A time to keep silence and a time to speak

Jewish tradition is clear on the importance of speaking out in the face of wrongdoing. Leviticus 19:17—You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbour and not bear sin account of him. We must not sit by in silence as bystanders while evil is being committed. Maimonides interpreted the verse as follows: Whoever is in a position to prevent wrongdoing and does not do so is responsible for the iniquity of all the wrongdoers whom that person might have restrained. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dayot 6:7).

Certainly. And now is a time for uniting to condemn the real danger that is threatening not only our safety but our freedom. That freedom, lest we forget, was dearly won, often at the cost of life itself by the brave men and women who battled courageously against those who held to the very ideologies being shouted in the streets today under the guise of freedom of speech.

It was therefore with gratitude that I discovered in my inbox  a joint statement issued by Bishop Donald Philips, of the Anglican Diocese of Rupertsland and Bishop Elaine Sauer, of the Manitoba/Northwestern Ontario Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, quoting the prophet Jeremiah 4:19—Oh the walls of my heart—my heart is beating wildly—I cannot keep silent. They wrote, “The events in Charlottesville, VA, the antisemitic graffiti in Winnipeg, and all of the lesser-known acts of racial violence (including the “freedom of speech” demonstrations designed to legitimate such behaviour), demand a response, not just from law enforcement agencies or civil governments, but from all people who can clearly see the fear and hate that lies behind such actions…It is imperative that we speak out against these acts of violence; that we visibly support those being oppressed and excluded.”

A mere 75 years after the Wannsee Conference, where a plan was outlined for the annihilation of the Jewish people, neo-Nazis now march in the streets of the US, threatening to burn a synagogue and chant slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.” Antisemitic graffiti is proliferating, including in my own hometown of Winnipeg. This past winter, a reference to the slaughter by the Einsatzgruppen—the mobile killing units responsible for the murder of more than two million Jews, appeared on the doorstep of a Winnipeg Jewish family, accompanied by a serious threat. Neo-Nazis and other far-right groups have held rallies in several cities in Canada, so far dwarfed by counter-protest. Some of the neo-Nazi participants sport swastika tattoos.

Rock covered in antisemitic slurs and threat, found on Winnipeg doorstep, January 2017. Photos submitted.


In Qohelet 3:1 it is written: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens…and in 3:7; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. Sometimes, it is also important to decide what to say and when to say it. So imagine my disappointment to discover that at a time when faith leaders should be issuing strong statements condemning the current wave of racism and antisemitism, and thinking about what action to take, I discovered this week that the Mennonite Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada are concentrating their efforts yet again on “peace and justice in Israel and Palestine,” joining forces with Jewish Voices for Peace (an American-based left-wing activist group with a Canadian affiliate that promotes BDS).

For many years now, certain denominations of Christianity throughout Europe and North America have imagined that they can bring “peace and justice to Israel and Palestine.” I have always responded by saying only those on the ground can solve this this very complex issue and that we should support the many Israeli and Palestinian organizations who are struggling to work toward peace together. There are far too many to list, but  a few examples are: the New Israel Fund, Women Wage Peace, Shatil, Combatants for Peace, The Parents Circle and so many more. These groups are in desperate need of support and are often viciously criticized by the right wing supporters of the current regime.

It is, to my mind, the height of arrogance, to think that rather than supporting these groups,  outsiders think they might somehow solve an issue as complex as this—even if one of the parties invites intervention. In reality, these types of gatherings may just further antisemitism:

A few weeks ago, I accompanied a friend who spoke at a lecture on the subject of Israel in a small town in rural Manitoba, the so-called “Bible-Belt.” During the Q and A, a gentleman angrily commented: “I feel badly about what happened to the Jews in World War II but Israel is doing the exact same thing to the Palestinians as what Hitler did to the Jews.” I felt I needed to respond: I explained that according to the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism (now adopted by several countries), while it is certainly not antisemitic to criticize the current policies of the Israeli government (which I often do); to compare contemporary Israeli policies to that of the Nazis most definitely is antisemitic. I asked him to provide me with examples. He became visibly upset and muttered, “They suppress the Palestinians.” My extended family on both sides, save my parents and one aunt, were murdered by the Nazis—in gas chambers, and by starvation. My father was forced to work as a slave labourer and weighed 76 pounds at the end of the war. I wouldn’t exactly call that “suppression.”

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To compare Nazi crimes to Israel’s policies in the West Bank will not result in peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. It might certainly result in something far more nefarious right here in Canada. Christianity has a history of persecuting and murdering Jews that began with the dawn of Christendom and culminated–through complicity and silence–in Auschwitz.  While that does not mean that Israel may not be rebuked, Christian leaders have a moral responsibility to call out antisemitism whenever and wherever it appears. And right now…  antisemitism is appearing right on our streets. It is a not a time to keep silence; it is a time to speak.

About the Author
Belle Jarniewski is the director of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada and the current President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council. Since 2013, she has served on Canada’s delegation to the IHRA—the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Her book, Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors (2010), documents the stories of 73 local survivors. Belle’s passion for tikkun olam has led her to pursue a graduate degree in Dialogue Theology at the University of Winnipeg. Her thesis explored survivor narratives through the thought of the theologian Irving “Yitz” Greenberg. She is also one of the founders of Operation Ezra, an initiative to sponsor Yazidi refugees to Canada and to focus world awareness on this genocide occurring “in broad daylight.”
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