Around the time of the Oslo Accords some 30 years ago, Israel’s Army Radio ran this ad: A soldier is talking to another, addressing him as “my brother.” After the third time, the other soldier replied, “My brother, I am not your brother.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Cain was jealous of his brother Abel. G-d had accepted Abel’s donation and rejected Cain’s. G-d told Cain simply, “Do better.” Instead, Cain provoked an argument with Abel and killed him. When G-d asked Cain where was Abel, he replied angrily, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
At that point, G-d stopped his questions. Cain’s response made it clear that he had killed his brother. “What did you do? The blood of your brother is screaming at me from the ground.”
The lesson was clear: A brother cannot claim to be apathetic If he does not care for his brother then he can and might very well kill him. A brother is not necessarily a relative. It could be any human being.
Why did Cain hate his brother? The commentator, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, the Or Hachayim, said Cain’s jealousy drove him crazy. He blamed his inferiority on Abel. Cain rejected any wrong-doing. He was the victim. If he could kill Abel then G-d would favor him — merely because he would be the only one left. Over the centuries, many others reasoned the same way.
The problem is that many human beings deny their identity. Frank McCourt, the late author and teacher, recalls being a U.S. soldier delivering supplies to Dachau a few years after World War II. McCourt couldn’t eat the goulash while seeing the ovens in which the Germans incinerated the Jews and anybody else they didn’t like.
“I ask Buck if there are mass graves under the tablets and he says there’s no need for mass graves when you burn everyone and that’s what they did at Dachau, the sons-of-bitches.
“Weber says, Hey Buck I didn’t know you were Jewish.
“No, asshole, Do you have to be Jewish to be human?”
But not everybody who is Jewish cares for his brother. And, that’s when tragedy looms. For decades, Germany’s Jewish community was split between those who claimed blue blood and the rest, vilified as foreigners and outcasts. The blue bloods blamed the so-called Ostjuden, or Eastern Jews, for all of the ills of Germany. Hitler exploited this and began deportations with those with ancestors from Poland. Some of the blue bloods actually cheered, confident that the Nazis would never target them.
They were wrong. In October 1941, Germany began deporting all Jews to the concentration camps, where inmates died like flies The hope that Hitler would distinguish between Jew and Jew collapsed. But the nightmare was even worse: the fuhrer would ensure that the Jewish leadership, the Reichsvereinigung, would organize the deportations. Everybody was recruited, including the nation’s leading rabbi, Leo Baeck, who reasoned that Jews who deported their brethren would be more gentle than the Nazi thugs.
In the United States, the American Jewish leadership forgot about their European brethren. Almost all of them agreed to British demands to stop aid to the Jews in occupied Europe. London — falsely, as it turned out — claimed that the Germans would send all of the food from America to the Wehrmacht and help the war.
The British-inspired campaign saw Jew turn against Jew. The campaign was led by Joseph Tenenbaum, a Zionist leader and associate of Stephen Wise, deemed the most powerful Jew in America. Tenenbaum’s biggest target was Orthodox rabbis, particularly those from Europe, whom he termed a “sickly weed transplanted on these liberal shores.” Tenenbaum saw them as hypocrites, “who, although they speak of Torah and prayer with pious glances, yet…a dollar is a dollar.” He argued that he was not against the starving Jews. But he insisted that the Jews could not oppose Britain.
“Anything which will hinder the British war effort is contrary to the interests of the Jewish people,” Tenenbaum wrote. “We must not as a people or organization cause suspicion that we are a unique, solitary people.”
Many leading Americans could not understand the attitude of the Jewish leadership. They advised the Jews to protest — loudly and vigorously. In the spring of 1943, Vice President Henry Wallace invited Peter Bergson and his chief lobbyist, Baruch Rabinowitz, to the White House. Bergson was the gadfly of the American Jewish community, publishing huge ads in newspapers that told of the Holocaust and rescue proposals.
During their meeting, Wallace and Bergson discussed ways to save the Jews from Hitler. At one point, the vice president’s aide, Harold Young, proposed a sit-in by 500,000 people outside the White House that would paralyze Washington. The protesters would demand a promise by President Roosevelt to save the Jews. Bergson was uncertain whether this was feasible. He asked whether such a large number of demonstrators could board the trains to Washington during wartime. Young responded with disgust.
“That’s the trouble with you Jews,” Young said. “You always want to appear as gentlemen.”
G-d made man with the ability to forget. Today, very few remember let alone acknowledge the brutality of a brother against a brother. But G-d doesn’t forget. He would not pardon Cain. How could G-d do so? A brother had killed a brother. He decreed that Cain wander the earth with a mark on his forehead to deter beasts. After seven generations, an archer mistook Cain for an animal and killed him. Cain’s killer turned out to be Lemech, Noah’s father.
History seems to have bypassed the wartime Jewish leaderships, fostering denial and revisionism. Nahum Goldmann, however, was an exception, a Jewish leader in Europe and America who predicted that Jewish history would judge him and the entire generation who lived in the United States as guilty of failing their European brethren.
“We did not do so, because the majority of Jewish leaders then were of the opinion that they should not interfere with the free world’s war effort against the Nazis with stormy protests,” Goldmann said in 1964. “Therefore we should not transfer the guilt to those who suffered and paid with their lives. If there is a basis to the historical ‘I accuse’, let us have the courage now to direct it against that part of the generation which was lucky enough to be outside of the Nazi domination and did not fulfill its obligation toward the millions killed.”