First they came for the Jews — will you speak out?

On Sunday 13th March the city of Manchester in England hosted a rally to support Israel. Organised by North West Friends of Israel, ‘Yes to Peace — No to Terror’ featured several high profile speakers. Below is the text of the speech by Paul Charney, Chairman of the Zionist Federation UK.

Thank you Manchester. I want to open my speech with the words of a famous poem that I’m sure you all know.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

I thought long and hard about using those words. They were written, originally, during our darkest hour, when man turned on his fellow man.

But since then, they have become something of a cliché, intended to wrap the mantle of victimhood around the user. Over-use has rendered this powerful plea to recognise each other’s humanity as little more than a punchline.

First they came for the dog walkers, but I did not speak out, for I was not a dog-walker.

First they came for the public smokers, and I did not speak out.

First they came for the “Better in Europe” supporters. First they came for the “Better out of Europe” supporters.

First this group. Then first that group.

But try as I might, I have been unable to get the words of that poem out of my head. They come to me when I hear the news. They arrive, insistently, when I see the latest headlines.

Because so much of what I read and hear makes me think: They are coming for the Jews… Again. And no one is speaking out…Again.

A perfect example of this is terrorism. We are gathered here today to commemorate recent attacks, to say ‘No to Terror’ whether here, or in Paris, or in Jerusalem.

As a human being, I am happy to lend my name and voice to this cause. After all, as a human being, I too could be the target of terrorism. That is the very logic of terrorism, that gives it its name, and its power. It is the logic of random, arbitrary violence. It is the terror of knowing that anyone, anywhere, could be the next victim.

But it is also important for me to be here as a Jew. Because for us Jews, terrorism is an especially difficult, relevant subject. The normal rules do not apply. There is a different logic at play. The violence against us is not random or arbitrary.

It was not random last year in Paris.

It was not random in 2008 in Mumbai.

It is not fear of arbitrary violence that puts 24/7 security around our schools and synagogues.

It is not fear of arbitrary violence that causes so many to consider hiding their religious identity when in public.

And if something is not random, then there must be a cause. If something is not random, then there must be reasons for this violence.

But people aren’t interested in those reasons.

What they ARE interested in is excuses.

You can hear them, as soon as any violence or happens against Jews, whether its in Jerusalem, or Paris or Manchester.

Oh, it’s the occupation.

Oh, it’s the settlements.

Oh, it’s Israel.

It’s always something. There’s always an excuse.

They are coming for the Jews, and no one will speak out.

And so, this is the terrible paradox of terrorism against us Jews. We are the most likely to be its victims, and the least likely to have that victimhood recognised.

Now, let me say a few words about victimhood. There is no special dignity or status to be found in being a victim. To be a victim is a tragedy, not a badge of honour. As the chairman of the Zionist Federation, I could not say otherwise.

Because what is it to be a Zionist, if not to refuse to be a victim? And what is Zionism, if not the demand to no longer be vulnerable to victimhood?

But just because we do not want to be branded as victims, does not mean it is ok for others to deny us that label when it is appropriate. Just because we do not wish for our victimhood to be made permanent, does not mean it is ok for that victimhood to instantly evaporate, as if it never even existed.

This means that when a Palestinian attempts to stab, or shoot, or otherwise murder innocent men, women and children, and they are killed in action, their deaths should not lead the news agenda. It means that when those Palestinians die, headlines should be able to distinguish between victims and terrorists.

But unfortunately the headlines that are seen by millions across the world have been unable to make that distinction.

I wish this was some quirk, some accident, some occasional mistake. But during this seemingly endless wave of violence that we are commemorating here today, we have seen distorted headlines too many times for it to be a mere coincidence. Indeed I only have to look back to last Tuesday to find the latest examples.

When American Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel, he was greeted by an immediate spike of Palestinian violence. His meeting with Shimon Peres was soundtracked by the wail of ambulance sirens. There were three different attacks that day, resulting in one death and multiple injuries. So how did the media respond to this Palestinian welcoming committee?

Here’s the International Business Times headline: ‘3 Palestinians shot dead as Biden arrives for talks.’ And New Zealand’s 1 News? ‘3 Palestinians shot dead by Israeli security forces in separate incidents.’

This demand that Palestinians always be the victims is bad news – literally. It’s bad news for anyone who wants to understand the conflict, and therefore bad news for anyone who wants to resolve the conflict. But the inability to correctly assign both blame and sympathy to the appropriate individuals has repercussions that extend beyond the Israeli/Palestinian territorial dispute.

Because if we go back to the words of the poem, it is not just a plea to recognise the common humanity of all people. It is also a stark warning.

First they came for the communists.Then they came for the trade unionists.Then they came for the Jews. And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out.

If you cannot bring yourself to do the right thing for the sake of others, he is saying, then at least do the right thing for yourself.

Today, we can see where this failure to follow this warning leads. For years, if not decades, it has been acceptable to excuse any action, any violence against Jews in the Middle East.

Terrorism was unacceptable…unless against Jews, in which case it was ‘resistance.’

People had a right to their own states …unless it was the Jews, for they were not a people.

Every person deserves human rights…except, of course, the Jews, because those descendents of pigs and apes, those killers of prophets and murderers of children were not even human.

Look now at the Middle East, and see where this blind-eye attitude to extremism and fanaticism has led them. Suicide bombings in mosques. Genocide and ethnic cleansing against minorities. Child soldiers, groomed to murder their enemies.

First they came for the Jews, and I said nothing. Then they came for the Yazidis, for the Christians, for the Kurds.

And look at Europe too. Terrorist atrocities across the continent.

First they came for the Jews, and I said nothing. Then they came for the cartoonists, for the music fans, for the people out and about on a Friday night.

So we are here today to say no to terror, yes to peace.

And we want as many people as possible to speak out with us.

Because if you do not speak out for us today…who will be there to speak out for you tomorrow?

Thank you.

About the Author
Paul Charney is chairman of the ZF (the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland). The ZF is the UK’s grass roots activist organisation for Israel. Each year the ZF initiates events, ranging from lobbies of Parliament to events on campuses to empower Jewish students to stand up for Israel in hostile environments. As Israel is constantly subjected to campaigns in the press to delegitimize its existence, the Zionist Federation continues to stand at the forefront to ensure the dynamic future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.