Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel on Tuesday was marred by the news of a Holocaust survivor and Israeli citizen, Professor Liviu Librescu, giving his life at Virginia Tech to barricade a doorway to his classroom. He wedged his body against the door in a way that denied entry to the crazed shooter, saving his young students. He showed that innocents can be saved if the world commits to trying.
The irony is fascinating. Librescu was fourteen when the Holocaust ended, managing to survive through all sorts of exiles, hideouts and forced labor. Very few Jews that young were alive in Eastern Europe at the end of the war. It required astounding resiliency and resourcefulness, but fighting back against an enemy that massive was impractical. From there he moved to Israel where he learned to fight and raised two sons who also served in the Israel Defense Forces.
This might be a good moment to focus on the recent revelation by researchers about the late Winston Churchill.
Churchill was a man who showed true greatness and brought a real boon to mankind. But Fate handed him so many critical decisions it was inevitable some would be downright awful. Jews hate to be naysayers in these scenarios; they do receive their share of the dividend from humanity’s profit. Yet he erred in withholding British bombers from attacking the train lines approaching Auschwitz, and he handled issues of immigration to Israel not much better.
To further becloud his record on matters Judaic, an unpublished article from 1937, entitled ‘How the Jews Can Combat Persecution’ has been unearthed among his archives. In it he argues the following:
“It would be easy to ascribe anti-Semitism to the wickedness of the persecutors, but that does not fit all the facts.”
"It exists even in lands, like Great Britainand the United States, where Jew and Gentile are equal in the eyes of the law and where large numbers of Jews have found not only asylum, but opportunity.”
"These facts must be faced in any analysis of anti-Semitism. They should be pondered especially by the Jews themselves.”
"For it may be that, unwittingly, they are inviting persecution — that they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer."
"The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jew is that the Jew is ‘different’.”
"He looks different. He thinks differently. He has a different tradition and background. He refuses to be absorbed."
His official (Jewish) biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, counters that he did not pen the screed; it was something he had commissioned from ghostwriter Adam Marshall Diston and rejected for excesses in tone and content. This much is clear: Churchill set out in 1937 to publish a modern guide for the Jew to avoid persecution by modifying his behavior.
The Jews themselves wrote the Book of Esther 2300 years before the Churchill article. In it an anti-Semite named Haman is trying to convince a neutral Persian king named Ahasuerus that the Jews are hateful. He says (Esther 3:8): “There is one nation, scattered and separated among the nations in all the states of your kingdom, whose laws are different than any other nation, and who do not follow the laws of the king….” Is there any sliver of territory in Mr. Churchill’s essay not amply covered in that ingenious three-line rendition of the anti-Semite’s credo?
Two-thousand-three-hundred years is a very long time, probably eighty generations. Nineteen hundred of those were spent in exile. Jews lived in every kind of culture, under every form of government. Always they pondered those words of Haman, knowing their difference made them a target. The Midrash tells of the Roman Emperor who said of the Jews: “Blessed is the sheep that survives among seventy wolves.” To which the sage Rabbi Joshua replied: “Blessed is the shepherd who protects His sheep from the seventy wolves.”
Liviu Librescu learned these lessons well. He knew the good guys get persecuted and they must learn to fight back. Where no weapon is available, at least do the maximum to protect the innocent. In our own era, the United States as a whole has taken on this role as a protector of all that is good and harmless. In response, it has become the object of the same pattern of hatred from the vicious of the earth.
In short, it is not the job of the Jew — or the American — to modify his message of kindness (Abraham), justice (Isaac) and truth (Jacob.) We saw Professor Librescu demonstrate that in action this week. It is the job of the world to make that message less dangerous to deliver.