On January 10, 2015, I gave the D’var Torah at Minyan Masorti at Germantown Jewish Center on Exodus, Chapter 5.
When I read that Pharaoh had summoned the taskmasters and the foremen over the Hebrew slaves, I froze on the word “foremen.” (Older translations use the term "officials”). I asked myself, “Were they Jewish?”
I looked at the footnotes—and yes, the foremen were Jewish.
I felt a chill.
COLLABORATORS. The Jewish foremen, collaborated with their oppressors.
Our tradition treats the foremen kindly. The editors of the Artscroll Chumash explain that there were two layers of authority over the people– Egyptian taskmasters and Jewish foremen. The taskmasters set the quotas. The foremen enforced compliance.
If the slaves fell short of their quotas, the Egyptians beat the Jewish foremen.
But the foremen sacrificed themselves to protect their fellows Jews.
They accepted the beatings and refused to retaliate against the overworked Jews.
As Rashi explains: As a reward, for their loyalty to the Jewish slaves, these very foremen were made a Sanhedrin. Some of the spirit that rested upon Moses, was put on them. Rashi cites Numbers 11:16: “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of he people” (Numbers 11:16).
How would we view the foremen through the lens of today?
In the years immediately after World War II, the Jewish world wrestled with accusations that some Jews collaborated with the Nazis. How were we to judge people who collaborted in order to survive?
In an article on the YIVO Encylopedia which is online, Gabriel Finder, a lecturer in Modern Jewish History at the University of Virginia, discusses “Honor Courts.”
Unofficial Honor Courts were convened in Displaced Persons Camps in Germany and Italy to determine “whether during the occupation a member of the Jewish Community behaved in a manner befitting a Jewish citizen." Reconstituted official Jewish communities, and also Jewish political groups held Honor Courts in Poland, the Netherlands and the United States.
In August 1950, the Knesset passed Law 64 of 1950 "The Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law. According to law review article by Professor Michael J. Bazyler of Chapman University School of Law, the law was written to provide a way to handle charges of collaboration, but also to give the persons accused a forum where they could be cleared.
The Law provided for
(1) Crimes against humanity
(2) War crimes
These crimes were defined through principles derived from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.
Law 64 created a new offense—Crimes Against the Jewish People. The law sought to punish seven types of behavior:
1. Killing Jews
2. Causing serious bodily injury or mental harm to Jews
3. Placing Jews in living conditions calculated to bring about their physical death
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births among Jews
5. Forcibly transferring Jewish children to another national or religious group
6. Destroying or desecrating Jewish religious or cultural assets or valuables
7. Inciting hatred of Jews
Law 64 provided for two defenses styled "Release from Criminal Responsibility”
(a) If he did or omitted to do the act in order to save himself from the danger of immediate death threatening him and the court is satisfied that he did his best to avert the consequences of the act or omission; or
(b) If he did or omitted to do the act with intent to avert consequences more serious than those which resulted from the act or omission, and actually averted them.
Law 64 provided for two grounds to mitigate sentences:
(a) That the person committed the offence under conditions which … would have exempted him from criminal responsibility or constituted a reason for pardoning the offence, and that he did his best to reduce the gravity of the consequences of the offence.
(b) That the offence was committed with intent to avert, and was indeed calculated to avert, consequences more serious than those which resulted from the offence.
According to Professor Bazyler, the Israeli public viewed collaboration as an embarrassment and a disgrace. There was a desire to suppress the issue.
Consequently, press coverage of the trials was low key. The general view is that about 40 collaborator trials were conducted from the early 1950’s through the mid-1960’s. Court records were sealed for 70 years.
However, one of the defense attorneys held on to his own files. After his death, the his heirs released his files from four cases to the public.
One of the last cases tried was that of Hersch Berenblatt. Berenblatt had been Chief of the Jewish Police in the Polish town of Benedin. In 1963 Berenblatt was convicted of rounding up dozens of Jewish children from an orphanage and delivering them to the Gestapo. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
He appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel.
In 1964, the Supreme Court of Israel reversed the conviction and acquitted Berenblatt of all charges. The Court cited the complete defenses provided in the law.
Justice Moshe Landau, who had earlier presided over the Eichmann trial, noted that:
“It would be presumptuous and self-righteous on our part, us who never walked in the shoes of those who were there … to be critical of these ‘small people’ who were incapable of transcending into an ultimate level of morality … Let us not delude ourselves that if we subject the acts committed by our persecuted brethren there to criminal justice on the basis of pure moral standards, we would ease the weight of the distress in our heart regarding the horrid blow our people suffered … The prohibitions of the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Law, were not written for exceptional heroes, but for ordinary mortals, with their ordinary weaknesses.”
Justice Yakov Ulshan, concurred: “This is a question for history and not for the courts.”
My initial view was that the Jewish foremen in Exodus Chapter 5 were collaborators. If tried under post-Holocaust principles, what would be their fate?
You be the Judge.
Yivo article on Honor Courts
Michael Bazyler law review article