“Truth Conquers”

The reality of warfare is such that numbers usually prevail. The Powell Doctrine in force for 20 years in the US military calls for, among other things, the use of overwhelming force to force the enemy to capitulate quickly. In truth, that same doctrine has governed for millennia.

Yet, the Torah generally posits the opposite approach. If we are worthy, then we are attacked by our enemies, then “five of us will pursue 100 of them (a ratio of 20-1), whereas 100 of us can pursue 10,000 of them (a ratio of 100-1)” (Vayikra 26:8), five times as much. Conversely, if we are unworthy, wretched sinners, then later in the Torah (Devarim 32:30) we are told to look with astonishment “how can one of them chase 1000 of us, and two of them chase a myriad of us,” ratios of 1000-1 and 5000-1, respectively? Why does it change?  Why do the numbers change so dramatically from what we can do to our enemies and what they can do to us?

As the period of the omer draws to an end, what haven’t we heard about the sin of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, “who did not accord each mutual respect” and perished during this season. They didn’t have mutual respect, they demeaned each other, and they saw themselves as separate and apart – despite all the commonalities and despite their joint interests. And this has been a hardy perennial in Jewish life, usually with devastating consequences.

In February, I attended a book launch at the Begin Center in Jerusalem for a new book (published by Geffen) written by Israel’s former Defense and Foreign Affairs Minister Moshe Arens entitled “Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” Arens is still very spry and sharp at almost 87 years of age, and he wrote the book to correct what he saw as an historical injustice. The famous story of the revolt has always been told from the perspective of the ZOB (the Jewish Fighting Organization) under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz – but there was another group – the ZZB (Jewish Military Organization), led by Pavel Frenkel, that fought equally bravely but whose exploits have been suppressed. Most people have heard of Mordechai Anielewicz, after whom the kibbutz, Yad Mordechai, was named. Few have heard of Pavel Frenkel. Why not ?

The sad truth is that the ZOB were Socialist Zionists who refused to cooperate with the ZZB, who were Revisionists, followers of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The Zionists fought with the Bundists (anti-Zionist Socialists) and the Jewish Communists – but they refused to fight together with the Betarniks. Each group fought alone, and almost none of the Revisionists survived, so their story was almost unknown. How sad is that? Even the Nazi enemy could not bring the ZOB leadership to set aside their political differences and join forces or even coordinate with the ZZW. (Anielewicz, who came relatively late to the ZOB leadership, is not blamed for this. In fact, Arens dedicated the book to both Mordechai Anielewicz and Pavel Frenkel, both of whom “fought for the honor of the Jewish people.”)

It’s even worse than that, as before the war, the Jews of Warsaw elected a Community Council that was split equally into three factions – the Socialists, the Bundists and Agudat Yisrael. But because they were split evenly, they could not agree on a coalition or even a policy – and Warsaw Jews were left without any leadership, hopelessly divided, as war came to them in 1939. And even worse – almost all of the leadership of the six or seven Jewish organizations in Warsaw fled the city in the first week of September 1939, leaving the remaining Jews to be guided by second and third tier officials who were largely unknown to the community.

This had devastating results, as the political “leadership,” such as it was, could not formulate a coherent response to the Nazi demand in the summer of 1942 that they surrender 60,000 “unproductive” Jews for resettlement. Calls for a rebellion were silenced, as the leadership maintained they would save more lives through cooperation. The Judenrat cooperated, forcibly gathered the requested number of Jews, but the Nazis kept upping the ante. The aktion began on Tish’a B’Av and ended on Yom Kippur in 1942. By that time, not 60,000 but approximately 270,000 Warsaw Jews had been deported to their deaths at Treblinka. The Jewish police who had carried out the orders, and their families, were last group deported. The nominal “leader,” Adam Czerniakow, who had been an engineer, committed suicide in July when it became clear the Nazis had lied to him and he had been played for a fool. Less than 60,000 Jews remained in the Warsaw Ghetto by the time the uprising began. More than 80% had already been murdered – and even then, the Revisionists were rebuffed and forced to fight alone.

All the groups showed great bravery and courage against impossible odds. The early and intense battles were fought in the areas where the Betar forces were most active – a point confirmed by the daily Nazi battlefield reports (introduced as evidence at the Nuremberg trials) that even mentions Betar by name. But the fighter could only repel the Nazis temporarily. Nazi casualties were remarkably low – perhaps a dozen killed and more than 70 wounded. That was largely due to the limitations of the weaponry of the resistance – rifles were scarce, the larger quantity of pistols they had were almost useless in long range fighting, and the Molotov cocktails and grenades momentarily delayed the German assault until they brought in their heavier weapons, including flamethrowers that burned buildings and destroyed bunkers and water that flooded the sewers where many hid. Most Jews were killed or deported to their deaths; there were few survivors, and even fewer among the Revisionist combatants.

What galled Moshe Arens, and gave the book its title, was that in 1949, when Israel was admitted to the UN, Moshe Sharett unfurled a blue-and-white flag that had flown over the Warsaw Ghetto, a symbol of the uprising. That flag enraged the Nazis and inspired the Jews – and some Poles who saw it at a distance outside the ghetto. But that flag flown from the top of the building at 17 Muranowska was the Betar flag – the ZOB could not fly the Zionist flag because it would antagonize their allies, the Bund – and it was unacknowledged, as if it was the flag of the Zionist Socialists whom Sharett was representing.

After the war, the narrative that gained credence was the Zionist Socialist one that almost completely ignored the presence of another force – and for two “good” reasons: the survivors who first published were all from the ZOB, and the animosity that existed between the Zionist Socialists and the followers of Ze’ev Jabotinsky was just as intense in the late 1940s during the struggle for independence as it was in pre-war Europe, if not more so. Barely 18 months after the Uprising was suppressed, the Hagana in Israel began the Hunting Season against the Revisionists, informing on them and turning them over for arrest to the British. The bad blood continued, even in the face of new enemies.

Thankfully, the dysfunction that existed in Warsaw did not exist everywhere – in Vilna, for example, all Jews worked and fought together. And it would not have made a difference ultimately. So why write such a depressing book ? Arens said “veritas vincit” – truth conquers. But I think there is a broader reason, looking forward, not looking backward. It is about “not demonstrating mutual respect.”

The Torah promises that “five of us will pursue 100 of them and 100 of us can pursue 10,000 of them” – when we are worthy. Why? Because a small group that is united and dedicated can defeat much larger groups that are divided and demoralized. Conversely, when we are at loggerheads, then even one of them can pursue 1000 of us – because there is no “thousand.” Each small segment of the “thousand” has its own agenda, small, little groups that are easily vanquished. Rashi cites the Midrash that says, in reference to the disparate ratios, “there is no comparison to what a united multitude can do to what a united minority can do.” The increased effectiveness is exponential, not proportional.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” means that just like we love ourselves with our flaws, so too we have to love other Jews with their flaws. We can disagree, fight and argue, and try to correct each other’s waywardness – but only from love, love that comes only from the fact that we are fellow Jews.

Recognizing the blemishes of the past illuminates for us the struggles of the future. A united community is its own value; a united community with the right values – united by the Torah – is a catalyst for divine blessings of security, prosperity and speedy redemption.

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