In Divrei Yaakov, the recently published collection of divrei Torah on Sefer Shemot by Rabbi Jack Tauber, zt”l, there is a discussion of the role played by the Egyptian people in enslaving the Jews. According to Rabbi Tauber, and as other commentators have also noted, Pharaoh did not force the Egyptians but convinced them, saying, “Behold the Children of Israel are greater than us … and will become our enemies” (1:9).
The Torah’s description of Egypt’s subjugation of Bnei Yisrael takes the plural form. The Torah says “They placed upon them taxes” (1:11), “They enslaved them” (1:13), “They embittered their lives” (1:14). The Torah thus states that the Egyptians, not just Pharaoh, were morally complicit. Rabbi Tauber then asks, “Who is to blame for our decimation during the Holocaust – an Eichmann, a nation of Eichmanns, or a world of Eichmanns?”
After World War II, the Nuremberg trials attempted to deal with this question. Morally and legally, the trials were leaps ahead of the Allied response to alleged Axis war crimes during World War I. The Allied leaders of the First World War claimed the Central Powers led by Germany were guilty of war crimes for the bombardment of cities with Zeppelins, the sinking of merchant and hospital ships by U-boats, and other cruel acts, including Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians.
But the German Kaiser took refuge in Holland and went untried. Some German generals were tried – in Leipzig, Germany, where the defendants enjoyed popular support. Many received light sentences or were acquitted (leading Britain and France to declare their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of those trials). The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne granted amnesty to the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide.
Unlike the Leipzig trials, Nuremberg resulted in the convictions of most of the defendants. It also allowed for the story of Nazi evil to be told to the world. But the prosecutors at Nuremberg still failed to indict some of the most important culprits in the Holocaust: the German people and the nations of the world.
Erving Staub, in The Roots of Evil, analyzes the causes of genocide and atrocity. He writes that silence and minor participation by bystanders – both individuals and nations – played an important role in pushing Germany and Europe along a “continuum of destruction.” According to Staub, “Germans accepted, supported and participated in the increasing persecution of Jews. Resistance and public attempts to help were rare.” Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and other works confirm this as well.
Even more distributing than the complicity of the “nation of Eichmanns” in the Holocaust was the complicity of the “world of Eichmanns.” The nations of the world, particularly the Allies, did more than simply abandon the Jews.
As Staub writes, “lack of protest can confirm the perpetrators’ faith in what they are doing.” Silence and inaction were the Allies’ first crime. Russia signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939, and Britain signed the 1938 Munich Agreement with Hitler. The Evian and Bermuda conferences (1938 and 1943), convened by the allies to discuss the problem of refugees from Europe, collapsed because none was willing to take in the refugees.
As one of the Bergson Group’s advertisements urging the United States to intervene in the destruction of European Jewry warned, “The Germans will think that when they kill Jews, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill pretend nothing is happening.” And that was what the Nazis thought. Goebbels wrote in his diary, “I believe that the English and the Americans are happy that we are exterminating the Jewish riff-raff.” The Allies thus repeatedly signaled the “go-ahead” to Hitler.
But Allied complicity went deeper. Beyond silence, the U.S., Britain and France blocked Jewish escape and denied Jews refuge wherever they turned. The U.S. limited its immigration quotas (according to David Wyman, the State Department had secretly limited immigration to 10% of the legislated quotas). American Jewish groups, fearing a high public profile would increase anti-Semitism in the U.S., obstructed the Revisionist-Zionist Bergson Group’s efforts to push the U.S. to intervene.
President Roosevelt eventually created the under-funded War Refugee Board, which helped saved more than 200,000 Jews. But that was in 1944, when the war was almost over. Further, Roosevelt only created the board after the Bergson Group pushed the Senate to debate the situation and Jewish treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau threatened to release a potentially damaging report titled “The Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Roosevelt did not want the U.S. government’s morally complicit record debated on the Senate floor.