A righteous man – Obituary: Rolf Verleger

Psychologist, professor, human rights activist: the Jewish humanist Rolf Verleger has died


Rolf Verleger died in Lübeck on Monday. After graduating in medical psychology this is where he had taught at the university for many years. Rolf grew up in a religious household with parents who had escaped from the Auschwitz and Stutthof concentration camps. This also shaped him through his political 1968 years and led him back to religion, again and again. Neither Kant nor Marx were his mentors, but Rabbi Hillel (died 10 BCE) and Akiba (died 135 BCE), along with the Torah: “In the Torah, all ways are ways of goodness, and all its paths are peace,” he wrote in 2017 in his book One Hundred Years of Homeland? “I grew up with this directive. I was inculcated with it by my parents, I thought of it when I was at home or on the road, when I lay down at night and got up in the morning.”

That remained the case when he later helped to build up the Jewish community in Lübeck and integrated the numerous Jewish immigrants in the 1990s. Judaism, as represented by the then President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Ignatz Bubis, was his home. The Judaism of charity and active morality, not that of the nation, or the Israeli state.

This was bound to lead to a confrontation with the new Central Council, to which he was appointed in 2005. In an open letter, he sharply criticised Israel’s military action in Lebanon and attacked the attitude of the Central Council: “Is this still the same Judaism (…) whose most important commandment our Rabbi Akiba named: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’? No one believes me nowadays that this is the ‘real’ Judaism in a time when the Jewish state discriminates against other people, punishes them in collective responsibility, practices targeted killings without trial, has ten Lebanese killed for every compatriot killed and lays whole neighbourhoods to waste. Surely I can expect the Central Council of Jews in Germany to at least see this as a problem.” However, he was recalled and lost his chairmanship of the Lübeck Jewish Community.

But Rolf Verleger did not resign. He fought for his “homeland”, that is, the Judaism of charity and a state at peace with its Arab neighbours. His criticism of the settlement policy, the violence of the occupation army and the settlers, the wars against Gaza intensified as the violence escalated. He became involved not only in the “Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East”, but also in the “German-Arab” and the “German-Palestinian Societies”. In 2016, he founded the “Alliance to End the Occupation in Palestine”, which is now called the “Alliance for Justice between Israelis and Palestinians”.

I met Rolf Verleger at the formation of this group, which he asked me to join. I saw in him the authentic voice of a Judaism of reconciliation and the great humanist Jewish tradition. He was not against the Jewish state, he even felt an unambiguous “belonging” to it, but his criticism of the governments’ wars and excesses of violence was without compromise. That he is now no longer with us is an immeasurable loss, not only for those who knew him and worked with him, but for all those who fight for peace between the two peoples. Rolf said that his daughter once told him during his conflict with the Central Council: “You will live and die as a righteous man.” And so it came to pass.

This obituary first appeared in German in the junge Welt. Translator: Ana Ferreira. Reproduced with permission. For a junge Welt interview with Rolf Verleger on the constructed connection between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism (published in 2017) click here.

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