The Sins of Swiss Neutrality

During the week of Yom HaShoah, while Holocaust services were being observed all over the world, the United Nations reconvened its Durban Conference to discuss human rights issues and violations that are taking place throughout the world. Traditionally, the onus of blame has always been directed at Israel, as if all the other human rights issues of the world seem to pale, in comparison e.g., the genocide in Darfur, Jihadist terrorism, or the recent Russian invasion of Georgia and the theft of their land does not seem to matter.

Curiously, on Sunday April 19th, on the day that Adolf Hitler was born, the Swiss President Hans Rudolf-Merz decided to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran.

As all of you probably know, the Iranian leader is an avowed Holocaust denier; he was slated to give the keynote address before the United Nations forum known as “Durban II”, which was being held in Geneva.

Well, as it turned out, members of the Western countries protested; entire delegations walked out of the hall right after Ahmadinejad continued to raise the vitriolic hatred of his rhetoric, blasting Israel and the United States of America for all the problems of the world. The only comical moment of the entire speech came when three clowns positioned themselves at opposite ends of the hall. When Ahmadinejad began speaking, they whipped out the clown wigs from their pockets and yelled “racist” at the Iranian president. Yes, Durban II was a circus. Continue reading “The Sins of Swiss Neutrality”

Cain and Abel: According to Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas was in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, he enlisted in the French army. In 1940 he was captured and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps. Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. Levinas  eventually became one of the greatest ethical philosophers of the 20th century.

In one of his books, Levinas writes a special dedication that reads: “To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions of all nations,  victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism” [1]

According to Levinas, whenever a human face calls out to me. I can only respond with the words, “Here I am ….” We might wonder: “Why should I feel responsible in the presence of another person’s face?” But that is precisely why Cain asks of God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain was not being sarcastic or coy with his question to God. Quite the contrary: Cain’s question reveals to us that he is a man who has yet to learn and appreciate the importance of human solidarity. Cain feels as though each person lives solely for oneself and that everything is permitted. He has no idea what it means to be responsible for another human being.

Although Cain’s answer is sincere, his question reveals that he lacks a conscience; he is out of touch with his own humanity. He doesn’t understand that the human face is special because it bears a trace of God in each person. Yet, God holds Cain accountable—not because of any verbal commandments instructing how not to behave toward his brother. Levinas writes, “The human face is different speaks out and speaks to me without words, ‘Look at me, I am a human being much like yourself. Respect me as you would want to be respected.’”

Even without hearing a divine commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” certain truths are embedded within the soul. Whenever we see a human face suffering, we ought to perceive the Word of God telling us, “You shall not kill” and respond with the gift of presence, “Here I am …. how can I help?”


[1] OB, vii.

Respecting the Human Face

Martin Gilbert in his book on the Holocaust tells the story about a young sixteen year-old named Zvi Michalowski. On September 27, 1941, Zvi was supposed to be executed with 3,000 other Lithuanian Jews. He had fallen into the pit a fraction of a second before the Nazis shot their guns. That night, he crept out of the pit, and fled to the closest village. He knocked on a door of a peasant, who saw this naked man, covered with blood. He begged the elderly widow and said: “I am Lord Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” The widow threw herself at his feet and begged for forgiveness and she hid him for three days. The young man managed to survive as a partisan (The Holocaust, [London and New York, 1986]) 200f.

One cannot help but compare this anecdote to the passage one of the most famous of the pastoral parables:

“You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ ” (Matthew 25:35-40).

What does the human face say to me when no words are ever verbally said? The human face says, “Look at me; treat me with humanity; I am like you.” In the parable of Jesus, the 1st century rabbi gently reminds his disciples that kindness and compassion must find tangible expression in the language of good deeds.

When we look at the children who Hitler killed in the millions, what do their faces say to us from their pictures? The human face, as you know, is capable of almost infinite expressions; the face is the mirror to the soul. According to the French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas, the human face always challenges us to respond ethically toward others. No commandment even need be given, when I see the human face looking back at me, I cannot deny his humanity without destroying my own in the process. In the age of push-button warfare, it is so easy to kill millions without ever having to look at the human face that commands us to be aware of our mutual humanity.

Remembering the victims of the Holocaust must be more than a brief recollection. The act of memory in the Bible is always dynamic as it is transformative. How we remember the death of the six million is important, for as the philosopher George Santayana said, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it.” But are we really faced with a similar menace like the Jews were in the days that led to the Holocaust? Most certainly!

The ghost of Adolf Hitler is alive in well in Iran’s dictator Mahmud Ahmadinejad—whose Holocaust denial is has made him a cult-hero to many of his fellow religious fanatics—even as he develops the nuclear weapons to someday create a new Holocaust in Israel. The world cannot afford to take a passive or indifferent attitude toward the one country that has done more to export international terror than any other terrorist organization in the last several decades. No other country in the civilized world has vowed to wipe another country off the map like Iran’s leaders. Yes, the human face demands a response. But how we ultimately respond to the bellicose threats of this demented regime will determine the fate of millions in the world today.

As always, the choice is in our hands.