Most available education about antisemitism in general and the Holocaust in particular aims at prevention. Although there’s still plenty of antisemitism around, even in this country, we don’t know how much more there would have been had not schools and other institutions – by no means all of them Jewish – made great efforts to open the eyes and minds of ordinary Canadians, especially the young.
The annual Holocaust Education Week in Toronto and elsewhere is making a monumental contribution in this endeavour.
Rabbi Harry Brechner of Victoria, B.C., wants to go further. He hopes to enlighten people about the evils of the Holocaust for remedial purposes. As reported in The CJN and other media, on New Year’s Eve, tombstones were desecrated in his congregation’s cemetery. Instead of the usual expressions of horror and calls that the culprits be swiftly brought to justice, Rabbi Brechner published an open letter in a local newspaper inviting the perpetrators to come forward not for retribution, but for education.
The rabbi wrote: “What I ask is that you take ownership and responsibility for your actions and make things right. I want to offer you an opportunity for soul repair… Come clean the grave sites, and when you are through take a tour with me around the cemetery and meet some of the people there who defied Nazism.” A number of Holocaust survivors are said to be buried there.
I hope that Rabbi Brechner will get the response he wants, not only for the sake of the well-being of his own community but also as an example of how to bring sanity to haredim in Israel through this kind of Holocaust education.
At a demonstration in Jerusalem around the same time as the incident in Victoria, many haredim came out to protest the widespread outrage against their treatment of women. Instead of showing solidarity with the victims, the demonstrators were there to hail the perpetrators.
There’ve been numerous incidents in Israel of haredi men attacking women, including an eight-year-old girl, for not dressing “modestly.” They’ve defaced posters that depict women. They’ve verbally abused those who’ve refused to accept segregated seating in buses. In some neighbourhoods, haredim have even prohibited women from walking on the same sidewalks as men.
Like the culprits in Victoria, the demonstrators in Jerusalem have deployed Holocaust imagery to give vent to their hatred. They donned yellow stars of the kind Jews were compelled to wear by the Nazis. Some of their children were dressed in uniforms worn by concentration camp inmates. On a haredi website, a police chief was compared to Hitler.
The argument of the zealots is that Israel is a Nazi state. Compared to this calumny, the attack on the cemetery in Victoria seems rather benign. Is it possible that, like the Canadian vandals, these Jewish zealots didn’t understand the implications of what they were doing? They may be kept so ignorant by their schools that they aren’t aware of what the Nazis did to their forbears. Although ignorance shouldn’t excuse their reprehensible acts, remedial education may bring them to their senses.
The proposed law in Israel to prohibit the use of Nazi imagery isn’t likely to deter haredi fanatics from continuing to describe Israel as a Nazi state and hobnob with every enemy of Israel who expresses hostility to its very existence.
Perhaps education will do better than legislation. One of the many problems in the haredi school system is that secular studies are mostly banned, including Jewish history. That’s why Israel must uphold the law that insists on basic Jewish instruction in all haredi schools beyond that which they regard as holy study. This must include Holocaust education.
But in view of the haredi propensity to defy Israeli legislation, an approach of the kind suggested by Rabbi Brechner might do better. Just by showing the zealous demonstrators how their forbears died at the hands of the Nazis may open their eyes, and perhaps even their hearts, to the implications of their actions. It may help them to recognize that their protests have horrible connotations that also threaten their own existence.
And the best people to impart such knowledge would be other Orthodox Jews. In the wake of recent events in Israel, many responsible leaders of Orthodoxy have distanced themselves from the haredi excesses and condemned their actions. They’d be the most effective teachers.