Appreciation: Arthur Hertzberg, 84

World Jewish leader, civil rights activist and scholar, on April 17.

Hertzberg 88 (photo credit: Brian Hendler)
Hertzberg 88
(photo credit: Brian Hendler)
Rabbi Dr. Arthur Hertzberg was my teacher 36 years ago when he was a visiting professor at the Hebrew University, where he taught a seminar on "philosophy of Jewish history." I stayed in touch with him ever since. Hertzberg had a passion: to teach the art of inquiry to every student whom he met. He taught the skill of questioning, and dared every student to speak his or her mind, even if their perspective contradicted common assumptions and made enemies. Hertzberg insisted on one condition: primary sources to back what you were talking about. It was most appropriate that Hertzberg's last visit to Israel, in March 2000, was characteristic of that direct approach. Hertzberg timed his visit to precede pope John Paul II's visit in Jerusalem, and convened a press conference to present his research concerning the pope's lack of involvement in rescue operations for Jews during World War II. Hertzberg remarked that he and the pope were the same age, born only a few miles from one another in Poland. Although Hertzberg was brought up in the US, 37 of his relatives remained in Europe and were murdered there during World War II. Hertzberg conducted scholarly research concerning the fate of Polish Jewry during the war, and researched the activity of the Polish Catholic Church during those fateful years. "In the weekly reports of the Polish bishops filed to the Vatican during the war, there is not a single report on record that relates to the fate of the Jews," said Hertzberg. Meanwhile, Hertzberg noted, pope John Paul II would not say what he was doing during the war, when he was a young priest in Poland, except to say to a TV producer that "I lived too quiet a life." Hertzberg then asked that the pope address the issue of what were his activities during the war and explain what the future pontiff knew of what was happening to the Jews of Poland. Sources in the Vatican later said that Hertzberg's bold challenge caused the pope to respond, after his return to Rome, with a candid interview in which he said that indeed he really did not do what he could have done to save the Jews of Poland, and for that he expressed great regret. Indeed, in Hertzberg's final published article, "The Vatican's Sin of Omission" printed in The New York Times on May 14, 2005, he called on the newly chosen Pope Benedict XVI to acknowledge that the Catholic Church, "the major European institution that stood for morality, looked away from genocide [during the war]..." When I recently went to visit an ailing Arthur Hertzberg at his home in Englewood, New Jersey, he presented me with the official album in memory of pope John Paul II, in which Hertzberg wrote an essay raising these difficult questions about the Church's lack of initiative during the war to save the Jews. Arthur Hertzberg, as a teacher, rabbi and leader, wanted every student to have a grasp of Jewish history, an understanding of Zionism, and never to neglect the basics of Jewish sources. His anthology, The Zionist Idea, became the one and only reader for students in Israel and in the Diaspora seeking an understanding of the diversity of ideologies that went into the development of the Zionist movement. His book French Enlightenment and the Jews proved to be a seminal work, ahead of its time, which studied the root causes of anti-Semitism in an open society. He would often say that his concern for alienated Jewish youth of the 1960s and 1970s caused him great concern, which he saw rooted in a less than professional Jewish educational system that failed to imbue the next generation with the basics of feeling and knowledge. It is hard to forget the many times when he met Jewish activists during the early 1970s to encourage them to deepen their knowledge and familiarity with Judaism. At one of those meetings, I remember well when Hertzberg accosted Jewish activists arguing they were "dishonest to their roots as Jews" and insisted that everyone who saw himself as a Jewish activist must take a year or two to delve into Jewish sources - "to learn how to open a Jewish text." And when someone asked Hertzberg who would pay for it, he replied that "I will do so." And countless young Jews would ask him for help to pay for advanced Jewish studies, and, indeed, that is how I became the "Arthur Hertzberg Scholar" when he overed all my expenses to study at Pardes, in its first year of operation in 1972. At that last visit with Hertzberg in his home, at a time when he knew that his days were numbered, he gave a blessing to a new initiative in Jerusalem - to launch an Arthur Hertzberg study room at the Beit Agron International Press Center in Jerusalem, where his books and writings will become available to a new generation of students and reporters who are barely acquainted with the Jewish and Zionist history. I was proud to be his student. The writer is bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency.