice is needed and our President is unwilling to lead. I am not alone in feeling that the American century is coming to an end and that my children and theirs will live in a world where the American is less a leader and more a fraying power.
I know that some supporters of Israel are rejoicing that the Obama Administration has abandoned its ill- fated efforts for a settlement freeze on the West Bank as a gesture to foster negotiations. I understand all the reasons it failed, not the least of which was because the Palestinians dallied during the 10 months when it was in effect and only began negotiations in the 9th month. Still, I remain that settlements are not in Israel’s national interest because they make the achievement of two separate states all the more difficult and a two state solution is essential to retaining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Settlements also use resources that are vitally needed elsewhere. Look at the roads in Israel’s North; look also at the absence of firefighting equipment.
Furthermore, one way of reading the recent Wikkipedia leaks is to note that Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are now part of anti-Iran coalition. If there is a strategic alliance between these states, tacit and hitherto unacknowledged as it may be, a wise Israeli government would want to achieve concrete political goals while this alliance is in effect and would not fritter away the opportunity with peripheral tangent issues. It would also not alienate Jewish support abroad by sidebars of the conversion issue, oaths of allegiance and even the insistence that Palestinian leadership acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state – something that the United Nations General Assembly did by a vote of 33 to 13 on November 29, 1947. Keep Israel a democratic Jewish state and it will be acknowledged as such.
I was proud to see that Yad Vashem condemned the recent so-called Rabbinic ruling that prohibited Jews from selling or renting property to non-Jews. In the insulated world of these Rabbis no one has heard of restrictive covenants, which the US Supreme Court dismissed as unenforceable. These Rabbis, in the name of our religion, want Jews, once in power, the behave in the way that non-Jews had behaved toward us.
In such a dreary atmosphere, I came across an enormously important argument that challenged my perceptions of European antisemitism, a topic that I have researched and written apart extensively. Last Monday, Project Jumpstart reported on its survey of European Jewish startup organizations. The results were impressive. There are more Jewish start ups in Europe per capita than in the United States where cultural creativity flourishes; they are almost always the products of lay leaders and not rabbis and many are the creations of newly avowed Jews who are rediscovering and re-embracing their Jewish roots. European projects are more educational and more cultural than spiritual, less involved in Holocaust remembrance and more engaged in the Jewish past.
Dr. Barbara Lerner Spectre, who heads Paideia, the most successful Jewish effort to train young European Jewish leadership with its year long course of study in Sweden and the commitment of its participants and graduates to engage in a creative and innovative Jewish projects, often start ups, remarked that the presence of these Jews, their re-embracing of Jewish life and their choice of identification or re-identification with the Jewish people merits the use of a new term disassimilation; the deliberate decision to reverse the process of assimilation now more than two centuries old in Europe and to move in a new direction.
“If antisemitism were the dominant experience of European Jews, as is most often portrayed in the United States and in Israel, why would these intelligent and successful Jews, who enjoy every for success and creativity that globalism offers engage their Jewish roots. They have no need to be hated and no desire to be hated? They can be whatever they want to be. They have chosen to be Jews.”
I don’t know the answer to her question, but I intend to find out.
November 24, 2010 | 4:41 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
I fly some 200,000 miles a year on airlines throughout the world. My work takes me to many cities, large and small, and many different countries so I have a great personal interest in two conflicting needs at the airport: security and speed.
As one who often flies several times a week the difference between checking in one hour in advance or two hours in advance can add up. It can cost me an entire workday a week. I hate waiting in lines and like George Clooney in Up in the Air appreciate and take advantage of the many courtesies that airlines make available to their frequent fliers from special lines, to use of airport lounges, to upgrades and even to companion flights. On vacation I prefer those places I can drive to for flying in anything but fun,
I was subject to a body scan at Chicago’s O’Hare airport last week and found nothing objectionable to the process. Contrary to the reports of other people’s experience I was asked to empty my pockets and stand with my two arms raised while the machine took my picture, twenty seconds later I was told that I could go. There was nothing invasive about it, nothing inappropriate. And if wherever the observer was he/she had a clear look at my body, I had no knowledge of it, no awareness of it and it was as unobtrusive as possible. The reviewer did not know my name, did not know what flight I was taking and had no idea of how to contact me afterwards even if he or she to want to take advantage of the private bodily information they viewed. I was one of several hundred people going through the lines , so there is anonymity in numbers as well.
I suspect that almost all travelers will agree with me and all should agree that airplane security is an essential national and international interest. So let us give TSA a chance and not get hysterical. I thank TSA for protecting my personal security each time I go through the security lines. The job is pressured, the tasks are repetitive and frankly boring and the people in line are tense about whether they will make their flight or even about flying in general.
There are enough problems in the modern world about intrusions into our privacy, This is not one of them, Say thank you and smile and enjoy safe flying,
October 12, 2010 | 6:56 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
Sunday’s decision by Israel’s Cabinet to require that “those seeking to become naturalized citizens will take an oath that their allegiance is to the State of Israel, “as a Jewish and democratic state,” and that they “promise to honor the laws of the state” will raise far more questions than it will answer.
Those of us who were raised in the Zionist movement have always viewed Israel as a Jewish State. For my parents of blessed memory who would have turned 100 this year the achievement of the Jewish State of Israel was one of the most magnificent moments in their lives as Jews. They transmitted that enthusiasm to me. This past summer my children, wife and I visited Independence Hall, the former Tel Aviv Museum, in which David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. We sat in the audience in the very room and heard Ben Gurion’s recording. We were in tears. One could sense the passion of the Declaration, the historicity of the moment.
It is because I support Israel as a Jewish democratic state that I have long opposed settlements not as illegal but unwise, counterproductive and antithetical to Israel’s interest in remaining a Jewish and democratic state. Demographers agree that soon, all too soon, Arabs will constitute a majority of those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea so for Israel to remain democratic and Jewish it must find a way to withdraw from many of the territories captured in 1967, or find a way to expel Arabs or deny them citizenship. I oppose the last two options as anti-democratic and as antithetical to the values of Jewish history of the last 2,000 years. The withdrawal from Gaza was a simple trade, even with its considerable security risks – 1.5 million Palestinians for 8,000. The situation on the West Bank will be more complicated and much more difficult and dangerous.
But the irony is that there are many Jews who do not support Israel and could not swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State. Some, but by no means all, religious Jews believe that a Jewish state must be a Halakhic state, governed by the laws of the Torah and the Rabbis and democracy as we know it was unknown to the Rabbinic and the great religious decisors of past generations. Jewish Law with its grudging acceptance as necessary for orderly and peaceful existence and for its suspicions of the state because of Jewish history’s long experience of the state as oppressive, has not kept pace and not fully absorbed the consequences of democracy, which respects human rights and accepts full participation of its citizens. Other religious Jews presume that a Jewish State should be initiated by God and not by David Ben Gurion and his successors. Some Jews on the left believe that Israel must become a state of all of its citizens, encompassing Palestinians and other non-Jews. They would find it difficult to swear allegiance to a Jewish state.
The debate will be interesting because it grapples with a core issue of Israel’s life: how can a state be both Jewish and democratic and what does that mean in the contemporary world when more than one in five Israeli citizens are currently non-Jews including an unknown number of former Soviet Jews who have some distant kinship with the Jewish people but are not Jews by any sense of the term, even as they increasingly regard themselves as Israelis.
I suspect that the Cabinet may not quite understand the questions such an oath of allegiance raises, not just for non-Jews but for Jews as well.
October 5, 2010 | 2:06 pm
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
I know that several politically conservative Jews have suggested that there is a natural moral and religious alliance between Jews and Catholics, between Jews and the Religious Right on “the right to life” issues such as abortions, yet the recent statement of the Vatican on the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards should cause them to rethink their position.
Edwards did the pioneering work in in-vitro fertilization. Judaism, even in its most Orthodox forms, has no problem with in-vitro fertilization per se. There are religious concerns about how the sperm is obtained from the father and that the father and mother be married to one another. In fact, a Baltimore hospital specializing in this procedure offers a masgiach to oversee the process, to ensure that everything is done according to law.
Roman Catholicism considers the embryo a human being, not so Judaism. In fact, in Roman Catholicism the embryo even outside of the womb is “innocent life,” not yet tainted by original sin.
It should be noted that Jewish medical ethics even among the most pious has welcomed in-vitro fertilization as assisting the couple to fulfill the first of all human commandments: “be fruitful and multiply.” And Judaism regards the physician as God’s helper in the process of healing; in this case in the process of conceiving.
The second area of divergence because of these theological differences is stem cell research, which Judaism would most vigorously advocate because of its potential to save lives; Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of human life, takes precedence even over the Sabbath. For Jews stem cell research is essential and moral precisely because it saves life and the status of the embryo outside of the womb does not present any moral or religious problems for believing and practicing Jews.
Thus, Jews can rejoice in the work of Dr. Edwards who has enabled many, many families the blessing, the privilege and the responsibility of bearing and raising children. For us, his work has been a celebration of life and of the heroic role of the physician in enhancing life.
September 14, 2010 | 7:56 am
Posted by Dr. Michael Berenbaum
I am not sure whether I qualify as a progressive, but I may know something about Auschwitz and its controversies and also about museums and their task of memorialization. So permit me to respond to Dennis Prager.
Why is the Auschwitz Convent controversy different than the debate surrounding the Muslim Cultural Center at Ground Zero, which is in reality two blocks away from Ground Zero?
Let us be specific because the question is falsely polemical.
Dr. Prager assuredly knows - but his readers may not know - that Auschwitz was actually three camps in one:
Auschwitz I was a concentration camp;
Auschwitz II was the death camp known as Birkenau; and
Auschwitz III, also known as Buna Monowitz, was a work camp.
For precision’s sake, let us recall that Auschwitz III was actually 50 subcamps that housed two types of prisoner workers: forced laborers, primarily non-Jews from many different European countries, and slave laborers, overwhelmingly Jews who were selected to work when they arrived at Birkenau and consequently were sent to work until they were no longer capable of work. After these Jews could no longer work they were sent over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the death camp, where they were gassed along with arriving Jews who were not deemed capable or working or whose work was not required. Their living conditions were different and they fate was death – immediate or deferred.
Auschwitz I was the site of Polish - Polish Christian - victimization. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the death camp, the site at which some 1.1 million Jews, men, women and children, were systematically slaughtered alongside some 20,000 Roma and Sinti, perjoratively known as Gypsies.
For fifty years under Communism there was a deliberate and systematic attempt to obscure, if not to erase, the memory of the victims of Birkenau as Jews.
The remnant of that effort remains in place even twenty years after the dramatic change of regimes and the significant efforts of the Polish government and the directors of the Auschwitz Memorial to change the character of the place and be far more historically accurate.
A visitor to Auschwitz I today will encounter National Exhibitions of several countries, Belgium and France, Italy and Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia among them, yet even after the very helpful changes of the post-communist era, these barracks convey the false impression that the nationals of these countries were murdered because of the were French or Czech, Dutch or Norwegian and not because they were Jews. The Jewish experience at Auschwitz I was segregated – ghettoized - to the Jewish Pavilion, Block 27, which during the Communist era was more often closed than open to the public and will soon be replaced by another exhibition because the current exhibition is deemed even by its admirers as poor and hopelessly outdated.
For a generation, there was barely a mention of Jews at the Memorial in Birkenau, even though Auschwitz II remains the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. This situation was rectified over the past two decades. But still today, the most powerful artifacts that are housed at Auschwitz I, including hair, the soup bowls, the taleisim, false teeth, eyeglasses, prosthesis, suitcases and even the extraordinary model of Crematoria B II of Birkenau, were all taken from Birkenau and displayed in Auschwitz I as if they were found there, as if the killing occurred there, and as if they applied to all prisoners rather than overwhelmingly to Jews. The Stobierski modelof Crematoria B II is shown in the upper floor of a barrack rather than adjacent to the actual destroyed crematoria where the visitor must rely upon a sign to understand what happened at that site.
Even the pavilion recently dedicated to to the Roma and Sinti was constructed in Auschwitz I, though the Gypsy camp was located in Birkenau just adjacent to the Ramp.
Because what visitors see is so powerful and what they see conveys a false impression, ordinary visitors do not grasp the differences between Auschwitz I and Birkenau despite the efforts of well trained guides to tell them otherwise. While 1.3 million people visited Auschwitz I last year, the number of visitors to Birkenau is at best 20% that number.
So let me answer Dr. Prager:
There is a German Peace Center near the Auschwitz camp at roughly the same distance that the Cultural Center will be built from Ground Zero. It has been in place for decades without a murmur from the Jewish community. In fact Jewish groups use the center, sleep there, study there, convene there and eat there. Kosher food will be served on request.
There is a Catholic Cultural Center, built under the leadership of the late much revered Pope John Paul II, situated roughly the same distance that the Cultural Center will be built from Ground Zero. Jewish groups sleep there, study there, meet there, and eat there. Kosher food is also served there on request.
There is a Roman Catholic convent relocated from just 10 yards away from Birkenau’s fence, not two city blocks, at roughly the same distance as the Cultural Center will be built from the Cultural Center.
Why did Jews oppose the convent?
Because they feared with good reason that some Poles, together with some support from elements within the Roman Catholic Church, especially within the powerful Polish Church, were determined to dejudaize the murders at Birkenau. Communist historians and Polish nationalists falsely claimed that four million people were killed at Auschwitz, two million Jews and two million Poles.
Because they did not differentiate between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II . They did not know that the Poles are fully justified to regard Auschwitz I as a site of Polish – Polish Christian -martyrdom. So when the convent was described as a convent at Auschwitz, they reacted with outrage. As a talk show host, Dr. Prager knows that calling something the Mosque at Ground Zero is absolutely different that speaking accurately of an Islamic Cultural Center a couple of blocks away.
The Memorial at Ground Zero is being built by a wonderful team of Museum builders led by my distinguished former colleague Alice Greenwald and with the participation of a design team that includes colleagues and former students such as Clifford Chanin and David Layman. They will determine the content of the Memorial and help to shape the experience of the visitor at Ground Zero. I trust them completely. They are skilled, sensitive and wise.
Visitors to Ground Zero will learn who was lost, who perpetrated the crime and why, who came to the rescue of the survivors, and who came together in its aftermath. Unfortunately, they will not know the legacy of 9/11 because we continue to shape that legacy and all too often to misshape it.
The Cultural Center is being built not at Ground Zero but two blocks away and in New York two blocks away is a very long distance. It is not located at the sacred site of Ground Zero, which will soon house office buildings, shops and restaurants and not just a memorial, but in a rather seedy neighborhood replete with bars and “Gentlemen’s Clubs.” It will neither determine nor impact on the quality of the Memorial or the nature of the visitors’ experience when coming to pay homage at Ground Zero.
In fact, the Cultural Center, like the German Peace Center and the Catholic Center and the Convent, should be regarded as a welcome act of counter-testimony – or dare one say penance – because the killers killed in the name of Islam and therefore, the most important counter-testimony must come from within Islam just as the most important counter-testimony to the Holocaust, the most important acts of penance, came from within Christianity and from the subsequent actions of German and other European leaders.
If Dr. Prager really wanted to put the founders of the Islamic Cultural Center in a bind, he would celebrate its construction as a welcome act of atonement for the murder and violence that were committed in the name of Islam.
As a Conservative – I take him at his word on this matter - Dr. Praeger should understand that basic freedoms are precious, precious but also precarious. Hatred aroused to frenzy can lead to the trampling of Constitutional Rights: in the United States freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and religious institutions have the right to build wherever zoning requirements permit them to build.
Lest we hear a reiteration by Jews of the false claim that Islam is not a religion, permit me to remind Jews that no less a religious authority than Maimonides regarded Islam as a religion – he lived in a Muslim world, read Muslim philosophers and knew the Koran well - and had significantly less theological problems with Islam that he did with Christianity, witness his thirteen principles.