on following orders

you decide how to go

Last year (2009) at this time of Yom haShoah I wrote that I believe that all Jew­ish teenagers (at least) should expe­ri­ence a week of sho’a night­mares.

I was in my ear­ly 20s when I tried to imag­ine the life of the boy with his hands raised being led from the Ghet­to. I spent months with him, I kept his image before me dai­ly as I designed a leaflet to call Los Ange­les Jew­ish youth to an event that would both com­mem­o­rate Yom haShoah in 1970 and call on the U.S. gov­ern­ment to rat­i­fy the Con­ven­tion on the Pre­ven­tion and Pun­ish­ment of the Crime of Geno­cide (which it final­ly did more than fif­teen years lat­er). The design of the leaflet was, in a sense, a sym­bol­ic inver­sion of the flag of the State of Israel. The boy’s image turned a fiery red as the black closed in on him. Look in his eyes. He goes, not gen­tly, but fear­ful­ly, even though I learned years lat­er that he may not have died in the Sho’a.

image of boy lead from Warsaw

leaflet detail

but do not go gentle

[with apolo­gies for the appro­pri­a­tion of that line]
The fol­low­ing year I was asked to present “greet­ings” from “the youth” at the annu­al War­saw Ghet­to Upris­ing com­mem­o­ra­tion event spon­sored by the Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion-Coun­cil of Greater Los Ange­les. I offer here the begin­ning, and most con­tin­u­al­ly con­tem­po­rary, of those words:

The week of Pesach, the fes­ti­val of our lib­er­a­tion is over.
Today is the ninth day of the count­ing of the omer which we will con­tin­ue anoth­er forty days until
Shavuot: the cel­e­bra­tion of our receiv­ing the Torah.
Dur­ing the peri­od between these two ancient hol­i­days we com­mem­o­rate the occur­rence of two recent events.
Yom ha’Shoah—the day of the Holo­caust
Yom ha’Atzmaut—the inde­pen­dence of the State of Israel
In this con­text

Our lib­er­a­tion from slav­ery is sym­bol­i­cal­ly com­plete;
wan­der­ing now in that chaot­ic peri­od imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the win­ning of our free­dom,
we are faced with the dev­as­ta­tion of one of our largest and most cre­ative com­mu­ni­ties.
We have returned to our oasis and have begun dig­ging wells resolv­ing nev­er to be set adrift in the sands again.
The winds around us are tur­bu­lent and the risen dust clouds our way.
We have not yet received our Law and although we are lib­er­at­ed, we are not at peace.
This week (Shavua ha’Shoah) the scar that remains from our expe­ri­ence with Europe,
glows bright as we height­en our aware­ness of the Nazi hor­rors, Chris­t­ian com­plic­i­ty and our own cow­er­ing silence.

I only fol­lowed orders” was the answer:
as they drove their char­i­ots after us into the mud,
as they aimed their artillery at our dec­i­mat­ed bas­tions in War­saw:
and as the waters of the sea flood over them we do not rejoice.

As I wrote last year, dur­ing that peri­od I wore a but­ton with a yel­low star in iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with those who per­ished.

yellow star button

All this occurred dur­ing the height of the war in Viet­nam. I was part of a group called the Jew­ish Rad­i­cal Com­mu­ni­ty. Among our var­i­ous activ­i­ties, we also pub­lished and dis­trib­uted copies of a “Peo­ple’s Peace Treaty”, (accord­ing to the Wikipedia) “part of a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort to end the Viet­nam War by out­lin­ing a num­ber of prin­ci­ples with which all sides could agree.” The edi­tion we pub­lished includ­ed the text of the treaty as well as (sor­ry about the low qual­i­ty of the old scans) “a Torah-based case against the war by Rab­bi Moshe Adler” (part two), and a state­ment on “The Viet­nam War and the Needs of the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty”.

I also fre­quent­ly wore a dif­fer­ent but­ton that caused peo­ple to pause and think.

I Only Followed Orders (Eichmann)

I Only Fol­lowed Orders (Eich­mann)

Date: 1960s
Size: 3.81
Pin Form: straight
Print Method: cel­lu­loid

the banality of authority

Adolf Eich­mann and the words “I only fol­lowed orders” on this but­ton came to mind this week as I read an arti­cle about the strange and unpleas­ant dosa­do between Han­nah Arendt and Raul Hilberg in The Nation (which I found at one of my favorite aggre­gat­ing sites).

Dur­ing the ear­ly 1980s I owned a used red Vol­vo P1800. It came with a bumper stick­er affixed to the back that read “Ques­tion Author­i­ty”. I would often park the car in the offi­cial rab­bi’s spot in the syn­a­gogue park­ing lot where I worked. Con­gre­gants fre­quent­ly asked why a rab­bi might encour­age peo­ple to ques­tion author­i­ty. I respond­ed that the ear­li­est rab­bis also stressed the impor­tance of ques­tion­ing the entrenched author­i­ties of their day. I also told them the sto­ry of Isidor Isaac Rabi and his moth­er (which I have in the “Ques­tion­ing” por­tion of A Grow­ing Hag­gadah).

Nobel Prize win­ning physi­cist Isador Isaac Rabi’s moth­er did not ask him: “What did you learn in school today?” each day when he returned home. She asked him: “Did you ask a good ques­tion today?”

your orders

I have nev­er been a sol­dier.
I have nev­er been in a sit­u­a­tion dur­ing which I was giv­en an order that I might have con­sid­ered so out of bounds that I would not in good con­science obey it. Per­haps I am naïve.
I have known of the Mil­gram exper­i­ment since the time its results were pub­lished, as well as our ten­den­cy to obey author­i­ty.

As I con­tin­ue to wear the “I only fol­lowed orders” but­ton this week, I know that I need to be con­stant­ly aware that there are ten­den­cies in our world that will lead us to act in inap­pro­pri­ate ways.

So, dur­ing this time when we “have not yet received our Law” we need to work to ensure that we con­tin­ue to ask good ques­tions and dis­tin­guish between right and wrong orders.

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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2 Responses to on following orders

  1. Mark,
    You are a prophet in our own time .In the fright­en­ing spec­tor of tea par­ty (pre weimar Repub­lic type) pol­i­tics, your con­cern and sin­cer­i­ty , are com­fort­ing and inspi­ra­tional!!!

    • davka says:

      Thank you Dick.
      I am hard­ly a prophet. We all know that prophe­cy end­ed long ago. Nonethe­less I do what I can to be sen­si­tive to the issues around me.

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