02 October 2003
Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Yad Vashem’s compromise that it offered the Center for Jewish Pluralism regarding their suit to receive the protocols from discussions of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations.
The protocols related to discussions held on the decision not to recognize Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a German, Evangelical priest in the Protestant church who lived in Europe during WWII - as a Righteous Among the Nations.
According to the compromise that Yad Vashem put forth, the protocols would remain confidential while a summary of the discussions would be presented to the petitioners - a measure that Yad Vashem had accepted from the start. Yad Vashem’s compromise was intended to provide complete transparency of the Commission’s decisions while at the same time allowing Commission members to hold discussions free of fear of external pressures, just as judges openly express their views during internal debates, without the concern of having to expose the protocols of these discussions.
The Supreme Court judges who ruled in the case yesterday were Judges Trickel, Naor and Rivlin.
The request to recognize Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Righteous Among the Nations – Background
According to the Yad Vashem Law and the criteria that were established by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations, the title of Righteous Among the Nations is granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. The Commission determined that diplomats who saved Jews were also eligible even if they did not risk their lives, as long as it could be proved that they went against government policy forbidding them to give immigrant visas to Jews or reinterpreted policies in order to save Jews. The Commission also determined that in certain cases people who publicly opposed Jewish persecution or who tried to stop the murder of Jews and risked their lives even though they were not successful in saving anyone could also be granted the title.
The above criteria could not be proved in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
As an Evangelical priest in the Protestant church, his assistance towards the Jews was limited to speaking up for Jewish converts who belonged to the Christian church that were being persecuted by the Nazis because of their Jewish roots. This was not a case of saving them, but of protecting their rights as Christians. Moreover, Bonhoeffer did not oppose the Nazis per se, but a faction within the church that sought to negate the rights of converts. There is no proof that he was involved in saving Jews. Bonhoeffer’s actions can be summarized as follows:
First and foremost, Bonhoeffer did not save any Jews.
He did not directly save any converts. He did refer one convert (who held a high position in the church) to the care of his brother-in-law who worked in military intelligence; this man took a group of 13 Jews and converts, disguised them as spies and spirited them to Switzerland, under the cover and protection of the Abwehr – the German military intelligence. It was his brother-in-law and not Bonhoeffer who performed this act. In another instance, in 1937 when emigration from Germany was still permitted, Bonhoeffer helped his second brother-in-law, a Jewish convert, immigrate to England by arranging him a job.
He never spoke out publicly against the persecution of the Jews, only against the negation of rights of converts inside the churches.
In April 1933, three months after the rise of the Nazis to power and the first actions against Jews by the regime, Bonhoeffer published an article stating that the country (Nazi Germany) had the right to take steps towards the Jewish problem as long as it sees this as a necessity to keeping order and that the church should not intercede unless Christian converts are affected. He justified the persecution of Jews from a theological perspective, explaining that it would never stop until the Jews asked forgiveness for the crucifixion of Jesus and accept Christianity as their faith. He never rescinded this statement (at least not publicly).
He was arrested in 1943 and was executed in April of 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime.
The initiative to recognize Bonhoeffer as a Righteous Among the Nations was submitted by a person who did not know him – Stephen Wise, Esq. from the United States. Wise maintains that Bonhoeffer deserves recognition as a Righteous Among the Nations, especially since following the war he became a symbol of pure Christian resistance to the Nazis and paid with his life. Mr. Wise asserts that this is a special case and that the criteria for the Righteous title should be bent to a great extent. However, even after bending the rules, the Commission decided that someone whose actions did not include any efforts to try to save Jews or to speak out against Jewish persecution was not eligible to the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Yad Vashem certainly does not contest Bonhoeffer’s meritorious recognition by Christian organizations throughout the world nor does it question Bonhoeffer’s pureness of character as a believing Christian. Bonhoeffer simply does not meet the criteria established under the program of the Righteous Among the Nations. This decision was reached by 20 members of the Commission who attended and participated in a special session on this case, regarding the question of his eligibility to the title of Righteous Among the Nations – a session that was presided over by the Commission’s chairman, former Supreme Court Justice Judge Yaakov Maltz.
For background information regarding the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations, click here.
In the instance of Bonhoeffer, it was actually in the best interest of Yad Vashem to reveal the protocols of the Commission’s discussions since they prove the gravity, thoroughness and untainted nature of the discussions. However, Yad Vashem is convinced that the principle issue of continuance of an open discussion resulting in decisions free of external influences holds supreme.