Latest update: June 28th, 2013
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.
Britain was worse. It had pledged Palestine as the Jewish national home and accepted the Palestine Mandate assigned to them by the League of Nations. The Mandate not only gave international approval to the Balfour declaration, but instructed Britain to “facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions” and “to encourage . . . close settlement by Jews on the land.”
Half the point of Zionism was to give the Jews a haven. Before the war, Zionist leaders like Ze’ev Jabotinsky urged Jews to flee Europe. Jabotinsky also demanded that Britain allow one million European Jews into Palestine.
But as European Jewry faced extinction, Britain issued the 1939 White Paper repudiating the Mandate and limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine to a mere 75,000 over the next five years. Anything after that would require Arab approval. In the end, the British did not allow even that many Jews into Palestine.
When Joel Brandt, a member of the Hungarian Jewish Rescue Committee, returned from Europe with an offer from Eichmann to exchange the almost one million Jews of Hungary for 10,000 trucks and other supplies, the British detained Brandt for days in Allepo, Syria, until the deal was off the table.
Ira Hirschman, a representative of the American War Refugee Board, was able to interview Brandt, and pleaded with the United States to at least enter into negotiations with Eichmann. But before the U.S. could even consider the proposal, “The British released word of Eichmann’s offer to the press and simultaneously repudiated the ‘brazen attempt to blackmail His Majesty’s government.’ “ (Howard Sachar, A History of Israel). Britain also denied permission to two members of the Jewish Agency who sought to further negotiate the deal. During that time, 434,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and killed at Auschwitz.
And then there was France. Despite the popular Gaullist conception of France during the war as “always resistant, always republican,” under the popular Vichy leadership France deported 75,000 Jews to their deaths — with an attention to detail that frustrated even the Nazis.
The Nuremberg trials attempted to respond to the diffusion of individual responsibility during the Holocaust. For instance, the German newspaper mogul Julius Streicher never personally killed anyone. But his newspaper chain was one of the Nazis’ main propaganda tools. According to Fordham Law professor Thane Rosenbaum, Striecher “was deemed just as complicit, murderous and culpable in the crimes of the Nazis as anyone who carried a gun.”
Striecher was convicted in the first round of the trials along with the highest Nazi officials still living at the time. For many of the defendants, the Allied prosecutors used theories of conspiracy and facilitation (which were alien to the German civil code) to convict defendants.
But the Nuremberg prosecutors never extended these legal theories to indict the German nation as a whole or other nations or governments for their near-conspiratorial complicity in the Holocaust.
Looking at the development of international law since World War II, this was quite a missed opportunity. The Allied victory and the unanimously recognized horror of the Holocaust created a unique moment in time in which new standards of international law could be set. Nuremberg played a role in setting those standards.
Following the war, various treaties protecting human rights were spawned. The United Nations Charter, the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights became almost unanimously accepted.
But because of the failure of the Allies to deal with questions of the duty of bystanders, no international legal standards or obligations have been adopted in that area. Therefore, even though the UN Charter and international law allow for nations to use force for a variety of reasons, there is no solid legal basis for humanitarian intervention.
And so after the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo (an action atypical of the world’s behavior in the decades since the Holocaust), the Serbian-led Federal Republic of Yugoslavia sued Belgium, a NATO member, at the International Court of Justice. Belgium’s arguments lacked a legal basis, but the court luckily dismissed Yugoslavia’s claim on jurisdictional grounds.
The Torah, however, does not allow the individual to disclaim responsibility by being part of a group. Though the duty of a bystander to act is absent from both international and domestic law, the Torah commands “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of you neighbor” (Vayikra 19:16).
By failing to fulfill this obligation, an individual and even a nation can be complicit in crimes they themselves didn’t perpetrate. This theme is present throughout Tanach as entire nations, not just their kings or governments, are often condemned for their wrongdoing.
In Parshat Shemot, the Torah therefore condemns all of Egypt, saying it was “they” who oppressed the Jews, not just Pharaoh or his advisors.
About the Author: Daniel Tauber is a frequent contributor to various prominent publications, including the Jewish Press, Arutz Sheva, Americanthinker.com, the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. Daniel is also an attorney admitted to practice law in Israel and New York and received his J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. You can follow him on facebook and twitter.
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