Brazilian president, like many others before him, wades into the treacherous waters of the Holocaust, manages to survive
The word “mitzvah” has two meanings in Hebrew. The first one, “commandment”, is the more obvious, since the word comes from the root to command and this root is used in many other words denoting the act of compelling action. The other, as in “do a mitzvah”, meaning “do a good deed”, is more complicated. It has to do with asking for a favor and implying that this favor will be repaid in Heaven, because it is a good deed. In the vernacular Hebrew parlance, this has been taken perhaps too far, as it is not uncommon to hear a husband say to his wife: “do a mitzvah and make me a sandwich”, or something similar.
When it comes to miztvot as commandments, far from being only ten, there are 613 of them that cover every aspect of life and upon which there are countless commentaries. There are 248 commandments that call for action and 365 that call to refrain from action. The count dates back to the Amoraim period in third to fifth century AD Judea, or as it was then known Syria-Palaestina, a Roman province that was still being punished for the great Jewish revolts of the first and second centuries. This period marked the growing apart of Rabbinical Judaism and its twin brother from the root of Temple Judaism: Christianity.
As Christianity sought to make itself more inclusive by reducing the price of admission such as the number of rules one had to follow, Rabbinical Judaism sought to make itself more exclusive by adding commandments and requiring that all boys spend many years in school attaining a high level of literacy. Much of the theology developed during these early centuries by both religions was a polemic against each other, a running argument of sorts and this argument still underpins much of the New Testament and the Talmud alike.
Forgiveness was foundational Christian tenet; the Amoraim, the great rabbis of the age, must have been keenly aware of it. They chose to exclude it from their exhaustive list of what Jews were commanded to do. We are not commanded to forgive our enemies, past or present, personal or communal, now or ever, though on a personal level we may certainly choose to do so.
Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected president of Brazil is a nationalist and an evangelical. Like all visiting heads of state, he was invited, when he visited Israel last week, to tour Yad Va’Shem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and the premier Holocaust study institution. Bolsonaro, like Trump, is not necessarily “presidential” and while still in Israel he expressed the opinion that the Nazis were “undoubtedly socialist”. For this he was roundly criticized by the usual chorus of Israeli progressives, though of course, he was right.
German National Socialism, European Democratic Socialism, Canadian Progressive Conservatism, and all the other “isms” preceded by the modifier, are not defined by their modifiers, but rather by their substance. Socialism was a reaction to the mass wealth increase and wide distribution of wealth brought about by the mid-19th century industrial revolution. Where before wealth was concentrated only among the nobility and really only among the upper echelons thereof, the newly emerged entrepreneurial opportunities created by the steam engine technology increased the number of rich people by orders of magnitude. The industrial revolution also brought many peasants into the cities and created from what was once a highly distributed population a concentrated and potent political force, ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous politicians. These politicians made the same exact empty promise to the masses back then that they are making now: give us the political power to confiscate wealth from the “owner class” and we will make sure that you will want for nothing, that everything will be provided to you free of charge. And thus the Big State was born.
With the birth of socialist statism came its modifiers. In Russia, it was Soviet socialism, supposedly, but of course not really, giving power to local councils or “soviets”. This was a pan-global socialism, one that thought of nationalism as a marker and an attribute of the dreaded bourgeoisie. The German national socialism was a reaction to the soviet one, claiming that national origins were determinative of a people’s destiny and gave it certain rights, such as the subjugation and annihilation of other peoples. But the statist nature of socialism remained unchanged. From Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, from China to the EU, the one common underpinning is paramount: it is the State and only the State that matters. So Bolsonaro was right and brave to point out, in Yad Va’Shem of all places, that the Nazi movement was first and foremost a socialist movement.
He was particularly right to do so at Yad Va’Shem because only countries that are statist, countries in which the State holds all the power, are capable of atrocities the likes of those committed by the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Chinese. Japan was not socialist, but it was statist, an oligarchical monarchy. Colonial European powers committed plenty of despicable acts in their colonies from Algeria and Mozambique to Indochina, but they were moderated by their need to heed their own public opinion and thus never rose to what was done by the statist socialist regimes.
Arriving back home and speaking to a supportive evangelical audience, Bolsonaro opined that the Holocaust can be forgiven, though never forgotten. This immediately drew sharp rebukes from Yad Va’Shem and Israeli president (an honorary title in Israel), Ruvi Rivlin. PM Netanyahu, who brokered the warm relationship with Bolsonaro and together with President Trump welcomed him to the club of nationalist leaders, remained silent, but sent his ambassador to Brazil to issue a conciliatory statement defending the Brazilian president. Today, Bolsonaro himself released a statement that forgiveness was a personal matter and he certainly did not intend to suggest that Germany’s role in the Holocaust should be communally forgiven. He also, supposedly independently, promised that Brazil, from now on, would vote with Israel in the UN’s human rights council, an infamous hotbed of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
This riff, inconsequential as it may seem, is interesting, because it tells us something about the lingering difference when it comes to the issue of forgiveness between the Christian and the Jewish consciousness and because it sheds light on the highly conflicted Jewish and Israeli communal understanding of the Holocaust and how to deal with it and its consequences. In the 1960’s, only two decades after the Nazi regime fell and the few survivors staggered out of the German death camps, Israel, then led by David Ben Gurion, made a deal with Germany in which the two countries established diplomatic relations and Germany agreed to pay Israel and many direct Holocaust survivors very significant reparations.
The deal was not universally welcomed in Israel, to say the least. Future prime minister Menachem Begin, then in opposition, led a highly emotionally charged protest against it in the Knesset. Today, the deal is universally accepted. And yet… Israeli government eschews buying German made automobiles for its functionaries in civil or military service. There is something unthinkable about an Israeli official driving a Mercedes Benz or a BMW, or a Volkswagen, all marks that were widely used in Nazi Germany. That being said, many thousands of Israelis who can afford these cars can freely buy them and enjoy driving them on Israeli roads.
Soon it will be Holocaust Memorial day in Israel. Thousands of people will stop their German-made cars and get out so they can stand at attention while the sirens wail. The memory of the Holocaust is as fresh today as it ever was with us. I for one am glad that my faith does not command me to forgive, because there is no way I could find total forgiveness in my heart for those Germans who lived then, for those who live now, or those who are yet to be born.