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How to Make Moral Choices in Infamous Times

How to Make Moral Choices in Infamous Times

Young girls in the Shanghai Ghetto

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words delivered to a joint session of Congress quickly resulted in a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan and America’s formal entry into World War II. In just a few days, we will observe the 75th anniversary, or maybe we should say “yartzeit,” of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This horrific assault – just one of several Japanese surprise attacks undertaken in December of 1941– led to thousands of deaths, injuries, and the unparalleled destruction of property and naval resources.  

The prelude to Pearl Harbor was equally “infamous.”

Japan’s violent expansion into East Asia had begun 10 years earlier with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. In December 1937, the world witnessed what is now recalled as the “Nanking Massacre” or “Rape of Nanjing,” an explosion of mass-murder, rape, and destruction. By 1945, Japanese militarism had caused the deaths of many millions of non-combatants, largely Japan’s neighbors, including hundreds of thousands killed by chemical and biological weapons, not to mention the sexual enslavement of hundreds of thousands of “comfort women” mostly from Korea, China, and the Philippines. Many living witnesses of those dark days still remember where and what they were doing when they first heard news of the Pearl Harbor attack. Collectively, Reform Jews might ask where we were as a movement during those infamous times.

Via deeds and not simply words, Reform Jews have long fought for social justice, or what we have termed “Prophetic Judaism.” The biblical prophets, more than fortunetellers, are remembered for speaking uncomfortable truths to power in times of crisis. But a review of the many commendable social justice and peace resolutions issued by Reform clergy and lay leaders in the years directly proceeding the attack on Pearl Harbor, divulges a paucity of references to the onslaught already being wrought upon Japan’s Asian neighbors.

The 1939 Yearbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) “Report of Committee on International Peace” acknowledged that the “security of the entire world is seriously threatened” by the “conquest, of small and feebler nations by the dictator powers.” But for the most part, Reform leadership, along with large swathes of the population, still reeling from World War I and the Depression hoped to avoid war, whether on Asian or European soil.

In 1939 the then Union of American of Hebrew Congress also issued a resolution declaring that “we are unalterably opposed to Communism, Fascism and Nazism; we condemn all religious and racial persecutions,” and defended the “dignity of the individual and his equal rights under the Constitution of the United States, regardless of race, color, or religion...” Two years later, only months before Pearl Harbor, the CCAR, noting Japanese aggression against China, more pointedly spoke of “Moscow, Berlin, and Rome’s” moral responsibilities while Tokyo went unmentioned. What might account for the relative silence regarding Japanese militarism in the years before Pearl Harbor?

Clearly, Reform and American Jews were correctly focused on the unprecedented Nazi onslaught on European Jewry. In the face of Kristallnacht, the Nuremberg Laws, concentration camps, and the inability to rescue the millions in need of rescue, we can understand how Japanese aggression was not foremost on the list of American Jewish concerns. The relative silence toward Japanese aggression may also have been influenced by other factors.

This was, as Chaim Weizmann commented, an era characterized by “two sorts of countries in the world, those that want to expel the Jews and those that don’t want to admit them.” But thanks to the actions of some Japanese government officials, thousands of Jewish refugees found temporary sanctuary in Japanese controlled territories, such as Shanghai, and survived the Shoah. It is likely that the Jewish community would not have wanted to risk sabotaging one of the only escape routes for Jewish refugees by condemning Japan.

During moral “Monday night quarterbacking” of our predecessors, one might feel unsettled over the reality that Jews did not speak out more against Japanese militarism. The Sages taught that “All of Israel is responsible for one another,” and the significance of this principle was starkly manifest during the Shoah. But our tradition also underlines our responsibility to “remember the stranger.” Recall one of Hillel the Elder’s most often quoted pointed statements: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” Hillel’s words provide a concise explanation of the profound challenge and genuine intricacy of responding to the parallel moral urgencies confronting us today.

Although some in our community argue that contemporary Jewry must make a binary choice between Jewish concerns and the universalistic vision of the prophets, Jewish morality is not a zero-sum game. Considering recent events, we should resist bifurcating our moral commitments into simplistic formulas of being either “for” or “against” Jews. As expressed by the prophets and taught by the Sages, Jewish morality is complicated and challenging, because we hold dual responsibilities to ourselves and to the world. We are always obligated to defend the genuine security of the Jewish people, even as we do our utmost to resist the dehumanization of today’s strangers. These may be infamous times, but as Hillel used to say, “If not now, then when?” 

Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein, Ph.D., is a scholar and educator who teaches at Hunter College and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. His dissertation, Torah in the Trenches, examined the rabbinical military chaplaincy during World War II. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his family.

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