Back in 2015, I wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post respectfully suggesting that writers and commentators on Israel avoid using the word "kapo" to describe fellow Jews. That was obviously well before President-elect Donald Trump nominated a man to be US Ambassador to Israel who has repeatedly used the term to describe fellow Jews who do not happen to share his views on Israel. David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer Trump has chosen to represent our nation in Israel, thinks that the pro-peace, pro-Israel organization J Street, which I work for, and its hundreds of thousands of members and supporters are "worse than kapos." That demonstrates how unsuited he is for the position. By using this gratuitously hateful and offensive term, Friedman shows himself to be intolerant and divisive as well as willing to perpetuate a huge lie - really what amounts to a blood libel. Fellow supporters of the Israeli extreme right routinely use this pejorative to blacken the names of peace activists, proponents of a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human rights advocates and in general members of the progressive Zionist camp. Our sages teach us that one of the reasons the Temple was destroyed was "sinat chinum" - gratuitous hatred among Jews. Use of this epithet is a classic example of sinat chimum. Kapos were Jews who were enlisted by the SS during the Holocaust to serve them in the concentration and extermination camps. Quoting from the Jewish Virtual Library: "The German concentration camps depended on the cooperation of trustee inmates who supervised the prisoners. Known as Kapos, these trustees carried out the will of the Nazi camp commandants and guards, and were often as brutal as their SS counterparts. Some of these Kapos were Jewish, and even they inflicted harsh treatment on their fellow prisoners. For many, failure to perform their duties would have resulted in severe punishment and even death, but many historians view their actions as a form of complicity. After the war, the prosecution of Kapos as war criminals, particularly those who were Jewish, created an ethical dilemma which continues to this day." So the charge against dovish columnists and leftist activists is that they are the equivalent of Jews who collaborated with Nazis - that they are in effect aiding in the mass extermination of the Jewish people. As the son of a Holocaust survivors, I find this accusation deeply offensive. I personally worked for years to build a suitable memorial for the victims of the Belzec extermination camp in Poland where my own grandparents were murdered. The effort eventually succeeded.One of the first images that greets visitors to the museum there is a large photo of my grandfather. I have written books about the Holocaust including a novel, "The Nazi Hunter." The topic is very close to my heart.
But this is not about my feelings. Use of this term is also corrosive to democracy, both in Israel and the United States, which depends on the free exchange of ideas and vigorous debate. By labeling one's opponent a kapo, one is in effect saying that person's views are outside the pale, that he or she is a traitor and a collaborator with Nazis or their modern-day equivalent. Using that term to smear one's political opponents is also profoundly arrogant. We all wish to believe that faced with the impossible choice that confronted the Jews herded into concentration camps, we have would unhesitatingly chosen death over collaboration. But none of us were there; none of us faced that choice. Interestingly, Israeli judges who presided over the trials of some accused kapos in the early years of the State of Israel handed down relatively lenient sentences. Author Idith Zertal, in her book, writes: "The leniency displayed by the courts, even in the gravest abuse cases, stemmed, one would assume, from the impact of the ghastly pictures ... the extreme borderline conditions in which people, robbed of their humanity, were essentially dead while still alive." Friedman's adoption of this awful term shows he is part and parcel of an organized army of hatred sowing divisions within the Jewish community and in our nation. It would be hard to find someone so uniquely unqualified and unfit to be our ambassador in Israel.