Responding to my Critics

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Just over one hour ago, fully mindful of the negative reactions that my article has provoked, I approached an elderly neighbor of mine here in Jerusalem. This man is a survivor of Auschwitz who lost his entire family there. I asked him if he was aware of the Gush Katif children who had appeared with the “jude” ïnscribed on a yellow star. “Of course,” he replied. I then asked him the following: “As a survivor yourself of such horrors, what do you think of this action by the youngsters? Were you offended? Do you think it was a cheap stunt?” These were his exact words, translated from the Hebrew:

“Offended? Cheap stunt? Definitely not. I’m glad they did what they did. Of course, I am not saying that this is a Holocaust, not at all – obviously not – but the world needs to know that there are real parallels here to the real Holocaust. What these kids did was very very good..” (Name and address supplied upon request.)

This sentiment has been echoed by other Holocaust survivors whom I know. Not only did they not feel that this was a trivialization of the great tragedy, and not only did they not feel offended; they applauded it, because they felt that the message of Holocaust echoes needs to be broadcast far and wide. I do not think that we need be more “sensitive-than-thou” to Holocaust references than are Holocaust survivors themselves . (Granted, there well may be other survivors who were offended, but at the very least I do have some credible support on which I based my comments.)

I pray that my conversation with this man will serve to temper some of the indignation engendered by my essay. With his statement I coul rest my case. But I want to add something.

I am accused of “comparing Gaza to the Holocaust” and of ignoring the sensitive role of the Israeli army. Such accusations make me wonder if my words were actually read. Here are some direct quotes from my piece:

“The Israeli army tried to display gentleness and sympathy…”

“…there lingers a faint Holocaust aroma.”

“To be sure, not a Holocaust, but certainly redolent of it.”

“…a loving tap on the shoulder…”

In no lexicon are terms like “faint aroma” or “redolent” anything more than suggestions of a distant recollection. Under no circumstances are they to be construed — nor were they intended — as indicating equivalence — especially when I wrote, “to be sure, not a Holocaust…” It is obvious that the horrors of the Holocaust are sui generis, and are not to be placed on the same level with any other such event in history. I certainly did not intend to compare Gaza and the Holocaust, nor do I think I articulated such sentiments (though I did use the term “mini-Holocaust”) but if I gave that impression, I apologize and will try to be more clear in the future.

Why such gross misreadings? I offer a theory (with no offense intended to American Jews, since I am a part-time one myself): I dare say that the vast majority — if not all — of those who were so upset by my remarks do not live in Israel. Because they do not live in Israel, they cannot possibly appreciate the emotional trauma that Israelis of all kinds are undergoing during these expulsions. Example: I attended a wedding this week where the single topic of conversation was the expulsion operation and the suffering it has caused to thousands of innocent and idealistic men women and children. The discussion was not theoretical clucking. It was passionate; it was loud; tears flowed together with the wine at this simcha. And across the Orthodox spectrum – haredi to shtreimel to kippah serugah — everyone there felt that this was a human tragedy of major proportions.

American Jews get their news and views from the likes of the New York Times, (which casts its influence over most of American newspapers); from CNN, from NPR, from Time and Newsweek, etc. Athough American Jews may disagree with the slant of this liberal and anti-Israel media, societal attitudes do willy-nilly infiltrate the American-Jewish psyche. Thus it is, I submit, that while the Israeli Orthodox reaction to the expulsions is highly emotional, that of American Orthodox Jewry is relatively cerebral, objective, and detached. American Orthodox Jews have generally been passive about the situation — as witness the tepid withdrawal statements by the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union. To be sure, American Orthodox Jews are unhappy about the withdrawal and expulsions, but it has not as yet reached their emotional selves. Their kishkes are as yet unaffected. Granted, perhaps we need that detachment as a counterbalance to our passion — but if you have looked into the eyes of the so-called settlers and their families who are now cramped into hotel rooms, dormitories, youth hostels and trailers all over Israel ,who are unsure about their futures, whose lives are shattered, who have no jobs or housing, who are facing the usual bureaucracy, and whose children don’t know if or where to go to school just two weeks before school is to begin — if you have looked into their eyes and talked with them, then you cannot help being deeply moved, and thus references to Holocaust aromas — aromas, not equivalence — do not seem out of place.

On the other hand, when one’s identity with the settlers is theoretical and is seen through the distant prism of unsympathetic media strangers, and when one has had no personal contact with the tragic situation on the ground, then it is understandable that when reference is made to Holocaust redolence — redolence, not equivalence — anger and rage take over.

Finally: what is most distressing is that everyone seems to have missed the essential point that I made at the end of my blog: the need for some serious introspection, for cheshbon hanefesh on ou part — in keeping with the Rambam’s advice concerning tragedies that befall a Jewish community. Apparently, so distressed was everyone by my aroma-and-redolence thesis that they never reached the critical last paragraph. Which, I confess, is more a failing of the writer than of the reader.

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16 Responses

  1. Netanel Livni says:

    “The halachic arguments bordered on dishonesty: Saying it is asur for a soldier to obey an order or to say that it is never permitted to surrender one square millimeter of Eretz Yisrael for any reason were consistently presented without any acknowledgement that many legitimate Torah authorities don’t agree.”

    When a person writes a psak, he does not have to list all of the opinions that disagree with him. The psak of Harav HaGaon Avraham Shapiro Shlit”a was based on a solid basis in rishonim and achronim and if you want to see a response to critics such as the one by Charles Hall, take a look at Rav Shapiro’s grandson’s response to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s criticism of the psak. This is a thread of Rabbinic argument that should be valuable for anyone who wants to see what a true Torah discussion should look like:

    1) Rav Shapiro’s psak: http://www.a7.org/news.php?id=120599
    2) Rav Lichtenstein’s challenge: http://www.nrg.co.il/images/yehadut/210805.rtf
    3) Rav Silvisky’s defense: http://www.a7.org/article.php3?id=4791

  2. Charles B. Hall says:

    I am one of those American orthodox Jews who gets his information from the New York Times — and also from the Jewish Press. I was initially very sceptical about the disengagement. I remain so. I think it will lead to more terrorism. I think it is being interpreted around the Arab world as a victory for terrorism. The prime minister whot implemented it had pledged not to do so.

    And I get upset and offended when I hear of some WASP enclave in the US that doesn’t allow Jews. How much more offense when some part of Eretz Yisrael is off limits to Jews! This is not just a cerebral, objective, and detached reaction. It is a moral outrage!

    So why did I not wear orange even once? Why did I participate in no protests? Why did I not post a single post to any internet forum in opposition?

    Two reasons:

    One is, ironically, my support for the state of Israel. I, safe in the diaspora, have no right to make decisions for Israelis. There is enough criticism of the state of Israel from the anti-Semitic left, the anti-Semitic right (think Buchanan and Novak), and all over Europe. While Ariel Sharon did manipulate the political process, at any time a majority of the Knesset could have stopped this. That is a much bigger check on the actions of the head of a government than we have in the United States. In a representative democracy, elected fficials have the right to change their minds. And the last time I checked, there were three religious parties still in the government (Meimad, Degel HaTorah, Agudath Yisrael).

    The second reason is the tactics and rhetoric of the disengagement supporters. Calling Ariel Sharon a traitor is bad enough. The disrespect shown to rabbis who opposed the disengagement but did not support a mutiny in the IDF was far worse — aren’t we commanded to respect Torah sages? The halachic arguments bordered on dishonesty: Saying it is usur for a soldier to obey an order or to say that it is never permitted to surrender one square millimeter of Eretz Yisrael for any reason were consistently presented without any acknowledgement that many legitimate Torah authorites don’t agree. This diminishes respect for Judaism, especially among secular Jews.

    And the lack of historical perspective is shocking. We of all people should have a historical sense. I just completed Herman Wouk’s *War and Remembrance*. And for Tisha B’Av I read contemporary accounts of the destruction of the Temples, the Bar Kochba revolt, the expulsions from England and Spain — and the expulsion of about 1500 families, almost all Jewish, from their homes to build the Cross Bronx Expressway 50 years ago by Robert Moses (a Jew). As difficult as this is, Ariel Sharon is not Nebuchadnezzar. He is not Titus. He is not Hadrian. He is not Edward I. He is neither Ferdinand nor Isabella. He isn’t Hitler. And he isn’t even Robert Moses. As difficult as this is — and I had trouble even looking at the photographs of Jews being led away from their homes — this is no Shoah.

  3. Netanel Livni says:

    “I can’t help but wonder what those who call Sharon “worse than Hitler” would – had they been living around the year 70 – have said about R. Yochanan ben Zakkai”

    You don’t need to look far, see Gittin 56b where Rav Yosef and Rabbi Akiva criticize Rabbi Yochanan’s for not asking for enough. Even according to Rabbi Yochanan’s shita, He felt that the existence of all of Klal Yisrael was in the balance, something that is not at all the case today. I highly doubt that Rabbi Yochanan would have supported the expulsion of Jews from Aza. Remember also that the Biryonim destroyed enough supplies to last for 21 years. Do you think that Rabbi Yochanan would have surrendered if those supplies were still in place? The Gemara implies otherwise.

    I pray for the day that the word “zealot” is no longer a bad word for the majority of Torah Jews. More than what I wonder about what the Jews today would have said about Rabbi Yohanan, I wonder what the Jews today would have said about Pinchas, Elyahu, Elisha, and the Chashmonaim. Perhaps there is something to fix about the level of zealotry we must feel for Hashem, but maybe it need to be fixed in the opposite direction of that which Joe Schick is implying.

  4. Joe Schick says:

    I can’t help but wonder what those who call Sharon “worse than Hitler” would – had they been living around the year 70 – have said about R. Yochanan ben Zakkai for not continuing the revolt against the Romans, and allowing the Beis Hamikdash to be destroyed and for us to be exiled from Jerusalem. Perhaps they would have said that he was “worse than Nevuchadnetzar.” After all, one might say that Nevuchadnetzar desroyed the first Beis Hamikdash and exiled the Jews, but R. Yochana ben Zakkai did the same with respect to the Second, only to his own people.

    I am no supporter of the unilateral withdrawal, which is anything but a disengagement. But the extreme zealotry from many religious Jews is quite similar to what we experienced 1930 years ago.

  5. ja says:

    All you’ve demonstrated is that Holocaust survivors are as prone to losing their minds living in Israel as anyone else. The collective reaction from the antidisengagement side has been *insane*. One demonstration of that insanity is that the opposition has been based less on security concerns than on greater Israel and suffering of the dislocated, implying that any disengagement for any purpose with any security implication would provoke not similar reactions and comparisons to Czarist Russia and Nazism.
    This is not the disengaged vs the passionate and engaged. This is the inmates in the asylum taking over the country.
    WWII has something to teach us (aromas, redolence) about collective delusions.

  6. Ari says:

    R. Feldman, Thank you for sharing your point of view. I personally can’t understand the parallels between reluctant, frum soldiers sensitively escorting people from their homes, and jackbooted Nazi thugs beating Jews within an inch of their lives. But kol hakovod — sheltered folk like me, Israelis, and Holocaust survivors are certainly welcome to their views. But I think what bothers many is the cynical use of children, exposing them to trauma, and the cheapening of the Holocaust to worldwide audiences (not that the majority are sympathetic or knowledgeable anyway). Let’s don l’kaf zchus here, and hope that Sharon is making a statement that Jerusalem is not negotiable, particularly after the angst of Gaza’s evacuation. I think his stance toward Maale Adumim bears that out. Now, will an absence of the IDF mean less intelligence, and ultimately less safety, for Israelis? That’s a different issue that remains to be seen. But patriots like Sharon seem to be willing to take that risk. Disagree with him? Vote him out.

  7. kaspit says:

    I am no fan of Ariel Sharon. However, to call him (either personally or in his capacity as political leader of the Jewish state) “worse than Hitler” is unacceptable language, lashon hara. Isn’t it?

    It’s wrong, both from halakhah and mussar, to equate Sharon w/Hitler and the IDF/police with the Nazis, and it’s no less wrong coming from a Holocaust survivor.

    I do not understand why R. Feldman or R. HaQoton would accept such language. Are you saying that davka ONLY survivors are permitted such language? (Or they are not permitted, but we sympathize and tolerate it?) In any case, isn’t such language and Nazi comparisons (e.g. yellow star) by non-survivors still unacceptable?

    Thanks for your consideration. Shavua tov,

    Kaspit

  8. Lipman says:

    neil (comment #5) – this shows that the people who tried hard to make it look like another Holocaust are not only guilty of frightening their children and using the terrible ecents of the real Holocaust for their nationalist purposes, but that they also succeeded in frightening this old man. Hasn’t he suffered enough?

    R. Chaim HaQoton (comment #8) – what’s the point? That surviving the Holocaust doesn’t invariably make you bright?

  9. R. Chaim HaQoton says:

    I was in Eretz Yisroel earlier this week and I spoke an elderly man who has lived in Yerushalayim since the 60’s. He is a Holocaust survivor and he said that he feels that Ariel Sharon is worse than Hitler (ym”sh). This is quite powerful coming from a Holocaust survivor, so I asked him if he feels he can make this comparison to such an extreme. He told me that Hitler was just trying to kill other people, but Sharon is killing his own people. They both did it with their armies, without actually killing people directly themselves. They are both starving Jews and kicking them out of their homes. The comparison can be made, but it takes a Holocaust survivor himself to say that Sharon is worse than Hitler. None of us have the right to analyze this analogy, for we are neither in Gush Katif now, nor were we in Europe during WWII.

  10. kaspit says:

    Rabbi, I was among those disturbed by your previous post. To a large degree, I am relieved by your clarification and apology e.g. on “mini-Holocaust”.

    However, I still believe a clear halakhic statement is needed — not about your own wording — but about your support of the use of the yellow star and other Nazi era comparisons by others. People are not making faint suggestions. They are using words and imagery that is closer to equivalence. And it will be read as equivalence by many non-Jews, too, to the disadvantage of Jews everywhere.

    Perhaps you’d be so kind as to read what I’ve written about this at:
    http://kaspit.typepad.com/weblog/2005/08/comparing_gaza_.html

    Thank you and good shabbes.

    Kaspit

  11. Rafael says:

    In the final analysis, regardless of one’s perspective, there was tragedy in Gaza last week, just as there is tragedy when any family loses their home and community. And whether we feel the evicted families should have rejected assistance or not (especially if not), and whether we disagreed with the evacuation decision altogether or not (especially if not), ultimately God will judge us more for how we Jews handle our differences than on whether we made the correct geopolitical decisions. More even than introspection and cheshbon nefesh, I think what God wants of us now is that we all extend our hands to help our displaced brethren, especially those of us who disagreed with them. This just might have a much more powerful effects on the future of our people than our “politics” or who we vote for.

  12. neil says:

    During the Shabbos of the Disenagement, I happened upon an older member of our shul during the kiddush. He is a Holocaust survivor and a respected talmid chacham. I wished him a Good Shabbos and asked him how he was. He broke down in emotion, nerely to tears, as he lameted over the events in Gaza and how, watching the scenes on television, he was having painful flashbacks of his days during the War. I responded in silence.

    I tended to agree with those offended by the Holocaust comparison. My initial reaction was that it was sacrilege to the memories of the holy martyrs of the Shoah, including hundreds of my own family, and anger at the parents who made their children wear “jude” stars and walk out of their homes with their hands in the air (as if the Israeli soldiers were Nazis and these “settlers” were being shipped to gas chambers). The death and murder of Shmuel Mett, the Mir Yeshiva student stabbed to death by an Arab in the Old City this past Wednesday, was more remicient of the genocide of European Jewry, as has been the death of the many hundreds of Jews senselessly murdered by terrorists in Israel the last number of years. That has been “mini-Holocaust,” if there ever could be such a thing. Thank God, no Jew (settler, protester, or soldier) in Gaza or in Northern Shomron was seriously hurt, let alone killed, during the entire Disangagement process.

    But, I can’t stop thinking about the old Jew in shul last Shabbos as he wrestled with the trauma of his own personal memories: yes, the deportations, the expulsions, the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues, the mayhem, the confusion, the tears, the children, the screams, the destruction.

    I think it would be wise if we’d all respond with a bit more silence.

    neil

  13. Max Stesel says:

    Dear Rabbi Feldman,
    I very much appreciate your follow up. You are correct when you state, that we who do not live in Israel, do not have even partial comprehension of the magnitude of the tragedy that befell the Jews who were evacuated from Gaza.
    But that is not the sole reason why making any parallel between the forced evacuation and Holocaust, touches a raw nerve. Realizing that I see only a small fragment of the picture, I am very concerned, may be paranoid that the Jewish people in their land, should not revert to the violent civil strife which preceded destruction of the Second Temple and has been with us for most of our history of living in the Land of Israel from the time of Judges.
    The recent incidents in the past weeks of Jews, may be deranged, murdering Arabs in cold blood, or taking own life in the act of political protest, send shivers. Perhaps as an outsider, I do not understand parents encouraging, implicitly or explicitly their teenage children to venture into dangerous areas, and to engage in acts of hooliganism against the agents of their state.
    The danger, in my opinion, is tremendous. After the encounter with Eisav, Levi and Shimon were so impacted that they annihilated entire city. We involved in death and life struggle with the enemy which places 0 value on any human life. Are we not in danger of being spiritually impacted, as sons of Yaakov were.
    Therefore any rhetoric or symbolism which connects the tragedy of the evacuated Jews with the Holocaust is like pouring gasoline into fire.

  14. Netanel Livni says:

    Joe,

    It is only as rational to settle in Aza as it is to settle in the land of Israel where 5 million Jews are surrounded by 200 million hostile Arabs. I think your comment lacks a certain perspective regarding the forces at work in the establishment of the state and in the success of the settlement of the land. Natural, rational, processes are simply insufficient to explain the whole enterprise of shivat Zion (return to Zion). I would suggest that the post is using a different standard to determine what is “rational.” To the true Torah mind, success can only come through doing the will of Hashem, if something goes against what Hashem wants, then to the religious mind, such action is lunatic. “Ein adam over aveira, ela im ken nichnas bo ruach shtut” (A person does not do a transgression unless a spirit of foolishness overtakes him).

  15. Joe Schick says:

    Many American Jews get their news from the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz7, Yediot (Ynet), and other Israeli media outlets available on the Internet.

    Also, I would maintain that many of us in America who tended to oppose the withdrawal were not vocal because we do not live in Israel, and we do not feel we have the right to tell Israelis to die or send their children to die while serving in IDF combat units in Gaza. It may well be that costs of the withdrawal make such sacrifices necessary and even worthwhile, but what right do we in America have to decide that?

    Finally, my own objection to Rabbi Feldman’s post was not only based upon the perceived comparison with the Holocaust, but also with his statement that withdrawal “is so irrational, so illogical, so lunatic, so beyond mortal comprehension – my adjectives fail me – that on a basic level one has the sense that Israel has been hi-jacked by madmen, that the asylum has been taken over by the inmates.” As though the fact that Israeli soldiers have been dying there in increasing numbers, that the 1.2 million hostile Arabs there make it a rational place to settle, as though the world is not demanding a much deeper withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and the re-division of Jerusalem, as though those with whom we have a political disagreement should be referred to as lunatics, madmen, and inmates in an asylum.

  16. Lipman says:

    Most of the criticism clearly was on the equalisation of the recent forced kibutz goliyes and the Churben Eirope. However limited your own equalisation was (“mini-Holocaust”, “faint Holocaust aroma” followed by a long list of perceived common features), the point is that those settlers who frightened their own children and forced them to wear yellow stars certainly equalised the two, and you defended it.

    That’s enough to criticise your post for many.