In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the role of American Jews and American Jewish organizations in rescue efforts during the Holocaust was the focus of a number of studies. (Full disclosure: This reporter was a member of the Goldberg Commission, which issued a report on the topic and was chaired by Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.) One of those studies was by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and resulted in his doctoral dissertation, "Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944" (Media Judaica), published in 1985, and available as an e-book on the Internet.
Lookstein will be the guest speaker for the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom HaShoah and Warsaw Ghetto anniversary commemoration on Sunday, April ‘3, at 4:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. He has been the rabbi at Cong. Kehillat Jeshurun in New York since 1958 and the principal of the Ramaz School in New York since 1966. A past president of the New York Board of Rabbis and the Synagogue Council of America, he is a past chairman of the UJA Rabbinic Cabinet. His talk is called "American Jewry’s Response to the Holocaust: Lesson From Yesterday: Implications for Tomorrow."
In a recent telephone conversation with The Jewish Standard, the rabbi was asked if anything had been learned from the past as described in his book and the Goldberg Commission report. (Neither painted a pretty picture of the politics, priorities, and turf wars that permeated the community in those years.)
Lookstein didn’t hesitate: "The biggest issue," he said, "is that American Jews generally were conducting business as usual, and what was happening in Europe was immaterial to them it didn’t really matter. And our tendency today is the same. We have our own agendas, our own preoccupations."
But, says the rabbi, there is hope that some lessons have been learned. "The American Jewish movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry pointed out that we can respond and make a difference if we are really motivated. We have also had massive rallies for Israel, and that proves that if we want to, we can put our parochial interests aside and worry about others."
In fact, that very morning, he said, he had called an assembly of high school students at Ramaz to ask them to make a massive effort to go down to Washington on April 30 to protest the genocide in Darfur.
"The events of the past have serious implications for the present," he said. "I’d like to direct you to the last paragraph of my book." There he wrote, "Among the many tragic lessons of the Holocaust, this may be one of the most instructive. The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been unbearable for them. And it wasn’t. This is important, not alone for our understanding of the past, but for our sense of responsibility in the future." Now is a time to take responsibility and act, he said.
Since the ’60s, said the rabbi, "there has been a major change, not so much in power, but in attitude. We have learned to be activists, because, as we saw with Soviet Jewry, activism works. When I spoke to the students about Darfur, I told them that we know from the Soviet Jewry movement that protests and public activity achieve results. Therefore we have no right to sit back with folded arms."
The rabbi then wondered aloud how the inactivity and timorousness of the Jewish community long a survival tactic have played into history, and proceeded to tell a story.
In October 1986 he received a telephone call inviting him to participate in a meeting on behalf of Soviet Jewry with Secretary of State George Shultz. It was just four days before Yom Kippur, Lookstein’s busiest season, so he turned the invitation down. And then he had a flashback to Oct. 6, 1943, when more than 400 American rabbis, who had just two days to prepare for Yom Kippur, took trains down to Washington to try to convince the administration to rescue the Jews of Europe. He changed his mind, accepted the invitation, and heard the secretary tell the group to make as much noise as they could if they wanted their brethren to be free.
Lookstein segued back to the present and began talking about why it was important to put Darfur on the front burner. Asked if it doesn’t make more sense to approach the Chinese and Russians who are buying Sudanese oil to pressure the Sha’aria government of Sudan to stop the killing, he said, "When the people make this a priority, the U.S. government will make it a priority and talk to the Chinese and Russians and explain why it’s important to save hundreds of thousands from death and malicious rape."
That, after all, is the point of the lesson.
There will be an interpreter for the hearing impaired. For information, call (’01) ‘6’-7691 or (’01) 488-6800, ext. ’07.