“These attacks,” intoned a pro-Nazi Protestant minister as he bewailed the killing of Germans during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, “were unprovoked attempts to murder innocent civilians, or police or soldiers who were trying to maintain peace and order.”
Decrying international criticism of the German army that had laid siege to the ghetto, the minister was particularly incensed at local Jews who had described attacks against German settlers (who lived on land, and often in houses, expropriated from former Jewish residents) as acts of self-defense.
That claim inverted reality, the minister insisted: “The enemy is a religious ideology … which seeks to dominate the world through murderous evil. The world must recognize this and call it by its name.”
The minister concluded his sermon by exulting that Germans had just staged an Easter celebration in the center of the occupied city, on the site of a strike by Jewish partisans a few days earlier. And he offered prayers for “the healing of those [Germans] who have been wounded recently … and for a swift, just, and comprehensive peace for the German people.”
Now comes my confession: there was no such sermon in April 1943. There was no such Protestant minister (or if there was, I have no record of his comments about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising). In that sense, what you have just read was pure invention.
But not really. For those exact sentiments were expressed – and very recently – by a prominent clergyman, who wrote them in denunciation of a small, violent uprising against a long-standing military occupation whose oppressive tactics had culminated in an escalating terror campaign against a defenseless local population.
The clergyman did pray solely for the peace and safety of the invaders, not the invaded. He did blame the victims for resisting the military might of the occupying forces. He did insist that the victims’ religion rendered them a threat to civilization. And he even made the weird, racist claim that the objects of so much systematic brutality were somehow engaged in a conspiracy “to dominate the world.”
Plea for peace?
In fact, all of these quotations were taken verbatim from the clergyman’s published remarks, with only one difference: where my fictitious pro-Nazi minister prayed for “the German people,” the actual preacher — an American — privileged “the Jewish people” over its “enemies.” (The religious ceremony proudly celebrated in occupied territory, where soldiers and mobs loyal to the occupying force had reportedly wounded more than 100 victims over the previous days, was the Jewish holiday of Simhath Torah in East Jerusalem, not Easter in wartime Poland.)
For here’s the whole truth: the clergyman was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, a prominent figure in the Orthodox Union, one of the largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis in the world. Weinreb’s remarks, published on 8 October, were directed against recent Palestinian resistance to a wave of official Israeli terror that has killed 32 Palestinians since the beginning of October and demolished 450 Palestinian buildings so far this year.
None of that, however, has ever troubled Weinreb, so far as one can judge from his public comments.
He has not offered a single word of consolation to the friends and relatives of several Palestinians — including a 13-year-old child — killed by Israelis in the days immediately preceding his published wish for “healing” and “peace.”
I do not apologize for any discomfort caused by the temporary masking of the clergyman’s real identity. The similarity of Weinreb’s apologia for Israeli terror to anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda — the horrific effects of which are indelibly carved into the memory of every living Jew — ought to be drawing volleys of outrage from the religious Jewish public.
In fact, the parallels between the two have scarcely been noticed.
What will it take, I wonder, to awaken my religious “leadership” — and the Orthodox Jewry it represents — from its parochial moral slumber to the knowledge that in blaming the victims of the occupation, and sanitizing their oppression, clergymen like Weinreb are using religion as a cloak for crime?
His words would be bad enough if they were eccentric. Unfortunately, they’re anything but.
The other day I received this message from an Orthodox Jewish email list to which I subscribe: “We suggest the recital of one kepitel [chapter] of tehillim [psalms] a day for the sake of Acheinu Kol Bais Yisrael [our brothers, the whole house of Israel] — to be saved from terror … Let us plead!”
Let us plead by all means, but for whom? If the list’s rabbinic sponsors really hoped to succor all victims of “terror,” why did they name only the “house of Israel” in their appeal — knowing, as they must, that Israelis endure a small fraction of the violence faced regularly by Palestinians under occupation?
I suspect – sadly – that the authors of comments like these are not even aware of their one-sidedness, that their indifference to the suffering of non-Jews is less a matter of policy than a sort of cultural reflex. That only deepens the problem: such omissions suggest the radical insufficiency of Orthodox theology to match contemporary needs.
It’s bad enough to overlook one’s moral obligations to the bulk of humanity; it’s downright criminal to ignore the suffering inflicted by one’s own co-religionists.
Nothing is more basic than the priority of moral responsibility for actions we control, or over which we have influence — and a prominent figure like Weinreb could have considerable impact on religious Jews, in Israel and in the United States, who could in turn throw their political weight against the occupation. That such rabbis choose, instead, to give religious cover to a national persecution is intolerable.
Yet the intolerable continues. The day after Weinreb’s sermonizing appeared online, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “since the beginning of the current clashes, 150 Palestinians have been wounded by live weapons fire, with 360 others being injured by rubber-coated bullets fired by Israeli forces.”
As if that weren’t enough, Haaretz told us that “the Palestinian health ministry has recorded 18 attacks on Palestinian ambulances, with injuries sustained by 20 medical personnel and volunteers en route to treating the injured.”
If Weinreb even noticed this most recent spate of Israeli brutality, I haven’t heard about it.
But I did hear about the reaction of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a member of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate Council and the son of Israel’s former chief Sephardic rabbi. Less than 48 hours after Weinreb’s blame-the-victims homily, Eliyahu had publicly decreed that any Palestinian who uses force against an Israeli soldier in occupied territory — a right under international law — must be killed on the spot.
Indeed, according to Eliyahu, Israelis who do not assassinate such Palestinians “need to be prosecuted.” This member of Israel’s rabbinic elite thus supports not only an illegal occupation but the premeditated murder of those who resist it.
In my worst nightmares, I could not have conjured an Orthodox Judaism that so radically dehumanized Palestinians and so casually embraced pure terrorism as a religious norm. But that’s precisely what is happening. Our rabbis — some eagerly, some with silence, others (like Weinreb) out of muddled, parochial self-righteousness — are contributing to a national pathology that eerily recreates the madness of pre-war Nazi Germany.
But this time we are the Germans; the violence has already begun; the rationale for genocide is well under way; and, most tragic of all, the rabbis entrusted with the preservation of Judaism, one of the oldest traditions to celebrate the sanctity of human life, are acting as the enablers of terror. If we don’t stop them, we will be complicit in the destruction of our own religion along with the human rights of Palestinians.
Michael Lesher, an author and lawyer, has published numerous articles dealing with child sexual abuse and other topics. He is the author of the recent book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co.) and lives in Passaic, New Jersey.