On June 26, 1941, the German army entered Vilnius, accompanied by Reinhard Heydrich’s Einsatzkommando killing squads, elite units of sorts that were in charge of exterminating Jews, Roma Gypsies, homosexuals and Communists.
The broad range of those destined for extermination symbolized the Nazis’ commitment to Aryan racial purity, in their readiness to rid themselves not only of the lower strata of the human race but also of leftists and of those whose sexual orientation didn’t find favor among high-ranking officials of the regime.
Miron Abeliovich, the grandfather of one of this piece’s two authors, Uriel, was among those murdered, eliminated along with all of the other members of his household in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Many members of Alon’s family lived in the Free City of Danzig, whose conquest by the Nazis served as a springboard for the Hitler regime’s goal of cleansing the city of Catholic believers and more generally to subjugate the Slavic peoples to the superior race. The murder of Alon’s family following the occupation of Danzig, with the outbreak of World War II, was no more than a footnote in the larger Nazi plan for the city.
Between 1939 and 1945, the United States gave asylum on its territory to only about 250,000 Jewish refugees, roughly a thousandth of the American population at the time. Other Western countries were not more forthcoming. So, for example, when the details regarding the anti-Semitic wave of destruction on Kristallnacht in November 1938 became known, a plan was developed to allow for the settlement of 15,000 persecuted Jews in Australia over the course of three years, but the gates of the country remained closed to any additional Jewish refugees. Those refused admission to all of those countries remained in or returned to the European inferno, and many of them were killed in the Holocaust.
The above paragraphs describe episodes of Holocaust history that are seemingly unrelated to each other, but there is a common thread that runs through them. The first few paragraphs demonstrate the obvious, that human evil can be directed not only against our own people but against anyone whom the regime wishes to deprive of their rights. The fifth paragraph, regarding restrictions on immigration at the time, show that the evil and cruelty of passive actors sometimes are no better than those of active players.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, the central institution entrusted with the sacred memory of the Holocaust and the lessons that should be forever drawn from it, acknowledges some of these lessons on its website.
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In its section on the Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, Yad Vashem quotes the moving remarks of Elie Wiesel, who wrote, “Let us remember: What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander. Let us not forget, after all, there is always a moment when moral choice is made. And so we must remember these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust.”
And yet, when we face a similar reality of asylum seekers in Israel who are begging for their lives and, who, based on most accounts, can expect torture, theft, rape and even death in the countries where they are due to be sent, Yad Vashem issued a statement declaring that it is inappropriate and dangerous to compare the situation of the Jews during the Holocaust with Israel’s policy regarding those seeking residency status in the country now.
Indeed, how can they be compared? During the Holocaust, those being persecuted were our own people, whereas at the present time, they are only those of African background “seeking residency.”
During the Holocaust, the gates of Switzerland, Britain and other countries were shut, while now it is the gates of our own country. But despite the fact that the leaders of Yad Vashem have rejected any comparison between the distress of the refugees in Israel and persecuted Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, they also found it appropriate to make a limp statement about asylum seekers here, saying that their situation involves a “national and international challenge that requires empathy, compassion and mercy.”
“The experience of the Jewish people over generations heightens this obligation,” the statement continued. “The authorities in Israel must make every effort so that there is no person who arrived in Israel with a sword over his neck that did not receive refugee status.”
More than a month ago, while the controversy was seething, we approached the administration of Yad Vashem and asked for an interpretation and clarification regarding the call for “compassion.”
We asked what the leaders of the institution believed was or was not possible to do in the concrete case of asylum seekers at the present time.
We also asked what Yad Vashem’s position was regarding the masses of asylum seekers, which is nearly all of them, who have not received refugee status.
Does Yad Vashem believe that they should be given such status? Is it prepared not to be “a bystander” in the face of the government’s policy not to grant refugee status to almost any of these large numbers of persecuted people?
We have implored Yad Vashem to fulfill its moral and historic mission and to raise a hue and cry that the honorable interior minister would have difficulty ignoring. It is in fact easy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to ignore demands for justice from those whom it deems “Jew haters,” and it probably even derives sweet pleasure from that as well.
On the other hand, ignoring a strong demand by an institution that is a symbol of the catastrophe that befell our people and that also has, it must be admitted, material value in our relations with the nations of the world, is much more difficult.
We have warned the good people at Yad Vashem, who drag every dignitary to visit the institution, who rub shoulders with them and curry their sympathies. And we have explained that if Yad Vashem refrains from dealing with this urgent issue, it could, in one fell swoop, lose its legitimacy as a universal moral beacon and instead be perceived in the eyes of the world as an ethnocentric faction whose only interest is the Jewish people and its ability to engender feelings of guilt among non-Jews.
To date, we have not managed to obtain a response to our inquiry.
Alon Harel is a professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Uriel Procaccia a professor of law at Tel Aviv University.