At Kean, legal scholar shows how rigidity could be a virtue

Professor Richard Weisberg makes it clear he respects open-mindedness and champions efforts to see the world from various points of view. But he is also clear that there is virtue in inflexibility, to shunning the “Let’s get real” approach.

In a talk at Kean University in Union on Oct. 15, Weisberg, the Walter Floerhsheimer Professor of Constitutional Law at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, painted verbal portraits of three figures who showed such intransigence during World War II. When their colleagues bowed to Nazi pressure — and sometimes not much of that — these people indignantly resisted what they saw as violations of their country’s traditional values.

His subjects were a young French law professor, Jacques Maury, who castigated the Vichy government for its betrayal of French egalitarianism in singling out Jews; Abraham Lainé, a magistrate in the British Channel Island of Guernsey who sounded a similarly lonely protest against Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism; and Lothar Kreyssig, a German judge who argued that singling out the Jews was simply illegal while others bent the law to please the fuehrer.

Weisberg’s talk was part of the Murray Pantirer Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series, hosted by Kean’s Holocaust Resource Center. Pantirer, a Schindler’s List survivor from Poland who settled in Hillside, was founding president of the center. Weisberg was introduced by Pantirer’s granddaughter Danielle Auerbach of New York City and Marlene Yahalom, director of education at the American Society for Yad Vashem.

Weisberg, a recent White House appointee to the Commission on the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, is an internationally recognized leader of the law and literature movement. In addition to teaching at law schools in the United States, Europe, and China, he has helped litigate successfully in American federal courts on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their heirs. His books include Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France, The Failure of the Word, and Poethics and Other Strategies of Law and Literature.

In describing the moral courage of those who resisted Hitler’s policies, Weisberg made clear that he was not asking the question “What would you have done?” of himself or others. The point, he said, is to learn from their example and the light they shed on the group behavior of those in potentially powerful institutions.

Contrary to what one would expect, none of the three was severely punished for taking those positions. “No guns were placed at their heads,” Weisberg said. But as “sterling and inspiring” as their behavior was, their principled protests “for a variety of reasons, had no legs.”

But, he added, had more people been inspired by their example, things might have been very different. The invading Nazi forces had a reluctance to take on major cultural institutions, but their task was made easier by the enthusiasm with which the Vichy regime and the Channel Islands lawmakers took on the task of isolating the Jews.

An audience member suggested that if the French authorities had not gone along with Nazi policy, the Germans would have cracked down on them — as they did with those who took up arms against them. Weisberg acknowledged the point but left it open to debate.

Weisberg got a more personal challenge from survivor Clara Kramer, one of the founders of the Holocaust Resource Center. She is also the author of a memoir of her wartime survival in Poland, hidden by an ethnic German who had no love of Jews but couldn’t abide the injustice of the Nazi dictates.

“In my experience, it was always the simple people who stood up for the Jews, not the professors and the educated people,” she said.

Weisberg replied with a smile, “Sometimes professors can be simple people too,” but he acknowledged her point. Speaking later, addressing the notion of flexible thinking, he said, “Sometimes it’s the people who don’t second-guess themselves who hold true to their values.”

Paul Friedman, a graduate of Kean’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies program and now a high school programs coordinator for the NY-based Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, was at his alma mater to hear Weisberg. “I was particularly struck by how what he said connected with 9/11,” Friedman said. “It really brought home to me — I suppose because I was 17 at the time so it’s very much part of my own experience — the way a perceived threat can make a government alter course from its traditional values and legal system.”