Search for the word “kapo” any Jewish news site and you will find a blizzard of hits, usually in the comments posted under articles.
The pejorative is regularly thrown at peace activists, proponents of a two-state solution of a diplomatic resolution of the Iran crisis, human rights advocates and in general members of the progressive Zionist camp.
I am also a frequent target. Every time I write an article, people start sending tweets labeling me as a kapo. There’s even a hashtag. I can take criticism and brush off insults, but I do think we as Jews and Israelis should erase this horrible word from our public discourse. 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 chinum.
Kapos were Jews who were enlisted by the SS during the Holocaust to serve them in the concentration and extermination camps. Quoting from the (online) 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 Holocaust survivors, I find this accusation deeply offensive. 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 Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, 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.”
So, as I end this article, I invite readers to disagree. But let’s debate with civility – and let’s banish this horrible term from our lexicon.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications at J Street.