As appeared in The Times of Israel Blog…
Visiting the Dachau concentration camp on a trip to Germany this summer, I was drawn to an exhibit on Nazi medical experimentation that illustrated the brutal procedures performed on inmates at Dachau and other camps during the Shoah. What set this aspect of Nazi barbarism apart was that it was perpetrated by the most highly educated of Hitler’s henchmen. These atrocities were designed and executed by people who received exemplary educations at the best schools in Germany, monsters who had earned medical degrees and doctorates. Dr. Josef Mengele, the most infamous of the lot, held two Ph.Ds.
The exhibit at Dachau beckoned me because of my visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel a week earlier. There, in the room dedicated to Righteous Gentiles, I learned the story of Leopold Socha. Socha was a Polish sanitation worker who saved over 20 Jews during the Holocaust by hiding them in the sewers he oversaw. Socha had a limited education and was a thief.
As I watch reactions to the Simchat Torah massacre, my thoughts turn to Leopold Socha and I ask: how is it possible that an unschooled criminal had the moral clarity to save Jews while the most learned men in Europe were perpetrating heinous crimes against humanity? This implicit indictment of elite educational institutions brings me great angst as both a leader and a product of similar schools.
The inability of so many schools of all levels—elementary, high school, and universities—to unilaterally condemn the massacre the befell the Jewish people on October 7th is contemptable. It has been mentioned repeatedly that more Jews were murdered that day than on any other since the Holocaust. Outrage for that atrocity is rightly directed at Hamas, but the reaction of our educational establishments calls to mind the massive moral failure of an educational system that produced the architects of the Final Solution, and this calls for independent excoriation.
Schools that are educating children in our modern liberal democracies are now refusing to condemn the murder, kidnapping, and rape of innocents from infants to the aged. As the headmaster of a private elementary school, I was stunned to discover how many of my colleagues at home and abroad were, and still are, unwilling to issue unilateral statements in support of Israel after the massacre of more than 1,400 Jews and the taking of over 200 hostages. Fellow heads of school did so only in statements that decried suffering on both sides, and strengthened their statements in support of the Jewish state only after being petitioned by powerful parents and donors. In this act of cowardice my colleagues mimic the mealy-mouthed heads of major universities who are now scrambling to craft conciliatory statements that will staunch the bleeding from the colleges of tens of millions of dollars as disgusted donors pull their funds.
Meanwhile, professors on Ivy League campuses proclaim their support for Hamas, calling their executions of innocent Jews “…exhilarating and energizing.” But most shocking to me have been leaders of Jewish educational institutions—some rabbis, some even friends, all products of Jewish schools—who themselves equivocate, place responsibility on both sides, or outright blame Israel as the root cause of the slaughter of its own citizens. Just as a simple Polish sewer worker 80 years ago could understand evil more readily than a German medical doctor with a decade of higher education, an average citizen of Canada or the U.S. today can call out the Hamas slaughter as unjustifiable evil while contemporary North American academics and rabbis cannot. What does this say about our schools and the values they teach?
There are two prestigious schools with which I am connected that have been particularly egregious in their recent ethical evasion. One is Canadian, one is American, one is an academy, one a university. They have in common the motto Veritas, Latin for truth. Many of the venerable schools that have prevaricated while addressing the Gaza invasion sport similar mottos in classical languages that invoke morality, God, and truth. But these maxims are linguistic fossils, relics of a bygone age where schools were expected to teach aspirational virtues. For some time now, schools of every sort—private, public, religious, independent—have gotten out of the business of instilling values. There are many reasons for this; I will highlight three.
First, we live in an era of moral relativism where individuals and institutions are not governed by deep-seated values, or do not believe their values to be superior to those of others. Second, there is a convenient financial corollary that by not taking a stand on significant issues, schools can welcome tuition payments and philanthropic contributions from a wide swath of students and sources. It is, I believe, this combination of philosophical nihilism and fiscal pragmatism that has led leaders of secular schools with Jews, Arabs, Muslims, and Christians to prefer silence or neutrality to a principled statement on the current crisis in the Middle East. Third, many liberal institutions of learning enjoy a culture of tolerance, and their leaders are loathe to delineate the limits of pluralism (at least on the left). It is perhaps in this spirit that some Jewish schools have preferred even-handedness in the current crisis to a full-throated defense of the Jewish people and its homeland.
This moral evacuation has created the equivalent of a doctrinal desert in our schools and seminaries. Without facing resistance from indigenous ideas, these ideological wastelands have been colonized by radical settlers who now rule them with their fanatical thinking and rhetoric. In universities, extremist professors, anti-Semitic students, and campus groups have occupied intellectual territory that was de facto ceded by schools unwilling to assert a commitment to classical Western liberalism. In liberal rabbinical schools, anti-Zionist activism has been allowed to go unchecked, producing a generation of spiritual leaders lacking knowledge of classical Jewish texts, devoid of traditional Jewish beliefs, and radicalized against the State of Israel. In both secular and sacred academic spaces we have failed to promulgate the very values that our institutions were established to promote and in doing so have allowed them to be overrun by individuals antithetical to their raison d’être.
Politicians and pundits are predicting that the Middle East and the Jewish world will not look the same before and after October 7th. I think this prophesy is correct. Particular tragedies prove to be inflection points in the history of nations: the Jewish people were not the same before and after the Holocaust; the United States was not the same before and after 9/11. It is no accident that these two events have been the most referenced analogies to October 7th. I am not a military or political expert and am thus unable to say how the environs of Israel and its neighbors may be altered going forward. Let me speak then as an educator on what I feel will and must change in my field.
A secular school system that produces graduates who look upon the beheading of babies, the rape of women, the kidnapping of the elderly, and the wholesale murder of innocent teenagers and cannot condemn it in absolute terms is rotten at its core and must be razed and rebuilt. It is not by coincidence that one of the most passionate, immediate, and unambiguous shows of support I received following the massacre was from the local German International School. The moral vacuum filled by radicalism that I described above has antecedents in German education before World War II. Having lived the catastrophic consequences of that school system, the Germans recreated their schools to teach values that would ensure that their horrific history could not repeat itself. We must do the same. Nature abhors a vacuum and if our liberal Western schools do not instill the values of Truth and Virtue in our students, another system of values will inevitably replace it.
The pulling of major gifts by business tycoons, Jewish foundations, and Jewish hedge-fund managers has demonstrated that the strategy of moral hedging by universities is flawed. While some philanthropists will continue to spread their money around, both Jewish and non-Jewish donors have demonstrated that going forward they will demand moral clarity regarding Zionist causes before forking over their dollars. Universities should strategize how attract those dollars by taking strong and unapologetic stances on these issues.
Mainstream Jewish schools at all levels must censure their students, teachers, and alumni who give comfort and support our enemies, who justify the murder of our brothers and sisters, and who work for the destruction of the State of Israel. Thankfully, some hard-left and non-Zionist right-wing Jewish institutes and individuals have publicly condemned the massacre and have thrown their support behind the State of Israel in fighting Hamas to the bitter end. A few of them appear to have switched sides—mugged by reality—but most have not and will no doubt return to their criticisms, particularly of the current Israeli government and its policies. A healthy democracy needs a loyal opposition, but that is not the same as a fifth column. At various points in American and Israeli history both the right and the left have swept out extremists whose pernicious perspectives could no longer be housed under their big tents. It is time for another housecleaning.
Finally, we must reassert and re-establish the value of education and schooling itself. Over the last decade there has been a serious questioning of the costs and benefits of formal schooling, especially higher education. The behaviour of students, professors, and administrators at major college campuses in the weeks following the October 7th massacre will only further erode faith in the worth of our university system. The lack of value-centered education has turned even quality colleges into trade schools and four-year-long networking conferences. On the Jewish side, there is currently a severe shortage of rabbis and professional Jewish educators in North America and the actions of those in our guilds in these past weeks will certainly not inspire others to enter the field. Rabbinical schools must restore the image of a rabbi as a scholarly and passionate defender of the Jewish faith, the Jewish people, and its eternal homeland.
Schools steeped in both the Jewish and Western traditions can provide the intellectual tools and texts necessary to navigate the nuances of complex ethical and political situations such as we are facing today. With the pursuit of truth at the center, students must study the relative roles of reason, emotion, individualism, nationalism, empathy, and tribalism in ethical decision making. Negotiating these and other inputs will lead to a multiplicity of views and conclusions, but students can never graduate with less moral clarity than Leopold Socha who could tell right from wrong without a higher education. And if that is not the case, why bother going to school?