World War II and the Post-COVID World
May 8th is the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe in 1945. It marks the final defeat of the Nazis, and an end to the worst crime against humanity in the history of the world. The fate of the Jewish people hung by a thread between extinction and survival. Had they won, the Nazis could have extended the extermination of Jews to the UK and Israel. Philip Roth’s novel and the current HBO series The Plot Against America illustrates that a pro-Nazi government in the US could also have led to the destruction of American Jewry.
Initially, America had no intention of getting involved. Antisemitism was endemic. Roosevelt refused to bomb the rail lines that ferried Jews to Auschwitz. He and others blocked Jewish immigration to the US. All of this is documented in The Secret War Against the Jews by John Loftus and Mark Aarons, and expanded recently in Rafael Medoff’s The Jews Should Keep Quiet. Sadly, too many Jewish leaders, such as the self-proclaimed spokesman of American Jewry, Rabbi Stephen Wise, did not forcefully push for Roosevelt to act.
People like to talk about a “new world order” after the war. And it is true that the US, particularly with the Marshall Plan, played a crucial part in rebuilding Europe and standing up to Stalin and communism. But did the rest of the world appreciate it? Certainly not politically. Besides, the US used its muscle for self-interest, to support often corrupt brutal dictatorships, and wasted wars and invasions across the globe. It propped up the utterly useless United Nations and, in return, was rewarded with hatred, derision, and obstruction.
I recall the post-war years; the popular mood of Europeans was neither gratitude nor support of the US. They envied the wealth and brashness that saved them. They undermined American fiscal and political policies regardless of who the president was. So much for American leadership of the Free World. To everyone else, it meant that money bags would bail them out or beat them up. The amazing thing was that despite all this, the US sometimes actually got it right. And for all its mistakes, the US is still the country most citizens of the world would prefer to live and work in.
Who will now lead the post-COVID world? Anyone? China — with its mind and police controls? Russia — led by criminals and the KGB? Iran — oppressing its own people and fueling hatred against other Muslims, as well as Israel? A command economy can bulldoze its way to impressive, modern infrastructure. China can flex its muscles in the China Sea and pour money into its Belt and Road Initiative. It can undermine other economies. But it is not loved. It will never attract the minds and talents of those who do not wish to live in countries where there is no freedom of thought and expression.
The saving grace of the Free World lies in a culture of being able to think for oneself. It lies in its pools of talented, committed, and moral human beings with the financial means to find ways of peacefully and ethically dealing with crises. This is the victory the Second World War reminds us of. It gave us imperfect men like Churchill who, purely by force of personality, had the confidence to do the right thing regardless of mistakes.
We have much to do: To defeat COVID-19 as we did polio and malaria. To rein in our assaults on nature, climate, and inequality, as well as the brutality of failed, terrorist states. It is a small minority that will see us through and on to a better world. Like Noah in his ark, history did not end. It does not end. It goes on, weaving and twisting over thousands and millions of years.
We Jews know that all it takes is a few really dedicated, committed people who are animated by morality and a sense of purpose and identity to stand up to those who tried to destroy us despite the odds. So it will be with humanity. According to the Bible, God promised Noah the world would not be destroyed by God. But it is up to us to ensure that we do not do it instead!
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years, in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.