View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Monday, September 22, 2003

Emil Fackenheim, Alav Hashalom

Emil Fackenheim, philosopher and Holocaust survivor, died over the weekend in Jerusalem. Fackenheim was conservative, unyielding in his belief that Israel's right to exist was immutable. He believed that the Holocaust was sui generis, but that the creation of Israel was a religious event, as well as a political one.

Fackenheim was also clear-headed about what should be required of the Palestinians, that they have never accepted Israel's right to exist, or a Jewish right to live there. In 1996, while Shimon Peres was still Prime Minister, he wrote, concerning the PA Covenant:

We must take the covenant seriously because - reluctant, unwilling or unable as you seem to be to make the needed change - you take it seriously. Is the covenant important? A century from now we will know.

If your amended covenant recognizes Zionism now, anti-Zionism, even antisemitism, may by then have withered away. But if, except for cosmetic changes, the document remains unamended, your descendants may say to mine, even at a shared centennial celebration of the accord: We coexist in this country, even celebrate our friendship. But only we have a right to be here. You don't.

In 1995, when Oslo was new, and the demonization of the settlers just beginning, he understood that Israel, and indeed world Jewry, was split on the subject of Oslo. But he also understood that while Israel alone had the right to make the political decisions involved, it had as responsibility to do so in such as way that was worthy of its role as representative of the Jewish people. Certainly not by being divisive, and most certainly not by abandoning its Zionism, as the Left seemed inclined to do.

And in 1991, just after the first Gulf War, he had written: "For years, Iraqi officers had asked us how it had been with the gassing of the Jews." Maj. -Gen. (ret.) Karl-Heinz Nagler, former head of the East German Army's chemical service, who had trained the Iraqi Army in chemical warfare for 15 years. But of course, we all know that Saddam never had any WMDs...

Fackenheim ran into Israel's Holocaust Problem. Zionism has always been uneasy with the Holocaust. While Zionism represented the new, the Holocaust victims represented, to some, the logical conclusion of the old, victim mentality. Israel existed to lead the Jews to stop thinking of ourselves as victims, and to take responsibility for our own destiny. Fackenheim was often unfairly criticized for making the Holocaust a centerpiece of his philosophy and his theology. His question was how to resolve the two, to understand that while Israel might be the prevention of future Holocausts, we must still come to grips with the one that happened.

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