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Guest Post: The Virtues of Confronting Contrary Opinions
Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
In an otherwise reasonable post on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum makes the following astonishing statement:
In every chareidi history of American Jewry’s responses to the Holocaust, one event always merits special mention l’gnai (for criticism) – a mass protest called by secular Jewish organizations in the mid-1930s calling for a boycott of German products. Those histories cite credible reports that Hitler, ym”sh, was enraged by the protests and thereby strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. [Emphasis mine]
Rabbi Yaakov Menken writes similarly, in justifying rejection of comments protesting Rabbi Rosenblum's statement:
Is Rabbi Rosenblum really to be tasked with explaining, at a third-grade level, the difference between rallies and mock trials of Hitler in the early 1930s (which caused reprisals against Jews and Jewish businesses across Germany) and a march on Washington when the death camps were operating at their most brutal level? [Emphasis Mine]
The Reichstag Fire
It doesn't take a degree in history to understand that Nazis used a series of pretexts to justify their actions and defuse opposition to their monstrous policies. For example, on February 27th, 1933, the German Parliament building (the Reichstag) was burned in an act of arson. The Nazis falsely claimed that this was part of a Communist plot to overthrow the government and used this as a justification for the permanent suspension of civil liberties, giving themselves free reign to arrest their political opponents and take on absolute power.
Another infamous example was the German annexation of the so-called "Sudetenland" from Czechoslovakia, with the support of the other European powers in the Munich Agreement. Hitler justified this annexation as an expression of self-determination of the Sudeten ethnic German citizens of Czechoslovakia. However, it became clear from Hitler's subsequent march into Bohemia and Moravia that the the entire exercise was but a pretext for Germany's eastward expansion. In fact, Hitler had described his Lebensraum (living space) policy of eastern expansion and ethnic cleansing back in 1925 in Mein Kampf. As a result, the notion that protesting Jews caused Hitler to be "strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people" is repeating the same fallacy that the European powers made in Munich.
Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano
pictured before signing the Munich Agreement
Courtesy of: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA
But it is more than that. Those who recognized the true nature and threat of Hitler and the Nazis tried hard to get the rest of the world to pay attention, while the Nazis used their best efforts to suppress these efforts, sometimes succeeding even in America. For example, the film "Hitler’s Reign of Terror," characterized as "The First American Anti-Nazi Film" was actually successfully suppressed:
George Canty, the Berlin-based trade commissioner for the U.S. Department of Commerce, got wind of protests against the film by the German Ambassador in Washington, and concluded that "the film serves no good purpose." Across the country, censors took Canty’s view, and the film was denied a license, banned, and cut by New York City and State censor boards. In Chicago, the film passed the censors but was stopped when the city’s Nazi consul insisted that the footage was fake.
Hitler in "Homes and Gardens"
The Nazis were so successful that as late as November 1938, the British Magazine "Homes and Gardens" published an article entitled "Hitler's Mountain Home" with such gems as the following:
[A]s his famous book Mein Kampf ("My struggle") became a best-seller of astonishing power (4,500,000 millions copies of it have been sold), Hitler began to think of replacing that humble shack by a house and garden of suitable scope. In this matter he has throughout been his own architect.
To summarize: The Nazis had a deliberate strategy of defusing and suppressing anti-Nazi sentiment around the world. They successfully used this strategy to lead the Western powers on until 1938 when the invasion of Czechoslovakia brought the other European powers to their senses. As a result, those who tried to wake up the world were people with foresight who the Nazis themselves recognized as capable of obstructing their plans. Those, Jews and non-Jews alike, who had the clarity of mind and the opportunity to prod the powers that be into action deserve great credit for their actions. Had they been successful, France and England might have stopped Germany's remilitarization of the Rhineland, as Hitler himself admitted:
The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.
To blame those same people for causing Hitler to be "strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people" is to unwittingly reprise an anti-Semitic trope which blames the Jews for their own misfortune throughout the ages.
I want to emphasize that all of the above is not any kind of creative thesis on my part. I believe this to be a quite conventional view of history which you'll find repeated many times over (see, for example, William Shirer's "Berlin Diary"). I don't know whether or not Rabbi Rosenblum is correct in the contention that his view is conventional in Chareidi historical narratives, but it is certainly unconventional in the wider world and, unwittingly, uncomfortably close to anti-Semitic apologetics.
I sat down to write this piece for two purposes:
To clarify what I believe is the well-established and standard interpretation of history, in opposition to the claims of Rabbi Rosenblum and Rabbi Menken, and to praise those whom they condemn.
To serve as an example and a warning as to what happens when we shut ourselves off from debate.
We are all susceptible to biases. Rabbis Rosenblum and Menken (and Chareidi historical narrative, if Rabbi Rosenblum is correct) appear to me to have accepted an unconventional view of history due to a confirmation bias: what is done by Orthodox Jews must be superior to what is done by other Jews. Furthermore, this bias is reinforced by an unwillingness to even entertain an alternative interpretation, as evidenced by the fact that no critical comments have been allowed on this topic in their blog. [UPDATE: After this post was written, a comment by "Y. Ben-David of Rehovot" was admitted to this post that included a strong objection to Rabbi Rosenblum's original post. I think that this was a wise editorial decision.] I will admit here that perhaps it is me that is biased and that their view is really easily supportable; after all, my comments on their posts were rejected and I may be biased by that experience. What we can learn is not that "they" are wrong and "we" are right; that always appears to "us" to be the case, whoever "us" is. Rather, we have to learn to keep our minds appropriately open if we want to avoid being bound to our own preconceptions. This is the virtue of confronting contrary opinions.
My point here is not to demand that Cross-Currents ought to change their commenting policy, or even to criticize their commenting policy. I'm very happy that I've not had to try to make the editorial decisions needed to keep a blog comment section both open and appropriate. And I'm free to take my business elsewhere, as I've done here. However, I do believe that in this particular instance, editorial discretion reduced what could have been reasonable debate to an echo chamber, with less than desirable and, frankly, somewhat offensive results. And that everyday, we exercise a similar editorial policy for ourselves in what we read and discuss, and we can all profitably reconsider whether we are casting a wide enough net.
I'll conclude with an interesting quotation from a Haskama on L'shon Chaim, which is a commentary on the Gra's book on Hebrew grammar work Dikduk Eliyahu. L'shon Chaim was apparently self published by R. Chaim Hilel Krzepicki of Lodz in 1939! The Haskama was written by Rav Yehudah Leib Eisenberg of Lask who is reported to have been one of the many Rabbis who refused offers of freedom in order to stay with their communities (see "To Flee Or To Stay?"). He writes that while "many great Rabbis distanced themselves from the study of Hebrew grammar for the 'known reason'" [presumably its association with Zionism], since in his time the language was being revived as a spoken language, that it was important to study the language using a work written by a religious man (Ish Charud B'Yiras Hashem). Perhaps, this is my own bias, but I'd like to think that Rav Eisenberg was here disregarding "conventional wisdom" and considering new perspectives when he wrote the Haskama. Having gained from the commentary, I can hope that I can be considered a Talmid of R. Krzepicki and that my learning is a Z'chus for him.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and may not represent those of the blog owner. Comments are welcomed and encouraged.