Progressively Speaking: Is it right to jail a former Nazi guard Oskar Gröning, aged 96?

Progressively Speaking: Is it right to jail a former Nazi guard Oskar Gröning, aged 96?

Rabbi Neil Janes takes a topical issue in the news and offers a progressive Jewish response

Oskar Gröning
Oskar Gröning

Two years ago, Oskar Gröning was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of  300,000 Jews in the Shoah.

The scale, uniqueness and global significance of crimes such as these make it very difficult for our traditional texts to give firm answers
to what should be done to such criminals.

In fact, our traditional sources are particularly unhelpful when thinking practically about today’s ethical questions of crime and punishment.

In the Bible, there is no such thing as a crime, only a sin. The response to a sin generally involved a sacrifice of some kind, a restitution of loss and what we might call the meting out of a punishment.

But this system was really designed to restore the balance of justice and righteousness in society, as a reflection of the divine scales of justice.

In the rabbinic period, the principle change was that sacrifice was replaced by other methods of atonement.

The traditional focus is on a form of restorative justice and enabling sinners to re-enter the presence of God, find forgiveness, atonement and restore balance.

But in a liberal democracy, the criminal justice system must be independent of religious creed.

So what should be done with a 96-year-old who aided and abetted murder?

It all depends on what you understand to be the function of the prison system, coupled with our firm belief in upholding human decency in the treatment of men and women, thus taking into consideration any ill health.

Ultimately, since I do not wish to defer all punishment to whatever might be in the hereafter, it is my opinion that the individual must be held to account by humanity in the here and now through the criminal justice system.

The lives affected and those murdered deserve some kind of justice, no matter how much time has elapsed.

The bloods of our brothers and sisters cry out to plead their case and we have a duty not to just find those responsible, but also make it clear you cannot live as a free man for 70 years and then hope to avoid any kind of consequence for your actions, because you have evaded conviction for so long.

That would be an absurd world in which none of us would want to live.

υ Neil Janes is rabbi at West London Synagogue

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