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Avering a econd olocau
A Dialogue with Professor Emil L. Fackenheim
By Rabbi William Berkowitz

William Berkowitz: In this Dialogue we turn to a world that is no more.


I recall the unforgettable words of the late and lamented Rabbi Milton Steinberg in his immortal address, When I Remember Seraiah: “There was piety in that world, and learning and reverence.  Bread might have been scarce, but not books.  It was a merciful world.  But you and I know that that world is no more.  Its old synagogues, where generations worshipped God, are in ruins.  The books it composed and treasured for which it dreamed and saved and scrimped, are all in ashes.  And even its cemetery, where my forefathers sleep, has also in many places been erased.  And so have its Jews, of whom there were six million–men, woman, and children, some saints and some sinners, some learned, some untutored, some wise and some not so wise, but all eager to live, all undeserving of the fate that overtook them.  They are gone.”


In this Dialogue we will do something that we have been told by our tradition to do–to remember, to recall.  Tradition says that we must understand, we must come to grips with the greatest catastrophe that has ever befallen the Jewish people. It was followed by the greatest event in 2000 years, the rise of the State of Israel.  We come together to understand one against the other, to understand why.  Why did this happen?


Dr. Fackenheim, in order for us to better understand your thinking and your observations on the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel, will you tell us about yourself?


FACKENHEIM: This is a very important subject, so I will deal with it very briefly.  I was born in Germany and left just in time in 1939, not because of my superior wisdom, but because of what some people might call luck and others might call good fortune.  I got out just in time.


Perhaps I should say a word on how I became a rabbi, and how I came to be here.  My response to the events of 1933 was that I had to become a better Jew. I never really knew why I wanted to become a rabbi.  I didn’t last very long; I was a rabbi for five years.  But I did know that I wanted to become a better Jew, and for this you had to know something.  Around 1935 or 1936, when I was a rabbinic student in Berlin, we were perhaps not to dissimilar from the idealistic American Jews of today.  You have to follow your conscience, be authentic.  We arrived at the conclusion that for us there were only two authentic choices: either we would become chalutzim–pioneers– or we would become rabbis or scholars.  If we chose to become chalutzim, we would have to abandon all aspirations to be rabbis or scholars.  They don’t need scholars in Israel, we thought then.


If we wanted to pursue our goal of becoming scholars and teachers of Judaism, we had to stay in Berlin and study.  What was so foolish about it is that we imagined we had the choice.  Fortunately, we didn’t really know that Hitler was at the door.  I think that if we had known, we would have been driven mad, and we would not have been able to study.  That is why we made the choice we made.  Some five years ago, a non-Jewish student in a mixed audience asked me, “How can you talk to us the way you do and you are not in Israel?”  I told him what I just told you.  That’s why I am here.  But I said that I had never questioned whether perhaps I made the wrong choice until the Six-Day War.  Now, I think that maybe I made the wrong choice.


A lot more could be said, of course.  I think that if a German rabbi wants to know what he can ultimately believe, he becomes involved with philosophy.  That is something that Americans can learn from the Germans–that there are too few Jewish philosophers in the world today.  In Israel there are not many philosophers–they have too many other things to do–but in America there might be a few more Jewish philosophers. 


I might dramatize a bit, so perhaps I will add just two more points.  My father was a lawyer trying to rescue–by legal means–Jewish property from Nazis who had stolen it.  My father must have been succeeding too well with his legal cases, because one night he did not come back. Just to show you my youthful innocence at age 18, I went down to Gestapo headquarters and asked them, “Where is my father?”  The SOB there said, “He’ll stay here overnight.”  I said, “I beg your pardon, you can’t do that.  I demand to see my father.”  And he said, “If you don’t get the hell out of here, we’ll keep you too.” 


That was the beginning.  My father was let out after a few months, but not until the Gestapo had robbed his clients of their property.  The end of my studies was the notorious  Kristalnacht, when I was thrown into the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.  This, in this absurd world in which we live, was a blessing for me in two ways.  As I said before, I didn’t realize the real evil of Nazism.  Did any of us realize the extent of the threat?  When I came out three months later, I knew I had to get out of Germany as fast as possible. I was in one of those prewar concentration camps that were meant only to torture and intimidate us, and being a philosopher, I have never stopped trying to understand what that machinery really was.


W.B: Your books deal with fundamental themes: philosophy, theology, the Holocaust, Israel.  Let’s start with a story. A theological student was told to read a book entitled Seekers After God.  He went from bookstore to bookstore and was told everywhere that the book was out of print.  He lived in Chicago, and he was advised to write to the publisher in New York to see whether they had a copy of the book.  So he wrote, saying, “I am interested in securing a copy of a book you published, Seekers After God.  Can you help me?  The next morning he received the following telegram, which read: “No seekers after God in New York–try Philadelphia.”


We are all seeking God, each in our own way with our own understanding.  You have written on this, Professor Fackenheim, what does it mean when we speak of God’s presence in history?


FACKENHEIM: The idea that God can be present in history is an affirmation that I think came into the world with Judaism.  The Greeks said that God can be present in history, but that is a very different thing.  They had many gods, and in the Homeric epics some gods were fighting with the Greeks, others with the Trojans.


Since the Greeks were men of great genius, they sooner or later decided that this made a certain fundamental theological term necessary.

The gods one day said, “What are we doing, behaving like mortals, fighting against each other?”  They decided to let mortals stew in their own juice, and the gods turned their backs on history. 


Ever since the Greek concept of God has been one that assumes God is not involved–that is not present–in history.


At first sight this seems to be logical, because one thing can be said about history: it is full of cruelty and evil, of injustice, of starvation, and of the suffering of the innocent. So how can one say that God is present in history?  Not the puny gods of the Greeks, but God with a capital G?  That’s absurd.  One must have either a very lowly conception of God, which the Jews did not have, or a very naive notion of history, which only some Jews had–for instance, the friends of Job, who said that if you get it in the neck, you must deserve to get it in the neck.  With such friends, who needs enemies?


Now the point I am making is that the Jews know as well as anyone that history is a tragic theme–so much so that we say it stands in need of redemption.  The Jew is like a man who hangs on to history with one hand, and hangs on to God with the other, and prays to pull the two together.  I ask myself, why.  Because we have had certain root experiences in our history that we cannot forget, that we must refuse to forget.  The key root experiences are the Exodus and Sinai.  These are the two events that give us evidence that God was present in history.  The Midrash says that at the splitting of the Red Sea, the lonely handmaidens knew more than the most exalted prophets ever knew; even Ezekiel and Jeremiah saw only visions of God.  But the handmaidens and the whole people, at the edge of the Red Sea, saw God himself. 


Martin Buber explains it thus: “How did they see it?  On the verge of catastrophe, the Egyptian army behind, the sea in front, and then to their most radical astonishment, a sudden relief.”  Buber goes on to say that what made this a basic religious experience was that it wasn’t just a fortunate coincidence.  It was an astonishing experience, a presence we never forgot–a saving presence.  I might go on from here to the commanding presence at Sinai. But these were the root experiences that formed Jewish consciousness.  Ever since, the religious Jew asserts that, however sporadically, or however enigmatically, God is present in history. 


W.B: In effect you are saying that these two root experiences that are fundamental to Judaism–the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah–made the awareness of God’s presence in history manifest to everyone, including the lowest handmaidens.


FACKENHEIM: The problem that then arises, of course, is this: What do you do when history has become a dead past?  Then people say, “It is so long ago, it doesn’t matter.”  As the young of today might say, “It’s irrelevant.”  And they are right in demanding relevancy.  What does relevance mean?  It should be an experience for us.


What are we really doing, for instance, on Pesach?  The seder seems to be one of the most marvelous, one of the greatest of Jewish celebrations.  Indeed, Jewish theology is essentially celebration.  We are reminded of old stories.  We are supposed to relive them.  I am reminded of a most moving account that was reconstructed as a result of the impact of the fact that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising started in Pesach.  The story goes something like this: It’s Pesach, the uprising is starting, and as they wait for the Germans to come on the next night, one man suddenly asks–because they have other things on their minds–whether they realize what night it is.  Someone answers that it is the first seder night.  Another retorts, “Don’t give me that.  Who cares?  The Nazis are outside.”  Then in the middle of the night, the same person says, “Maybe you have something.  You lead us in the seder.” 


The first man responds, “Who?  Me?  I know very little.  Besides, where are the matzohs?”


"Never mind matzoh; isn’t the bread we have here miserable enough for you?”  The other replies.“  And then he starts to remember: “This is the bread of affliction that we ate in the land of Egypt.  Someone adds, “and You liberated us.”  Someone else says, “What do you mean liberated us?  Is it still true?”  And the story ends–yes, it is true.  We are miserable, but we are free, because in spite of the worst of all hangmen in hour history, worse than Pharaoh, we die free. 


I give you just one of the greatest examples that I can think of, of how the Jew can make the past live in the present because there is always the question, can the past still be reenacted.  Or has the present reality, for better or worse, made it irrelevant?  I think that is a perpetual challenge to Jewish faith.


W.B: You have explained about the root experience; you have explained about God’s presence in history. Let’s move to the period of the Holocaust, a period that all of us have lived through. I have a question that I don’t ask, but that so many other people ask, the same very fundamental question.  How do you answer people who say that God wasn’t present, that He had nothing to do with the Holocaust?


He gave men freedom, and man abused it; it is man’s fault–that is one side of the coin.  On the other side, how can we pray to a God and worship a God who allows six million Jews and seven million Christians to be destroyed?  Can we believe in such a God?  How can you continue to confirm His presence in history?


FACKENHEIM: You are giving me all the nasty questions. I feel honored, but I also feel  on the spot.  Let me begin by saying something autobiographical.  It took me many years to get around to writing anything about the Holocaust.  As a result of my personal experience, I can answer in two different ways, but without knowing whether I am right.  One group of people says that the longer the Holocaust is past, the more it will be forgotten.  I disagree with that.  On the basis of my own experience, I say the opposite is true.  The Holocaust was such a trauma that it will take perhaps another whole generation before Jews can really even fact it. Perhaps more than a generation.


The great scholar Gershom Scholem said that after the expulsion from Spain, the greatest Jewish catastrophe prior to the Holocaust, it took much longer before the Jews were able to give a religious response to it–Cabalistic mysticism. 


This may sound like an evasion of the question. But I would say that the time is not yet ripe for an adequate religious response to the Holocaust, and I totally disagree with Richard Rubenstein, who said, “God id dead.”  The option are only two or three, like playing around with mathematical possibilities.  They don’t increase with the passage of time, he said.  I say that that is not the way a religion and a faith works.  Let me say what my earlier view was and what happened.  Martin Buber, whom I have already mentioned, coined in the fifties the expression based on earlier Jewish thought, that there is an “eclipse of God.”


It means neither that we are blind nor that the sun has disappeared, but rather that something has come between us and God.  In this case, of course, it was the Holocaust.  There is also the imagery, the implication of the hope that, just as an eclipse will pass, the time will pass when this eclipse will be over. 


I must say that this idea sustained me for many years.  It would answer all the questions you have asked me.  Certainly you can pray to a God who is in eclipse.  The Psalmist asks, “Wherefore doest Thou hide they face?”  But he goes on praying.  Nothing is explained, and you certainly have not committed the sin if attributing to God the killing of a million children in the Holocaust for no good reason.  I would always have rejected that.  So it seemed very satisfactory and also in line with Jewish tradition.

But this is the stumbling block it created for me over the years: One might ask, and this is going to sound quite brutal–if God is not present when we need Him most, who needs him?  That was my stumbling block. 


W.B:   Was that the reason–excuse the interruption–why you did not write for a period of twenty years?


FACKENHEIM:  That was only one reason.  I would say that the uniqueness of the Holocaust is a shocking and scandalous thing.  We are now off on a tangent for a moment, but I think it is very important.  When I first came to Canada during the war, I found that my fellow Jews took great comfort in the fact that Jews were not the only ones whom the Nazis persecuted. 

Even from the standpoint of the non-Jews, it was a very good thing to emphasize that although the Nazis were racists–and, of course, they were–they weren’t racists of an ordinary kind.  They singled out Jews for special treatment.  With the exception of the Gypsies, all the other supposedly inferior races were maltreated, but they were not “exterminated”–that was reserved for Jews and Gypsies. 


But let us get back to the subject. It seemed to be a more comforting notion, for one thing, not to be singled out.  One thing finally made me realize that it is necessary to talk about the Holocaust. You know the saying, “Where there is smoke there is fire.”  I think that this is the most terrible concept related to the Holocaust, because it means that one blames the victim: if the Nazis hated the Jews all that much, then there must have been something in the Jews that caused it.  We were afraid that in stating the truth about Nazi anti-Semitism, we would increase anti-Semitism elsewhere–as well as Jewish self hatred. 

Let me say totally and flatly, that I don’t think that any kind of anti-Semitism has anything to do with what Jews do.  It is really a Gentile problem.  It is our problem only because we are the victims. 


If you decide that you are not going to tell your children about the Holocaust because it is a great trauma, you should know that they are going to learn about it anyway.  And when they do, they will think that you didn’t talk about it because you had a guilty secret.  What was the guilty secret?  Where there is smoke, there is fire.  I think this is the most dreadful distortion.  It is profoundly untrue, and therefore it is necessary for us to speak of the Holocaust. 


I couldn’t face it myself.  The religious reason, of course, was one factor.  If one faces the fact that whatever the sins of the Jews might have been, the punishment of the Holocaust was totally and absolutely out of proportion, it becomes a terrible problem of one’s faith.  It is terrible to face the Holocaust and believe in God. 


At least Jews have some small freedom of action that Christians generally do not have.  It is very important to understand this great difference between Judaism and Christianity.  The general normative Christian teaching is that humans can never be right against God. God is always right.  Therefore, to protest against God is a sacrilege.  Theologians ignore the fact that Jesus, acting as a Jew, once in the New Testament protests against God, saying, “Oh God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”  In Judaism, protest against God is there all the time.  Abraham says in connection with Sodom, “Should the Lord of justice not be just?”  Job protests his innocence and says, “I may deserve punishment, but not this.”  And so it goes throughout all of Jewish history.  Our very name, Israel, means “one who wrestles with God.”


So I think we have to be very careful here to try this within a Jewish framework. The real problem it raises is how much protest, how much wrestling with God is humanly possible. To this I have as yet no adequate answer, but perhaps the time is too soon.


W.B:   You wrote, “The Nazi Holocaust has no precedent in Jewish history.”  What about those who lived in the Chmelnitzki period and who were destroyed?  Wasn’t that as traumatic as the six million?  What about those who lived in 1492 with the Inquisition; was this not equally traumatic for the times?  Your further say: “There is also no precedent for the Holocaust in general history.  Even actual cases of genocide still differ from the Nazi Holocaust in at least two respects.”  How can you, looking at history, say that this particular period has no precedent in Jewish history?  How did the Nazi Holocaust differ?


FACKENHEIM: Let me first make one thing clear as I can.  I have been misunderstood time and again, particularly when I compare this tragedy with non-Jewish tragedy.  I am seen as some kind of Jewish chauvinist who thinks it is a worse tragedy when Jewish children are murdered than non-Jewish children.  That is not in any way the truth. 


Let us contrast general tragedies with this particular Jewish tragedy.  What I mainly intended by that statement was to stress the effect the Holocaust had on Jewish faith.  Let us suppose, for example, that Martin Luther King alone had not been murdered, but that genocide had been committed against his people.  Religiously, it would not have constituted a problem for those of his faith.  His people would have been murdered because of their race, not because of their faith.  In 1492, and during the Crusades, the Jews were murdered for their faith.  That is the category known as martyrs.  What is meant by martyrdom?  In Judaism and Christianity both, and I think Islam also, there is a concept that a glorious moment, albeit a terrible one, comes when a person chooses to die for his convictions rather than become an apostate.  Now what was the uniqueness of the Holocaust?  The uniqueness of the Holocaust was that the Jew was not murdered because of his faith, but for reasons that had nothing to do with his faith.  He was murdered because of the Jewish faith of his great-grandparents. If these great-grandparents in pre-Nazi Europe had not obeyed the minimum of Jewish faith, bringing up Jewish children, then their distant offspring might not have been among the murdered in Auschwitz.  This is the terrible unprecedented trauma.


You might say that Chmelnitzki came a little close to it, but his wasn’t a nationally-conceived enterprise to try to murder even the last of the Jews.  The Crusades are in an entirely different class because they gave Jews a choice.  But in the Holocaust it was as though the devil himself had plotted for four thousand years how to make an end to Judaism.  How do you make an end to Judaism?  What if they killed you for being a Jew?  They would make a martyr out of you.  But if the victims of your Jewish faith are your great-grandchildren, that is a dirty trick, to put it mildly. 


This creates a dilemma that is so horrifying that there is no precedent.  Shall I follow the religious commandment that I bring up Jewish children?  Or shall I follow the moral commandment–and then I shall not expose my great-grandchildren to being murdered.  Just as the atomic bomb created a new situation for mankind, so the Holocaust created a new situation for Jews.  Five generations ago, people knew that there were anti-Semites.  We knew that there would be the occasional program.  We knew that there were Jews who might be exposed to choosing whether they wanted to be apostates or pious Jews. 


But they didn’t know that there would be a system that would systematically kill everyone who had Jewish great-grandparents. 


We now know that it has happened, and, therefore, it is possible.  We are therefore confronted with the post-Holocaust faith.  How can you cope with this contradiction?  It is morally impossible to expose one’s grandchildren to being murdered.  Yet is necessary for us as Jews to bring up Jewish children. We must follow either alternative or deny either alternative.  How can you overcome this contradiction?  I know of only one way: A hope and an iron determination that there shall be no second Holocaust.  A commitment as holy as Israel itself. 


W.B:   Do you really feel today that the world has finally learned, and that a second Holocaust is not possible?


FACKENHEIM:  We should not ignore that there is perhaps a glimmer of hope.  Let me first say that the world has not learned very much.  There was a debate between Richard Rubenstein, whom I mentioned before, and someone else, whose name I have forgotten, in print some years ago.  The question was this: “As a result of there having been a Holocaust, is it less likely or more likely that it would recur?”  Rubenstein, being grim and dark, asserted that it is more likely, and I think he made the better case.  To say that it is less likely is to indicate that the world has learned a moral lesson.  To say it is more likely is to say that the evil once done becomes easier the second time. 


If you look at the evidence since the Holocaust, you find as much to encourage one side as the other.  Who is willing to call himself an anti-Semite today?  Remember the days when people gloried in being called anti-Semitic?   So, superficially, there has been a tremendous advance, but actually it is only skin deep because the anti-Semite has learned to use code words.  Instead of calling themselves anti-Semites, they call themselves anti-Zionists. 


If there is any guilt in the world about the Holocaust, there is a very neat way of neutralizing it.  I think it was Toynbee who said it first: “The Israelis are the new Nazis.”  And ever since he said it, the forum of so-called moral verity has gone lower and lower and lower.  The United Nations have become the world center of anti-Semitism.  That is how bad it has become.  Nobody calls it anti-Semitism.  Anti-Zionism is the tactic of a shocking band of scoundrels.  We might say that Americans still pay for it, because it is anti-American too. The whole center has shifted.  Anti-Semitism has been exported to countries where there are no Jews.  It is a sinister instrument in China where there are virtually now Jews, as in India.


If you analyze the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, you’ll see that there is always a core of confirmed anti-Semites, and then all the opportunists who cluster around them.  We see this unholy combination in newly found oil power plus fanatics.  And let us not forget all the Nazis who went to Egypt and other Arab countries to influence policies there.  This goes right back to the Grand Mufti, who was an honored guest in occupied Jerusalem.  All these things fit together, and I think we are faced with a grim reality.


The world is buckling under, and the first people they are selling out are once again the Jews, this time in the State of Israel.  I make one prediction; not that it is particularly hopeful–it is a grim prediction.  I think that few predictions are safe.  When Chamberlain said, in 1938,”peace in our time,” I was only a young student and politically naive; but I knew Nazis, and I was in Germany, and I knew it wasn’t true.  He was not going to succeed in buying peace for England by selling out the Jews.  I think it is absolutely certain that the Western world will not succeed in buying peace for itself by selling out Israel for Arab oil. From this, of course, we can take small comfort.  Once before it was too late for us.  Hitler was defeated, but the Holocaust had been perpetrated. 


It is hard for me to say that I should make optimistic predictions.  When I say there must be no second Holocaust, this is not a prediction, that is not a prophecy; it is a commitment.  An essential part of that commitment is the integrity and safety of the State of Israel, a living symbol that there must be no second Holocaust.  And as far as we are concerned, it must mean this: there can be no Jew who backs away from the State of Israel in its hour of trial.  No one.  Let us use all of our strength, however little it is, to avert this eventuality.  I say be faithful.  Stand by the State of Israel in its hour of trial, because there is the collected testimony against the evil that Hitler wrought.   The world wants to forget it, the world wants to distort it.  We cannot let them.  We must have the faith that we can pass through this period of trial.  These are the days when we are often on the verge of despair–the few against the many.  How often has this happened before?  Then we need endurance, and then a new miracle comes, but this doesn’t mean that you can count on miracles.


The Israelis know it so well.  It means that just as we have sudden surprises that are terrible, you might say the whole of Jewish existence is bound up with the opposite–namely, that there are also happy surprises.  We have survived; it’s a miracle.  The name Israel is found on a victory column of the Egyptian King Menenptah, who reigned several thousand years ago, and it says that if Israel is destroyed she will never rise again.  Have you ever heard of Menenptah?  Maybe 2000 or 4000 years from now Jews will still live, and people will ask, have you ever heard of Arafat.


W.B:   One of your most quotable statements was that in addition to the 613 commandments that it is incumbent upon the Jew to fulfill, you advocate one more, and that commandment is: Thou shalt survive.  The fact of the matter is that there is a great difference between 1933 and 1940 and today.  The times are different.  We have learned a great deal.  We have learned from Soviet Jewry; we have learned the political game; we have learned to express ourselves in an entirely different way.  I sincerely believe that the key to solving the Middle East problem lies in Washington, and nowhere else; that is where the key is to be found.


Now when we speak of Jewish survival, I would like to know what is wrong with our Jewish intellectuals.  Do they suffer from self hatred, or do they think that they are going to stand under a greener umbrella?  Why is there this ambivalence?  What’s wrong with the Jewish intellectual? 


FACKENHEIM:  I would not say that your statement applies to all Jewish intellectuals.  the chairman of my department, who is not Jewish, said this is about John Foster Dulles, who is not remembered very fondly by many people.  “Dulles went to Harvard.  When you go to Harvard, they don’t cure you of your stupidity; they make a system out of it.”  I have found in thirty years of university professorship that the intellectuals and professors are very intelligent people, but they can combine intelligence in their own fields with the most exasperating lack of common sense in all other fields.  It is really most amazing.  So then when they get involved, they make such a mess out of things that they end up wishing they hadn’t gotten involved.  They will say that if Jews are entitled to Jewish nationalism, then Palestinians are entitled to Palestinian nationalism.  So there is a conflict between two nationalisms, and this conflict is tragic.


A tragic conflict is not between right and wrong, but between right and right.  What do you do about a tragic conflict?   There is no perfectly just solution; in fact there is no perfectly just solution to anything in history; there has to be compromise, give-and-take on both sides. In this story, the Jews have done all the giving and the Arabs have done none.  Palestine was supposed to be a national home for the Jews. 


The details weren’t quite clear, so they divided it up in 1922, and what is now Jordan became the Arab part; then they divided it up some more when the Arabs were not satisfied. 


Again the Jews accepted.  Then the UN, different from what it is now, underwrote the Jewish State when the Jewish State declared itself.  The next day several Arab armies invaded it. 


These facts everybody knows.  Why didn’t a Palestinian state come into being afterwards?  Because the grandfather of the present King Hussein of Jordan took over.  And so it has been today.  Yassir Arafat (head of the PLO) brings us right back to where it started, because not even the most stupid intellectual doubts that a state for all–a secular state–means the destruction of the State of Israel.  I ask myself, how can the intellectuals be so stupid.  The ordinary businessperson understands it.  I really have no answer to this.  Again, as the head of my department used to say, “the more logical you become about some things, the more illogical you become about others.”  But there is a deeper thing; we are talking about Jewish intellectuals.  What I said before really applies to non-Jewish intellectuals.


I met a colleague the other day who asked me, “How are you?”  I said, “Terrible because Arafat is going to speak at the UN.”  “You think he shouldn’t speak?” my friend asked.  “No, because he is a murderer.  He wants to destroy Israel, and I don’t think such a person has a right to a forum,” was my answer.  My friend had never thought of this before.  I don’t know whether it made any difference.


Now we come to Jewish intellectuals.  I think that Jewish intellectuals, in large numbers, are sick; they are sick in a Jewish way, and you might say that it is not their fault.


They are Jews from hard-working families who have a 100-year history of “liberation,” and they look to the university as the great institution of their fulfillment.   Many of them come from good Jewish homes.  Then they come to the university, and what do they find?  English studies, French studies, Russian studies, but Judaism is represented by the so-called Old Testament, which, of course, is a propaganda term.  In a Christian theological seminary, that is proper–to them it is the Old Testament.  To call it by a Christian name at a non-sectarian university is propaganda.


So there have been 100 years of the traumatic experience of young Jewish people thinking they are somebody, and then entering universities only to see that the subject of Judaism doesn’t exist.  This is an academic anti-Semitism, and it has been permitted to go on for too long.  The result is that today we find Jewish professors of history who tell students who want to study Jewish history that there is no such subject.


But I wave my hand and say, I am here, I am alive, so there must be Jewish history.  Jews belong to German history, French history and American history, but there is no Jewish history. It is a sickness that is part of a general sickness in the modern world.   The Jews are supposed to be an anachronism.  It is all very well to tolerate Jewish individuals, acknowledge their contribution to civilization, but it always has to be somebody else’s civilization. 


It is time to put an end to this.  You have to look beyond the present crisis.  Jewish students have to come onto the map of every campus in America.  Let me quote somebody I don’t very often quote.  Norman Podhoretz describes how he came to Columbia University, and after a while an English professor took him aside and said, “Look, it is time you gave up all this parochial Judaism and began Universalism.”  Podhoretz reports the incident and adds, “What they call universalism is just parochialism.”  That was a great insight.  It is about time for Jews on campus to become a little more militant on behalf of Judaism.  It adds up to a very sad thing.  The leadership that we should be getting from most Jewish intellectuals, we get from only a very few. 


W.B:   You spoke some time ago at St. John the Divine. The address was to have appeared in the Encyclopedia Judaica.  I believe they asked you to write on the theological significance of the State of Israel. Instead you spoke–delivered a paper–on What Connects the Holocaust with the State of Israel.  Can you just give us a rough outline of what you said?


FACKENHEIM: I rejected the original great subject because of a sudden fear.  We grapple with the question of survival.  We are almost tempting God when we speak at this point in history of the theological significance of the State of Israel.  I think that what one can say is this: What connects the Holocaust with the State of Israel?  I don’t mean to give an historical explanation.  I mean that there is a moral imperative.  After the Holocaust, a moral imperative exists that there must be a State of Israel. 


When you go to Israel you ask yourself, where do the people of Israel get the strength to hold out on all those many fronts.  You see the day-to-day inflation, the astronomical fact of being daily in danger.  Where do they get the strength?  There are many answers, of course.  The Orthodox have theirs; the chalutzim have theirs, but what binds the people together?  I can think of no better answer than Kibbutz Yad Mordecai. 


Mordecai was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  When he felt that he was close to capture by the Nazis, he feared that they would torture him and extract secrets, and he committed suicide.  That uprising about which I have spoken in a different context, was an extraordinary, inspiring and also mystifying thing for us to contemplate.  It mystifies us that when there people had no chance, they held out longer against the Nazi army then had the entire British army.  Just imagine that–starving, without ammunition, and without hope.


Why?  Mordecai said in his letter, “We do it for future generations. And I die satisfied and happy.”


The kibbutz was named after him.  It was founded in the same year; and five years later to the day, it held off a huge army of Egyptians for five long days.  The poet Abba Kovner, who was also a resistance fighter, has graphically described the scene for us and for future generations.  You see the place where the resistance fought, a little hill.  A sign tells that there are two American guns, a Canadian gun, two Czech guns.  There are other images in the darkness, those many Egyptians.  How did the Jews manager to hold out for five days?  And why?  You wander to another hill and you find your answer: There is the statue of Mordecai, larger than life.  Behind him they have preserved the water tower that the Egyptians smashed–a mute symbol that the hatred of the Jews–the hatred from the days of the Holocaust–had not yet come to an end.  But that is behind the statue, not in front.  In front are fields, flowers, cows, peace–things Mordecai could only dream of.  Then you understand that the battle for Israel began in the streets of Warsaw.  This is the deepest inspiration, and it holds us all together. 


W.B:   There is a saying on the stage that it is good theater to end on an upbeat note.  This is hardly the stage–hardly the theater.  During the course of this Dialogue, we have lived with the reality of our recent dark history, guided by a most perceptive scholar.  But Dr. Fackenheim, who knows better than so many others the impact of that history on our people, has given us the upbeat note on which we end.  It is not, however, a cheery platitude to send us all away happy.  It is, instead, a solemn charge, an admonition to remember who we are, what we are, and why we are here.  It is, indeed, a promise that we will prevail over all events so long as we draw on our tradition for strength. 



Posted on August 9, 2006
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