Last Friday, on the same afternoon that that there was a “We Stand with Israel!” event at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, seven miles away on Long Island Richard H. Weisberg, chair in Constitutional Law at Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University, was giving a talk on his just-published book, In Praise of Intransigence, The Perils of Flexibility.
Weisberg, at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, where he lives, emphasized in his talk—as he does in his book—that “people need to be intransigent on things that are important to them,” They should “dig down deep and identify what your mature judgment over time has identified as sound,” he said. His focus—situations “in which good people caved and folded.”
As Weisberg begins his book: “Can a rigorous allegiance to what one already believes sometimes be the wise approach? This book offers a sustained affirmative answer to that question.”
He writes of how “our mainstream traditions” give “an almost limitless capacity to see the world elastically….Those wishing to remain steadfast, through thick and thin, find themselves at the margins.”
Much of his talk concerned—like the book—Europe, the Holocaust and the years leading up to and during World War II. A previous book by attorney Weisberg is Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France.
In In Praise of Intransigence, Weisberg declares: “The European continent, from Berlin to Paris to the British Channel Islands, managed during the Third Reich to compromise its deepest values and to accept—with little effective protest—the new conditions set down by a madman. A precious minority of the steadfast declined, at some risk, to cave. Most people folded their tents and equivocated their way toward active or passive participation in genocide.”
Among examples he provides of people who stood up during this nightmarish time is Jacques Maury, a law professor who “wrote prominently that racial laws passed by a French government and implemented by French courts, administrators and private lawyers ran totally counter to all French traditions.”
“Meanwhile, just west of French territory in the British Channel Islands,” relates Weisberg, “a far less well known part of wartime history was developing.”
Under German occupation, “these islands found themselves urged to write and enforce anti-Jewish laws very similar to those in Vichy. What would the Britishers do, given their own traditions of due process, fairness, and stolidity when facing crisis? Unhappily, British bureaucrats and lawyers caved malleably to the perceived emergency and began investigating and persecuting the Jewish islanders in their midst.” And “only one Britisher—Sir Abraham Laine—steadfastly spoke out against the publication and implementation of “Laws against the Jews.’” Laine “seemed to have internalized a kind of organic impulse that rebelled against the ‘spineless’ attitude of his compatriots toward the Germans; but, like Jacques Maury when he stood alone on the Jewish issue, Laine was defeated.”
“It always takes more than one,” comments Weisberg, “unless you have the force and full control of a Sully Sullenberger,” the pilot who in 2009 successfully landed a disabled jet full of passengers on the East River in New York.
Still, “each person with the steadfastness of a Maury or a Laine will endeavor to awaken the dormant spirit he knows lies just under the surface of his colleagues’ complacent caving.”
Weisberg also tells the story during this time of a judge in Germany, Lothar Kreyssig, who “from a Nazi courthouse and into the 1940s mounted ‘stiff-necked’ protests against an entrenched tyrant about the lawlessness of euthanasia.” Kreysigg “would not tolerate this debasing of German legal rules and traditions.”
“None of these three were punished,” points out Weisberg. “All survived the war.”
Kreyssig, however, “accepted retirement at full pension in 1942. He was able to discuss his experiences with many audiences after the war. They are inspiring. Unfortunately for the potential reversal of history that following his lead might have accomplished, no one jumped on his bandwagon.”
All three were not Jews, notes Weisberg.
Weisberg closes his book, published by Oxford University Press, by asserting: “When we fall back on flexibility, as we have for 2,000 years or so, we gain the good feelings that go with our open-mindedness, but we lose our grounding.” He states that we “need to mesh uncompromising policies and values with a finesse of performance that helps to get the job done. Everywhere in this book, I have suggested that negotiation combines an overt willingness to compromise with a deep-seated unwillingness to give the most precious part of our program away! We need a bit of Lyndon B. Johnson in his dealings with the Senate, say on civil rights, and a bit of what Herman Melville brilliantly describes, in Billy Budd, Sailor, as ‘considerate communication.’ Adeptness in the performance of our values must be ever-present, but identifying and sticking with those values come first.”
Asked by me during the question-and-answer period following his talk about how his thesis might—or might not—apply to Israel’s current situation involving Gaza, Weisberg called it “heartbreaking” and said he wanted to say “two things.”
The first is that “I believe strongly to be throwing stones and casting aspersions” at Israel—“the only democracy in the Mideast” and defending itself—is wrong. Secondly, he thinks “there really is an opportunity to cross this divide” and for this there “needs to be leadership” that would be “intransigent in seeking peace.” In a six-month period in which he lived in Israel, Weisberg said he got to know many Arab colleagues desirous of peace.
The “We Stand with Israel!” event at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, also on August 6, drew 300 people. It was organized in partnership with Moms for Israel. All proceeds went to Magen David Adom, Israel Trauma Center and Hadassah Hospital. It featured Israeli food and music including a song-and-dance performance by a troupe of 10 highly talented Israel Scouts.