February 13, 2003
"We will study death, but in the service of the Jewish future," said Dr. Michael Berenbaum, explaining the primary mission of a newly created institute at the University of Judaism.
The mission is also implicit in the name of the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Study of Ethics and the Holocaust, for it is Berenbaum's belief that many of the cutting-edge ethical issues facing Jewry and society today grow out of the seeds sown during the Shoah.
Berenbaum, one of the world's leading Holocaust scholars, has been named director of the Ziering Institute. He says that by placing it within a university focused on the Jewish future and outreach to other disciplines, the institute can transmute the lessons of the bitter past into guideposts for present and future generations.
As one example, Berenbaum cites the field of medical ethics. "The notion of informed consent by a patient, and his right to stop treatment at any time, was derived directly from the postwar trials of Nazi doctors," he said.
Another frontier issue is rooted in the Nazi experiments in eugenics. "Now that we are nearing the capacity to 'perfect' human beings by genetic manipulation, we must ask whether something should be done, just because we know how to do it," Berenbaum noted.
Turning to business ethics, Berenbaum recalled the substantial financial investments by Germany's I.G. Farben to assure it a steady supply of slave laborers.
"The Nazis perfected the use of humans as consumable raw material," said Berenbaum, and applies the observation to such contemporary issues as child labor and sweatshops.
"We must ask ourselves, what is the borderline between an appropriate investment, and a morally compromised one," he said.
Questions arising from the role of laws and the judiciary during the Holocaust are now being studied at dozens of American universities and in military academies, Berenbaum said.
One can argue that the Nazis committed no crimes, because their actions were legal under their own laws, he said. However, the Nuremberg war crime trials found that blind obedience to immoral laws, or the rationalization, "I just followed orders," are no longer a valid defense in themselves.
"Without Nuremberg as a precedent, [former Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic would never have been put on trial by the U.N. Tribunal in The Hague," Berenbaum argued. Another thorny legal question is the responsibility of the bystander who witnesses a crime or a genocide without taking any action.
Berenbaum is also convinced that, for example, the United States would not have interfered in the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in the former Yugoslavia by bombing Kosovo, but for the guilt felt by the American military for its failure to bomb Auschwitz during World War II.
"I used to think that the Nuremberg trials were a failure because they were not far-reaching enough, but now I believe that they set important precedents," he said.
Some of Berenbaum's conclusions may be startling, but he does not arrive at them lightly.
At 57, he has been studying and analyzing the Holocaust since his graduate student days, and he is the author of 14 books on the tragic era.
Berenbaum was one of the key figures in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, served as president and CEO of Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, has held teaching posts at leading universities and is currently adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism (UJ).
The institute which he now directs, funded through $3 million in donations, honors the life and memory of Sigi Ziering, a Holocaust survivor, successful American industrialist and author of a searing play on the Holocaust, "The Judgment of Herbert Bierhoff."
The institute, which is to become part of a planned UJ Center for Jewish Ethics, will sponsor a range of scholarly and popular conferences, seminars and lectures.
Its initial offering is a three-part roundtable discussion among Jewish and Christian theologians, philosophers and historians on "The Vatican, the Pope and the Holocaust."
In keeping with its outreach mission, the first session was at the Jewish University of Judaism, the second at Catholic Loyola Marymount and the third will be held on Feb. 18 at the traditional Protestant Claremont McKenna College in Claremont.
For information, phone the University of Judaism at (310) 476- 9777, ext. 445.