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A 94-year-old Nazi, Bilam's talking donkey and BDS

A 94-year-old Nazi, Bilam's talking donkey and BDS

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This week in Germany a 94-year-old former SS sergeant who served in Auschwitz testified that he helped the infamous death camp function through his role of sorting cash and valuables seized from Jews after they arrived in cattle-cars. Oskar Groening told the Lueneberg state court, “There was a self-denial in me that I finally find impossible to explain. Perhaps it was also the convenience of obedience with which we were brought up, which allowed no contradiction. This indoctrinated obedience prevented registering the daily atrocities as such and rebelling against them.”

And so the “Accountant of Auschwitz” continued his work: pretending to guard prisoners’ baggage on the ramps, when his main task was to collect and tally money stolen from the new arrivals and send it to Berlin.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the biblical narrative of the heathen prophet Bilam and his talking donkey.  At one point, an angel blocks the donkey’s path, and the animal halts. When Bilam strikes the donkey, it asks, “Why did you hit me?” Realizing that an angel is blocking the donkey, Bilam apologizes, saying, "I have sinned because I did not know."

The question often asked about this exchange is if Bilam genuinely did not know, why was his action a sin? The answer is that someone with the prophetic and spiritual powers of Bilam cannot be excused for being unaware of an angelic presence right in front of him.

Likewise, if Oskar Groening had the intellect to be entrusted with his role at Auschwitz, he surely had the ability to recognize the immorality of his actions. Claiming that daily atrocities were not “registering” is no excuse.

But sadly, sometimes people who could and should know better do not. Then it is incumbent upon us to enlighten. If Jewish children have a weak grasp of their heritage, it is up to us to do all we can to expose them to their history and traditions. To instill pride and solidify their Jewish identity – not just through conventional means, but also through participation in inspiring Jewish community events when they are young and programs like Birthright Israel when they are young adults.

And when we encounter anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses, embodied today in the dangerous and wrong-headed BDS (“boycott, divestment and sanctions”) movement, we must fight ignorance and darkness with knowledge and light. The misinformation promulgated by groups seeking to marginalize Israel must be met at every turn with hard facts about Israel’s contributions to the global community and its humanitarian values. We must be creative and even think of lowering the age to participate in Birthright Israel.

The safeguards against the perils of true ignorance are our own vigilance and actions. As statesman Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Shabbot Shalom,

Areyah

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