Sixty years after the Holocaust, Jewish groups are still condemning those Christians who stood idly by during--or, worse yet, profited from--the deportation, enslavement, and murder of 6 million Jews. The major Jewish organizations are demanding that Swiss and German banks, insurance companies, and industrial corporations pay reparations, and billions of dollars is changing hands. While Christians who risked their lives or fortunes to save Jews are honored by the State of Israel and by Jews everywhere, they are the wonderful exceptions to a broader pattern of apathy.

Contrasting with this indifference, American Jews did not stand idly by when Jews were at risk in Soviet Russia. Instead, the American Jewish community mobilized, used its influence, and helped liberate them. And when Israel has been at risk, American Jews have repeatedly mobilized their energy and political power--to protest, to make demands, to change American policy, and to come to the aid of fellow Jews in peril. And we were right to do so.

But the principle at stake is obviously not that everyone must defend Jews. It is not that we are right to defend Jews and that Christians were wrong when they failed to defend Jews. The principle is that religious persecution is evil. We all have a moral responsibility to fight it and to defend its victims--right?

Yet today, the same newspapers that report Jewish condemnations of the Swiss and Germans carry horrifying accounts of current religious persecution. They tell, for example, of thousands of Catholics and Protestants being beaten, jailed, and tortured in China. They describe the intimidation and violence against Christians in Pakistan and India, ranging from the burning of churches to rape and murder. They report on the worst case of all, Sudan--where 2 million have died, and where Christians are being forcibly converted to Islam, starved, enslaved, and killed by the Muslim government in Khartoum that the United States calls a terrorist regime.

If American Jews are so devoted to fighting religious persecution, where is our voice? How can we Jews make moral demands of Christians because they didn't defend us, when today we do nothing to defend their religious freedom?

There are some easy answers, beginning with this one: Christians are so numerous that they don't need us. This argument is obtuse.

First, we have a moral obligation to speak out against these human rights violations, whether Christians "need" this help or not. Those being persecuted obviously need all the help they can get, and we should not be disingenuous: the American Jewish community's voice is loud and powerful on public policy issues. It is true that many American Christians are indifferent and silent, but while their silence is shameful it does nothing to relieve our moral burden.

Second, when we add our voices it becomes clear that the issue isn't special pleading for certain Christian groups but the principle of religious liberty. It becomes clear that a broad coalition is behind this cause, not just a tangle of groups protecting their own coreligionists.

Third, American Christians who are fighting religious persecution abroad badly need allies--in no small part because the corporate and financial communities seem more interested in profits than in religious persecution. (When the chairman of Time Warner, coincidentally a Jew, recently visited Beijing, he gave the top communist official there a bust of Abraham Lincoln--although China had banned the Asian edition of Time magazine because it contained, among other things, a piece by the Dalai Lama.) They see China and they see profits. When we see China or any other country, we should say: "Wait, we are Jews--we have to consider the issue of religious freedom."

If we are silent today, our criticisms of the Swiss are just moral posturing and fees for Jewish lawyers. This is a harsh verdict, but it is inescapable. Already there is some unease in the Jewish community as a whole about the effort to gain monetary compensation from the Swiss and Germans. Abe Foxman, who leads the Anti-Defamation League, put it this way in 1998:

"Six million Jews died because they were Jews, not because they had money or bank accounts. [Of those] 6 million Jews, 99.9 percent didn't have Swiss bank accounts, didn't have gold, didn't have jewelry or art. They perished because of who they were. This debate, this discussion, as important as it is--because one needs to have a measure of justice, even if it's symbolic--skewed the whole message, the lesson, the truth of the Holocaust."

But if the subject here isn't property or bank accounts, and is instead the evils of religious persecution, then American Jews should keep their focus on that topic--whether the persecution occurred in the 1930s or is occurring in 2000. One man who understands this perfectly is Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the brilliant author and Nobel Prize winner. He has written to President Clinton about the suffering of Christians in Sudan, whose cause he sees as his own. Another is Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, who has been a leader in the effort to help persecuted Christians. And A.M. Rosenthal, the former editor and columnist of The New York Times, who wrote again and again to awaken us to this problem. But they are the exceptions.

Yesterday in Europe it was the Jews; today in many parts of the world it is Christians who are targets. Memory and justice require that American Jews today seek justice for Jews who suffered during the 1930s. But it is past time for American Jews to join in today's campaigns against religious persecution--and especially the persecution of Christians-- around the world. The cause is the same, and it needs our voice and our energy.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad