Rejecting the Righteous

It was recently reported that Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum, will not recognize the heroism of a man who risked his life saving more than two dozen Jews by hiding them out on his farm during the Hitler regime. This is most unusual because 23,000 men and women who risked their lives are memorialized and there is no question that this man did indeed risk his life to save others. In fact there are numerous testimonies to his heroism, but twice he has been turned down. He is not regarded by those who elect as one of the “righteous.”

The story was recently reported in the New York Times and the writer hints that the decision was based on prejudice: the man, Khaled Abdul Wahab, was an Arab Muslim. He is now deceased. His bravery took place on the eastern shores of occupied Tunesia during the 1940s, but it will go unrecognized for reasons that seem suspect — he didn’t “risk his life” by suffering actual physical harm — though among those recognized in the museum, there are numerous people who saved Jews without suffering any physical harm themselves. Wahab most certainly did risk his life, however, as did anyone in those days who attempted to save Jews from the Nazis.

The conclusion does seem unavoidable: the “Commission for the Designation of the Righteous” can’t see beyond their own prejudice, despite the fact that the Jews have themselves been persecuted for centuries by bigots. How ironic, and how sad.

While morally indefensible, the prejudice is understandable, since the Jews live among the Arabs and there is deep-seated hatred between the Muslims and the Jews. One can understand the bigotry on the part of the Commission, but one cannot condone it. It is simply wrong. There is a fundamental difference between explaining someone’s behavior and justifying it. In this case, we might be able to explain why this decision was made — twice — but we cannot say it is justifiable. Explanation involves the cultural and psychological reasons why people do the things they do. Justification requires the giving of moral reasons to support a moral claim. There can be no moral support in this case. The man should be recognized for his courage in saving lives at the risk of his own. It’s fairly straightforward.

One does wonder, however, how one would behave if he were in Wahab’s shoes: would he or she do the right thing, or take the easy road? This suggests another key difference: what one would do and what one should do. Clearly, one ought to try to alleviate suffering and act as Wahab did. But in the circumstances, with the enemy at your very doorstep, would you be able to do the right thing?

Hannah Arendt, who spent a great deal of time pondering these limiting situations, thinks it is a question of whether or not we can face ourselves in the mirror. It is not a matter of conscience, strictly, nor is it a calculation of pros and cons. “There comes a point where all objective standards — truth, rewards, and punishments in a hereafter, etc. — yield precedence to the ‘subjective’ criterion of the kind of person I wish to be and to live with.” Resistance was not a matter of intelligence: Bonhoeffer resisted, while Heidegger capitulated. It was unpredictable. At some point some folks simply said “no.” Could I live with myself knowing I sacrificed the lives of other innocent people to save my own? Could I say,”No”? That, according to Arendt, is the central question. I’m not sure how I would answer it in the circumstances. But I am confident in saying that Wahab’s heroism should not go unrecognized and unrewarded.