Today marks Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and as it turns out, this year it falls on a serendipitous milestone: namely the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Although MLK wrote his letter to respond to the reality of Jim Crow in the American South, I do believe his words have much to offer us as we remember those who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II – in particular, King’s insistence on the moral imperative to break unjust laws and the inherent immorality of legal segregation:
(There) are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
In light of King’s words, it is worth noting that the rise of Nazism in Germany was facilitated by largely “legal” means – through a myriad of laws and regulations that successfully segregated them from the rest of German society. King himself pointed this out in his letter when he wrote:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal…” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.
In this regard, Dr. King’s insight might well inspire us to commemorate this sacred day by redoubling our resolve to eradicate laws that segregate peoples on the basis of their national, ethnic or religious identities.
While it pains me to say it, I cannot help but note that the very country that first established Holocaust Remembrance Day itself enforces its own form of legal segregation between Jews and non-Jews. As one Israeli observer wrote in Ha’aretz five years ago, “Segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israel…is almost absolute.” In the West Bank, Jews and non-Jews are segregated by separate legal systems, separate roads, separate transportation systems, and in some cases, separate sidewalks. And in Gaza, Palestinians are segregated from the outside world entirely.
I have no doubt that there will be those who consider it unseemly of me – or worse – to point this out on Yom Hashoah of all days. To this inevitable criticism, I can only respond, how can we purport to take the lessons of the Shoah to heart while ignoring realities such as these? How long will we, as Jews, look way from these unjust laws in Israel that “distort the soul and damage the personality?” On this, of all days, shouldn’t we, as King suggested in his letter, “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive?”
May the memory of the fallen be for a blessing.