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May 7, 2004

Joining E.U. Doesn’t Absolve Latvia’s Past

The rosy scenario of European Union expansion presented by Latvian minister for social integration Nils Muiznieks in his April 30 opinion article is hardly convincing to anyone acquainted with the manner in which his country has seriously failed to honestly confront the complicity of its nationals in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust (“Freed From Shackles of the Past, Europe Forges a Unified Future”).

Latvians not only played a major role in the annihilation of Latvian Jewry — about 95% of the 70,000 Jews who lived in Latvia under Nazi occupation were murdered — but also actively participated in the murder of close to 20,000 Jews deported to Latvia from Germany, Austria and the Protectorate. In addition, Latvian security police units were involved in the mass murder of Jews in Belarus and Poland.

The sorry state of affairs in this regard can be illustrated by three examples:

First, since it obtained independence in 1991, Latvia has failed to prosecute a single Latvian Nazi war criminal, despite no lack of appropriate suspects. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the local judiciary has not initiated even a single investigation against any such suspect. Whatever has been done to date has only been done in response to evidence brought to its attention by foreign agencies. By comparison, during the same time period about a dozen suspected Communist criminals have been brought to justice.

Second, in Latvia’s “Museum of the Occupation,” the story of the suffering endured by Latvians under the Nazi and Communist occupations is related. The Holocaust, however, is barely mentioned, and the mass murder of the Jews of Latvia is presented as if it was carried out not because they were Jews, but rather because they were residents of Latvia, a total distortion of the historical events. Needless to say, there is little mention of Latvian complicity in the Holocaust or in Communist crimes.

Third, Latvia was represented at a recent Stockholm conference on preventing genocide by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. In her speech, the Latvian president made only a fleeting reference to the Holocaust and devoted her entire remarks to drive home two points: that Communist crimes were equivalent to the Holocaust and that the crimes committed by the Communists in Latvia constituted genocide. There was no mention by the president of the complicity of Latvians in the crimes of the Holocaust.

Under these circumstances, the headline given to Muiznieks’ article is particularly ironic. The Latvians and their Baltic neighbors would like nothing better than to be “freed from [the] shackles of the past.” The problem is, however, that while some important progress has been made in these countries on issues relating to democracy, precious little has been done to confront their bloody Holocaust pasts. As long as that is the case, there is little reason to suppose that their accession to the E.U. and to NATO is a genuine triumph for Western values.

Efraim Zuroff


Simon Wiesenthal Center-Israel

Jerusalem, Israel

McDonald Diary Opens History for Inspection

The diary of the American diplomat James McDonald records his meeting on April 3, 1933 with his former Harvard classmate Ernst (Putzi) Hanfstangl, a top Hitler aide (“Racing to Rescue Shoah Evidence,” April 30). Hanfstangl, long a virulent antisemite, informed McDonald of the Nazis’ determination that “the Jews must be crushed” and of their “plans to assign a storm trooper to each Jew” (The New York Times, April 22, 2004).

Yet a year later, an important segment of the American elite embraced Hanfstangl. Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, editorialized that the university should award Hanfstangl an honorary degree “as a tribute to the position to which he has risen in Germany,” as Hitler’s foreign press chief (The New York Times, June 13, 1934). Indeed, in 1934 Harvard’s administration welcomed the Nazi official to his class’s 25th reunion, where he attended a tea at Harvard President James Conant’s house. Thus did prominent Americans communicate to the Nazi government that forcing Jews from the professions, boycotts of Jewish businesses and savage beatings of Jews were not their concern.

Stephen Norwood

Professor of History and Judaic Studies

University of Oklahoma

Norman, Okla.

Unborn Fetus Is More Than ‘A Legal Trifle’

The Forward states unequivocally in an April 9 editorial that, “The end goal of the anti-abortion movement is nothing less than to impose its religious worldview on the rest of us” (“Victims Born, and Unborn”).

I am a Jewish atheist, civil libertarian, pro-lifer. I am able to read non-ideological biology text and, as a reporter, have interviewed non-ideological physicians who specialize in fetal surgery. As the first chapter of “Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment” by Drs. Harrison, Goldbus and Filly states:

“The concept that a fetus is a patient, an individual… is alarmingly modern.… Only now are we beginning to consider the fetus seriously — medically, legally and ethically.”

At any stage, the fetus has his or her own DNA — a separate genetic identity. It is of no other species. Scientifically, its humanity is beyond question. Scientifically and ethically, its can feel pain, and excruciatingly so in late-term abortions, including the common “dilation and evacuation” procedure.

The Forward calls the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which penalizes violence against a pregnant woman and the unborn, as “a legal trifle.” The Forward should look at a multi-dimensional sonogram sometime to see a “trifle” of an individual human being.

Nat Hentoff

New York, N.Y.

Article Begs for Further Review of Queer Theory

Although I was delighted to see that the April 30 issue included a review of two new books on homosexuality in the Jewish tradition, I want to raise a few concerns (“It Is Not Good for Man To Be Alone”).

First, because I essentially agree with arts writer Jay Michaelson’s assessment of the two texts in question, I was extremely disappointed that he chose to focus on the less interesting of the two volumes. I believe it would have been extremely helpful to have heard more about what the various contributors to “Queer Theory and the Jewish Question” have to say about “how the West has long analogized non-heterosexuality and non-Christianity, and how today, the two identities productively interact.”

A more fully realized review of the queer-theory volume would not only have brought readers into a rich and engaging intellectual terrain, it would have also shed light on the pitfalls of Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s argument. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Instead of framing his review around the queer-theory collection, Michaelson spends most of his essay on Greenberg’s ultimately less interesting text. Here I am simply calling Michaelson to task for not following through on his enticing statement that it is “all the more a pity that so few who write on sexuality in the traditional Jewish world seem even to have read ‘Epistemology of the Closet’ or other classics, let alone the new work in ‘Queer Theory and the Jewish Question’”

I agree and do wish that Michaelson himself had presented more of these powerful and provocative arguments. It would have been interesting, for example, to have heard Michaelson tell Forward readers about some of the pitfalls of using “analogies,” as Janet Jakobsen suggests in her provocative essay “Queers are Like Jews, Aren’t They? Analogy and Alliance Politics.”

Second, I was especially disheartened to see how not only Orthodoxy but masculinity seem to trump all other categories in this review. Here I am referring especially to the lack of lesbians — much less women, bisexual and transgendered people — in this review. In citing recent work on homosexuality and Judaism or Jewishness, the only names seemingly worth mentioning are all gay men. In so doing, Michaelson glosses over the long and powerful legacy of lesbian Jewish activism, scholarship and writing on these matters. On this point I refer readers to Rebecca Alpert’s Lambda Award winning “Like Bread on a Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition (1997) or the wonderful and important collection of essays on the first generation of lesbian rabbis, published recently by Rutgers University Press, much less earlier efforts like the collection “Twice Blessed.” These works make clear the critical role of lesbian Jewish scholars, rabbis, writers and activists in addressing the issue of homosexuality in Jewish tradition and deserve to be a part of any discussion on these matters.

Third, although “Trembling before God,” and now Greenberg’s “Wresting with God and Men” are powerful accounts of the struggles of primarily Orthodox gay men in coming to terms with their Judaism and their queerness, it should be noted that Judaism is neither defined by or confined to Orthodoxy and that homosexuality is not simply an issue about gay men. To re-inscribe these fallacies does not do justice to the powerful legacy of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer Jews who have been laboring within, between and outside a full range of religious and secular Jewish communities for over three decades.

Laura Levitt

Director of Jewish Studies

Temple University

Philadelphia, Pa.

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