[Blog] There’s a very thin line between exercising power for the sake of the public, and exercising power for its sake

Rabbi René Pfertzel
14 October 2016
Le Blog Français, The Jewish Chronicle

In my previous life in Normandy, I used to be a History teacher. Once, I brought my students to the local archives in Evreux, a middle-sized city located south from Rouen. We wanted to study the archives related to the Shoah in our department.

In France, we say “Shoah” instead of “Holocaust”, because this term implies some sort of sacrifice, a burnt-offering, that might suggest some sort of sin. Shoah in its plain meaning means “destruction”. It is precisely what happened then.

We discovered documents about the mechanisms of Shoah in a place where very few Jews lived: letters of denunciation, arrest reports, letters from the public asking where people were gone, and so on. We followed a family, the Rabinovitch, who came from Eastern Europe just before the war, and settled down in the little village I was living, Les Ventes, ten miles south from Evreux.

They had bought a little farm in the village, and had some cows, fowl, and a garden. In July 1942, when the Nazis declared that any Jew between the age of 16 and 50 should be rounded up, both children, 17 and 19, were deported, first to Drancy, then to Auschwitz.

They never came back.

The father wrote a letter to the local authorities, asking where his children were, and the reply came: Ask the Kommandantur. Sadly, the letter was dated two days after the convoy had arrived to Auschwitz. No survivors. In October, both parents were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. One daughter went to Paris and hid during the war. She was the only survivor.

Britain has not been occupied during the war, and became a safe haven for Jews fleeing Europe. You may not know then how occupation deeply affects a society. There were those who happily collaborated by the Nazis, and those who resisted. It left scars and wounds in the country, which can be felt even today.

I haven’t mentioned yet the most important documents in term of volume found in the archives: the list of Jews, three between 1942 and 1943. The French authorities commanded every Jew to come and to register into the infamous “Fichier Central des Juifs”.

I remember a terrible list, the Jewish patients of a mental hospital near Evreux. All Jews rounded up in France, and deported to the East, were on these lists. Those who refused were more likely to survive.

I was pleased and relieved to read that the proposition to “name and shame” companies employing foreign workers. It is so ethically wrong, at least on two accounts. First, we should always be very cautious when a government wants to list people. Pirke Avot (2:3), “Be careful of those in power! For they draw no one near them except in their own interests.

They seem like friends when it is to their own advantage, but they do not stand by people in their hour of need”. This harsh statement is mitigated by a later saying: “Rabbi Chanina, the deputy high Priest says, Pray for the welfare of the government, because but for the fear it inspires, people would swallow each other up alive” (3:2).

I like this very realistic approach: we need a government, and it is a sort of necessary evil. However, we need to be cautious and responsible. I believe in democracy. For it to function properly, it requires a government, a proper opposition that offers constructive feedback, and an educated and informed civil society.

As you know, French people, no less than British people I suppose, are passionate about politics. One of my friends used to say, French have opinions about everything, mostly opinions!

We love being argumentative, sometime far too much, but it is our way to challenge anyone in power.

There is indeed a very thin line between exercising power for the sake of the public, and exercising power for one’s sake. Anyone in a leadership position in the Jewish community, and Moshe Rabbenu first, knows how difficult it is sometime to exercise it. We are a very difficult crowd indeed, but I dare to think that it is a very healthy thing to do.

I finished these last words the day before Yom Kippur, and I guess you will read them after the festival. I hope you had an easy fast, a meaningful day, and they you are ready for another year of challenging your Rabbis, your chairs, and so on.
Shana Tova U’Metuka!
 
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