February 13, 2015 admin


Yesterday I was briefly in Paris to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of the son of my colleague Rabbi Rivon Krygier. That very morning eight soldiers had set up camp next door (‘We’re one of the last communities to receive army protection’, Rivon told me.) The soldats were very friendly, and were promptly offered coffee and cakes. They’re unlikely to starve while on guard duty outside a synagogue. The local Hasidic shul even had their soldiers dancing. But what a world, where such measures are necessary!
With two hours to spare, I went to see the exhibition La Collaboration 1940 – 1945; I understand it’s the first full presentation of documents from the French national archives detailing the terrible triangle of cooperation between Berlin, Paris and Vichy which was to prove fatal to so many thousands of Jews as well as to numerous others. My grandfather, who as a chaplain in the Germany Army in WW1 observed the defence of Verdun from close quarters, was a reluctant admirer of Marshal Petain. What must he have thought of this collaborationist leader in 1942, or 1944?
However, my thoughts dwelt less with him than with the ordinary French man or woman (and it was not dissimilar in Holland, or Poland) who was faced with regular moral decisions as to how to relate to former neighbours, business partners, or strangers desperate for help, whose lives depended on somewhere to hide, something to eat, on not being betrayed for a handful or Marks. Such moral decisions, of which they were often the hapless victims, determined their fate.
But are these in fact anything as clear-cut as ‘moral decisions’? Or do people not rather slide into acquiescence with wrong, becoming aware of what they have done only afterwards if someone forcibly takes their hand and points their own finger at the consequences of their own actions?
I went out, silent and saddened, into the Paris streets, glorious in the February sunshine and walked back to the Gare du Nord.
The issue of collaboration is covered by one of the Torah’s briefest injunctions: ‘You shall not follow the many to do evil’ (Exodus 23:2). It’s a cluster of words which often haunts me.
It’s folly to underestimate the impact of group power. It isn’t easy to remain true to principles under pressure. Even something as (apparently) casual as the desire to be ‘cool’ can become a form of internalised intimidation. Few of us have escaped the feeling of walking away from a perfectly average conversation with a queasy conscience, thinking, ‘Why did I let myself become complicit in that?’ because there was a tone of denigration towards another person, group, or faith. How then would we conduct ourselves if we had a well-founded fear of physical retribution?
The road to racism is paved less with conviction than with seduction and threats. 
We are living in a time where both the deeds and the rhetoric of hatred are rising. We must not submit by failing to defend ourselves when we are the victims. But neither may we yield by becoming bystanders or perpetrators in what we say about others, or fail to say in standing up for them. We are all responsible for upholding the human dignity of those around us. This is not something we can delegate by default.
In these difficult times, let our leaders not be those who lead us down the road of collective prejudice, but those who enable us to understand more deeply the humanity of others.

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