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
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
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
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
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
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.