What would Hitler do?

Now that I have your attention, I ought to explain myself.  I’m not a fan of over-the-top titles. But in this case, “What would Hitler do?” is precisely the question I mean to ask.

Or rather, I mean to ask why I’ve heard so many others pose what is such an obviously absurd question. And yet they ask it so earnestly.

The conversation usually goes something like this: Two people are talking about one Jewish topic or another. As the conversation progresses, it becomes apparent that one of them does not fit within the other’s definition of Jewish. The slighted party is sometimes a child of intermarriage with a Jewish father, or sometimes a Christian with a Jewish grandparent, or occasionally a daring soul who identifies Jewishly but has yet to undergo a conversion of any kind.

As the conversation progresses, tension saturates the room. The decibel level rises. Explanations are offered and rejected. And then – and then, inevitably, we hear, “Well, Hitler wouldn’t have made such distinctions” or “How can you say I’m not Jewish when I would have gone to the gas chambers of Auschwitz right alongside you?”

Now there’s a conversation stopper if ever there was one. I’ve heard this conversation, and this stopper, so many times in so many guises that I’ve lost count.  No name in all of recorded history evokes such gut-wrenching emotions as does the name of Adolph Hitler. So is it legitimate to pull the Hitler card when discussing one’s Jewish pedigree?

On one level – the level at which most of these Jewish status discussions take place – the Hitler card trumps all. I’m imagining two inmates of Auschwitz, doing whatever they can to survive, and not knowing whether they will live to see nightfall. I find it unthinkable that they would be discussing whether one of them has a Jewish mother, is or isn’t Jewish by a particular movement’s definition, or has a conversion certificate from the “right” Beit Din. These are not the questions one asks when trying desperately to hold on to life.

On the level of raw emotion, there’s simply nothing to discuss. How could one be so callous and intolerant to consider anything but full acceptance of another’s claim to Jewishness when that person would have risked his very life had he been unlucky enough to have been born under Hitler’s gaze? But on the level of fulfilling one’s purpose as a Jew in this world, nothing could be more perverse than using the Hitler card.

Before I go further, let me be clear that it is not my purpose to wade into the waters of the perennial “Who is a Jew” discussion. Because I’ve found that once you start wading into those waters, it’s nearly impossible to wade back out. And sometimes you even get attacked by sharks.

However, I am going to stick my neck out and state the one definition that none of us should be using – Adolph Hitler’s.

Nothing is more emotionally compelling – in a knee-jerk sort of way – than to say that one is Jewish because, after all, Hitler wouldn’t have made any distinction. But – and now I’m going to stick my neck out just a bit more – if being marked by Hitler is the defining characteristic of being a Jew, then there is simply no reason to be a Jew. Surely, a 3,500 year old religious tradition whose moral and ethical compass has permeated the majority of the world can do better than that.

Fortunately, notwithstanding the persistent use of Hitler’s definition in some quarters, we can do better – much better.  A remark some years ago by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger exposed the fallacy of relying on Adolph Hitler as the final arbiter of Jewishness.

Cardinal Lustiger had been born to Jewish parents. At the outbreak of World War II, while still a child, he was sent to live with a Catholic woman. At the age of 13, he converted to Catholicism.  He never saw his parents again. His mother was murdered at Auschwitz.

On a visit to Israel, Cardinal Lustiger was criticized for what many Jews saw as a betrayal of his Jewish birthright. In response, instead of insisting that he was Jewish because his mother had been Jewish – which ironically may have been his strongest claim – Lustiger chose to derive his Jewishness from the fact that his mother had died because of Hitler.  Cardinal Lustiger insisted, “I am a Jew in the same measure as all my other relatives butchered in Auschwitz or in other camps.”

There it was, the conversation stopper to end all conversation stoppers. Emotionally compelling, yes. But if every Jewish boy set out to become a Catholic Cardinal, would a shared history that includes Hitler really be enough?

Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik famously spoke of the difference between our fate and our destiny. Our fate as Jews is simply what happens to us. We fight against anti-Semitism because it’s there in front of us – we have no choice. We deal with hatred because we must. Adolph Hitler was our fate, not something on which to build our identity, individually or collectively.

Our destiny on the other hand, is fulfilling our purpose as Jews in the world, claiming the role that God gave us and that only we can play. Our destiny is not about surviving Hitler, but about what we do after we survive Hitler.

So the next time I happen upon a conversation about whether someone is Jewish, instead of waiting for the conversation stopper, I’m going to stop it myself.  I’m going to change the question from whether to why. Because if one can’t say why they are Jewish, then whether they are isn’t going to matter a whole lot.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.