This is a policy question and not a halakhic question. I therefore will speak for myself, representing me alone, as a [a] thinking human being who [b] who is committed to Torah in its entirety, [c] who inhabits the mental space/time called “modern,” and [d] whose thinking usually is personal and idiosyncratic.
My in-laws are Holocaust survivors and as personal victims, want justice. Israel’s great poet, H.N Bialik, asked Heaven to reveal justice immediately or else justice delayed is justice denied. Justice is an important value but it is not the only relevant value.
Alternatively, I believe that there is a Judge and there is a judgment [bSan., Chapter 10 28:4] and the accounting of the Ultimate Auditor need not happen in this world [bHullin 142a]. This means that we do not get so fixed on justice when there are other competing values that clamor for and claim our attention.
Therefore, I believe that as nature takes its necessary course, and surviving Nazis in 2012 are in any case not long for this world, and since Judaisim sanctifes the present because, like Aristotle’s sea battle, we cannot undo the past, and the Death, as horrific as it was, 70 years ago, cannot inspire a next generation to live as Jews, I would allocate our finite declining Jewish resources to
Provide ordable and universal Jewish education, which includes Torah, Hebrew and History.
Provisions for the poor, infirmed, and out of work.
Enriching Jewish culture for the real and present Jewish security.
Funding projects and bonding with Israel.
Fostering Jewish Unity and inclusivity
Advancing Jewoish concerns through political and social advocacy.
Jewish survival in the future is to my mind more critical than punishing the crimes against us in the past.
When it comes to Jewish values, there is no statute of limitation on pursuing justice. The two overarching principles that come to mind are:
Justice, Justice, shall you pursue. Deuteronomy 16:20
You are not obligated to complete the task, but you are not free to ignore it. Pirkei Avot 2: 21
The first text reminds us that we are to continually pursue justice throughout our lives. And the second text reminds us that while we cannot fix all of the problems of our world, we must never stop trying. It is with both of these texts in mind that I would argue we should absolutely still be spending time and resources prosecuting Nazi war criminals who are accused of some of the worst human atrocities of recent history.
Of course, when the accused are caught, they should be given a fair trial and hearing based on the evidence. We should remember even, and especially in cases such as this, that dan l'kaf zechut, giving someone the benefit of the doubt, prior to their proven guilt, is also a Jewish concept. And if found guilty, we must also remember that these individuals are still human beings and deserved to be treated accordingly even though their actions were beyond reprehensible.
Finally, this question goes beyond any one individual cases and gets at the heart of the type of society that Jews are called upon to create. (I would like to thank my colleague and fellow JVO participant, Rabbi Eric Yanoff for this insight). The introductory prayers on Friday night, the Kabbalat Shabbat service, are filled with references to a world that is judged by God with fairness, justice, and kindness. Each week, we pray for such a world only to remember that it is not yet here, and that it is our obligation to create such a society as we begin a new week. There is no statute of limitations on the holy endeavor of pursuing justice.
There is no statute of limitations on murder American legal system, nor in halakha, our traditional Jewish code of law. The prohibition against murder is one of only three mitzvot (Jewish commandments) that may not be broken in order to save one’s own life. (Self-defense is not considered murder. The tricky part, as illustrated by recent events in Florida, is determining what constitutes self-defense, and according to whom. In the case of Nazi war criminals, things are more clear-cut.)
Given these circumstances, one might reasonably argue that when and whether a society holds a murderer accountable for his or her crimes reflects on the moral fiber of that society.
Granted, we cannot judge one another as God can judge us, but we are called to be God’s partners in pursuing justice. What kind of justice would it be for six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust (not to mention perhaps seven million others) if a Nazi war criminal were allowed to live out his natural life simply because he has eluded us so far? None at all.
Judaism does not counsel vengeance. Many of us, based on our Jewish convictions, oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. But should we “still” be spending time and resources on bringing some of the worst criminals of human history to account, to some imposition of responsibility and consequence? My answer is an unequivocal yes.
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