Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Iyar 5760 - May 24, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Mark of Zuroff

by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs Agudath Israel of America

Many newspaper and magazine readers who rush out to buy Efraim Zuroff's new book about how American Orthodox Jewry responded to the Holocaust will be sorely disappointed. For while the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office director's book is being heavily promoted as revealing how the American Orthodox community's small-mindedness led to the loss of non- Orthodox Jewish lives, the tome actually does nothing of the sort. Those expecting a shocking expose will encounter a rather sober, scholarly work, and suspect they are victims of a "bait-and-switch" scheme.

Charged terms should be avoided whenever possible, but the phrase "blood libel" would not seem an exaggerated description of the campaign to promote Dr. Zuroff's "The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust" (Yeshiva University Press/Ktav, 2000). An Associated Press story about it begins with the following sentence: "During the Holocaust, ultra-Orthodox American rabbis focused on saving several hundred Polish Talmudic scholars, ignoring the suffering of millions of other Jews."

In that very piece, Dr. Zuroff characterizes those rabbis, the leaders of the rightfully revered Vaad HaHatzalah, as having suffered from "tunnel vision." The Baltimore Sun story on the book was sub-headlined "Orthodox rabbis' effort to save scholars cost other lives, book says."

No such blatant accusations, however, appear in the book itself. While Zuroff does pose benefit-of-hindsight questions about priorities and "particularism," he nevertheless does a fairly good job of explaining why the Vaad Hatzoloh initially concentrated its efforts on rescuing and supporting endangered or refugee Roshei Yeshivos and their talmidim. Indeed the book clearly recognizes that the Vaad was founded on the principle that the Jewish future is dependent on the preservation of the beliefs, observances and scholarship of the Jewish past. Thus, no apology was -- or is -- needed for the Vaad's having singled out for special assistance the Yavneh vechachomeho represented by the yeshivaleit of Eastern Europe.

Dr. Zuroff, moreover, acknowledges as well that "the leaders of the Vaad realized that it was more than likely that the plight of the refugee scholars who were not under Nazi occupation would be accorded a very low priority in the distribution of relief funds." And in fact, elsewhere in the book, Zuroff describes how the American Jewish establishment in fact "viewed with alarm the arrival of thousands of Polish rabbis and yeshiva students."

Furthermore, when the systematic murder of Europe's Jews became known, it was the Orthodox who made rescue -- of any and all Jews -- their immediate and top priority, as Dr. David Kranzler, a groundbreaking historian of the Holocaust era and the highly regarded author of nine books on the rescue of European Jews, reminded the world recently in a Jerusalem Post column responding to the Zuroff book.

In stark contrast, the establishment Jewish groups and their leaders, prominent among them Stephan S. Wise, counselled patience even in the face of credible reports of atrocities. It took three months for the larger Jewish world to make rescue a priority.

Dr. Kranzler notes too, and Dr. Zuroff acknowledges, that the Orthodox were the pioneers of creative schemes to save lives - - from arranging for South American "protective" visas to transferring food and funds directly to refugees (for which they were initially castigated by mainstream Jewish groups).

And only Orthodox rabbis -- 400 of them -- participated in a march on Washington two days before Yom Kippur in 1943. Dr. Kranzler describes how President Franklin Roosevelt's Jewish advisors, including Wise, derided the marchers as "not rabbis but residents of old age homes." Roosevelt chose not to make himself available to the Orthodox clergymen.

Zuroff cannot and does not ignore those facts, but has apparently chosen to stress, at least to the press, the special concern that believing Orthodox Jews had for the salvaging of Torah scholars, and to portray that concern as deeply disturbing. But even if he does not personally subscribe to the Vaad's reasoning for its special dedication to the leaders and students of the European yeshivos, Dr. Zuroff must at very least concede that there was no lack of Jewish subgroups -- whether Zionists, intellectuals or people with roots in particular European communities -- who felt a similar special responsibility to "their own."

Thus, when in 1940 the Jewish Labor Committee and the American Federation of Labor persuaded President Roosevelt to institute a program of special "emergency visas" beyond the regular immigration quotas, the Vaad, like other groups, made its case for the inclusion of those it felt deserved special consideration; in the Vaad's case, 3000 yeshiva teachers and students. Only the Orthodox, though, seem to be vilified for making their case.

Dr. Kranzler, incidentally, notes that of the more than 2400 people (including 100 Zionist leaders) saved under that program, a total of only 40 were Torah scholars.

As far as the Vaad's attitude toward endangered non-Orthodox Jews is concerned, little needs to be added to a comment of Rav Aharon Kotler. When he was harshly criticized by the Swiss socialist Jewish press for using fascist intermediaries to attempt to rescue a group of Jews that included many who had abandoned Judaism, the Rosh Hayeshiva starkly stated the obvious: "A Jewish life is a Jewish life."

More disturbing still than Dr. Zuroff's harsh criticism of Jews who labored night and day to save and support their brethren are the hints in the researcher's recent remarks to the press to a broader animus for chareidi Jews -- not only those holy souls who constituted the Vaad HaHatzalah but those who are laboring to rebuild Torah and Yiddishkeit today. Pointedly employing the present tense, Dr. Zuroff told a reporter for the Jerusalem Post that the Orthodox "are plagued by this sectarianism and particularism that infects everything they do."

Similarly, in an article in the Jerusalem Report, Dr. Zuroff is quoted as claiming that the inability of the "Torah world" to "explain [its] colossal lack of judgment" is "why the ultra-Orthodox cannot stand for a moment of silence for the six million with the rest of Israelis." And he further contends there that "the ultra-Orthodox cannot face up to the shame, embarrassment and guilt over their utter failure to save their communities."

The first of those sentiments is transparent in its seething anger, not to mention its profound ignorance. But the second one is even more telling, about Dr. Zuroff's twisted attitude toward chareidi Jews. There is, to be sure, still grief and anguish among Orthodox Jews over the destruction of European Jewry, and even the always-proper soul-searching of "could we have done more?" But "shame" is not there.

In the end, Dr. Zuroff's promotion of his book fits comfortably into a sad and all-too-familiar pattern. The Orthodox, and chareidim in particular, seem in recent years to have become what might well be called the Jews' own Jews -- a community that can be, and regularly is, negatively misrepresented with abandon. We are, it seems, convenient and satisfying marks.

Our attitudes and beliefs are regularly and negatively distorted, and the media revels in treating us unfairly (contrast, for a recent instance, The New York Times' regular and gratuitous references to the Orthodox identities or connections of people accused of crimes, with its recent long article about a Reform rabbi accused of murdering his wife, which lacks even a single reference to the fellow's denomination).

Much of the misrepresentation has been catalyzed by, or come directly from, non-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders, frustrated by Orthodoxy's strength, growth and prominence in Israeli politics and religious affairs. Some of it, though, has sadly emerged as well from other points to the left within the Orthodox spectrum. And just as the intensity of animus in personal relationships is often directly proportional to the closeness of the relationship, so has some of the worst opprobrium for chareidim come from Jews who are Orthodox but not chareidi.

Might Dr. Zuroff's book-promotion campaign be an example of such, a crass confluence of bias-venting and book-vending? We must, one supposes, grant the researcher the possibility that he has been misunderstood and misquoted. And grant him, too, the right to sell his wares as he chooses. But from the reports as they have appeared, it would certainly seem that Dr. Zuroff has found, like so many others these days, a convenient, if unimaginative, mark.

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