Crime, Vengeance and Atonement

‘The notion that the three Abrahamix religions is wholly Western. Like “European”, “Abrahamic” is at best platitudinous, at worst bogus’

History Manchester Square

If ever there was a crime that cried out for vengeance, but which never was avenged, it was the Holocaust. In his unforgettable memoir, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Allen Lane, £14.99), the Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor Otto Dov Kulka recalls that some of the conversations he had as a boy in Auschwitz revolved around “the solution to the German question” — a bitter allusion to the Nazi obsession with the “Jewish question”. He and his friends imagined sinking all the women, the children and the elderly at sea, while German men would be condemned to slave labour. This was, he now thinks, a way of denouncing “this criminal nation” and “wishing it to disappear beneath the ocean depths”. What they never considered was sending the Germans to Auschwitz. An eye for an eye, the retributive justice of Mosaic law, was for the Jewish victims the only inconceivable form of vengeance.

The Nazis themselves feared that unless they annihilated every last Jew, the survivors would avenge themselves. The fear was unwarranted. When the Nazi leaders faced the Nuremberg Tribunal, none of the judges was Jewish. Indeed, Jews have never punished the Germans for the Holocaust. The only symbolic act that could be seen in that light was the execution of Adolf Eichmann, but he received at least as fair a trial in Jerusalem as he could have had anywhere else. Yet the fantasy of Jews seeking to exact revenge, not on the Germans but on the Palestinians, is still very much around. It underlies much anti-Semitic propaganda, not only in the Muslim world, but in the West. The result is that a 2004 poll found that a majority of Germans saw no difference between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, and more than two thirds believed Israel was conducting a war of extermination on the Palestinians.

One European statesman who should know better is Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech Foreign Minister and presidential candidate. At 75, Prince Schwarzenberg (to give him his proper title) is old enough to remember seeing Jews wearing the yellow star in wartime Prague. He is proud of his diplomatic record as a friend of Israel. But on a visit to London last month, he insisted that anti-Semitism was no longer a problem in Europe. He blamed Israel for ignoring European pleas on behalf of the Palestinians, and focusing solely on the United States. And he was emphatic that the Holocaust had taken place too long ago to have any significant influence on European attitudes to Israel. For the prince, the fact that the Holocaust is slowly but surely moving beyond the horizon of living memory means that any sense of moral obligation to defend the Jewish people and their state must also lapse. A recent poll indicates that 60 per cent of Germans agree: they reject any special obligation to Israel, which they see as “aggressive”. Jews may have let the Germans off lightly, but they can expect no gratitude for their magnanimity.

It was not the Jews but the Czechs and Poles who avenged themselves after the war, by expelling millions of ethnic Germans. Germany, once more dominant in Europe, has no desire or need to reopen old wounds. But other nations, and minorities, have plenty of bones to pick with the Germans — and with one another.

And this Europe — a Europe of ethnic rivalries and illiberal ideologies, of depression and demagoguery — is starting to look eerily familiar. Haven’t we been here before? And wasn’t the whole point of European Union supposed to be “Never Again”? Despite the miraculous success of the Jewish state, European Jews are indeed being forced back into the role of victims. No other community has to go to such lengths to protect its people and institutions from violence. No other community must endure threats not only from Egyptian imams and Turkish premiers, but from English cartoonists and German judges. In France, a quarter of Europe’s largest Jewish community is considering emigration, and thousands have already left, disillusioned by the broken promises of the French state. Europe’s Muslims, who now vastly outnumber Jews, also play their part in creating a climate of fear.

Yet Jews, Christians and Muslims are all supposed to be “Abrahamic faiths”, thereby offering a basis for reconciliation. As the great Harvard scholar Jon Levenson shows in Inheriting Abraham (Princeton, $29.95), Muslims utterly reject the biblical Abraham, along with his chosen people, descended through Isaac and Jacob. The notion of the three Abrahamic religions is wholly Western; it means little to Muslims, but Christians and Jews often use it to disguise their real differences with each other and above all with Islam. Like “European”, “Abrahamic” is at best platitudinous, at worst bogus.

Yet there is one Christian religious leader who took the legacy of the patriarch seriously, seeking not to avenge but to atone. When Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, he made a point of praying at the Western Wall. The prayer that he left in the Wall, as countless Jews had done before him, read as follows: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations; we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. Amen.”