Silence in the face of adversity has never served the Jewish people well. That is as true today as it has been over the course of our history. The Yiddish song, ‘Shah shtil, makh nit keyn geride’r, (Be quiet do not make noise), seems to be the mantra of much of the current Jewish population today as evidenced by its tepid response to current events adversely affecting the Jewish community.
In the past, when Jews were mainly an immigrant population, the phenomenon of the quiet, low-profile Jew was motivated by those who did not want to draw attention to their differences from the majority population. As they became upwardly mobile, they vacated their new world ghettos, leaving room for the next wave of immigrants. Many of the newly minted Americans considered Halachic and Jewish traditional practices archaic, outmoded, and antiquated. Consequently, they abandoned time-honored rituals in favor of less rigorous forms of Jewish practice, while some were content to simply revel in nostalgic Judaism. More recently, the practice du jour of a significant number Jews has been to substitute traditional religious practice with social justice causes expressed in the form of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.
Granted, one can embrace social justice activities, without diluting or abandoning the religious observances of Kashrut and Shabbat. Sadly, those pillars of Jewish practice, today are viewed by many as quaint relics of the past. There was a time when some of our clergy took to donning clerical collars, delivering homilies on Sunday, and advocated changing the sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, as was cited in Rafael Medoff’s book, The Jews Should Remain Silent. Hopefully, we do not drift so far from our age-old moorings that we lose sight from where we came, where we are going, and who we are.
But that was then, a time when repeating waves of refugees washed up on our shores, fleeing the pogroms and genocidal aims of the monstrous regimes of Europe. Yet today, even in the face of a rising tide of anti-Semitism from representatives of the esteemed the Halls of Congress, student activists trolling college campuses for Zionists, as well as, from left-wing and right-wing extremist groups, silence still mutes large segments of the Jewish population. Why?
Perhaps it is in our DNA. After having wandered through the desert for forty years, expelled from our Promised Land, suffered a series of expulsions, wandered from country to country, we alighted on foreign soil as ‘strangers’ where many of our tribe still adhered to the old adage ‘don’t make waves’ and its updated version, ‘stay under the radar’. Even the prominent American rabbi, Stephen Wise, displayed a difficult to understand devotion to the shah shtil school of Judaism despite the growing mountain of evidence he learned about the horrors of the Holocaust. Eventually, even he came to regret his reticence and conceded, “silence is acquiescence”.
But Wise was not alone in advising the Jewish community not to march and demonstrate against Germany’s war against the Jews, for fear of rousing the ire of his close friend, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the US State Department. According to a B’nai B’rith publication “dignified silence”, was the way to conduct our opposition to Hitler’s increasingly obvious genocidal plans.
Appallingly, even after Jews were denied entrance to universities, government jobs and the practice of professions, only months after Hitler came to power in 1933, there was still silence. Even the enactment of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, September 15, 1935, stripping Jews of Reich citizenship, and prohibiting them from marrying or having sexual relationships with Germans, was not enough to convince some to raise their voices in protest. And a scant eleven months later, the New York Times, praised the German government for its hospitality during the 1936 Olympics. The Times claimed the spirit of the Olympics in Germany would save the world from bloodshed and herald in a new age of peace.
Shamefully, the paper deceitfully buried coverage of Nazi war crimes because its Jewish publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s feared prominent coverage would provoke anti-Semitism if he were to appear to be protective of Jews and Jewish interests. Not to be outdone by the cynicism of the New York Times, US State Department’s callous anti-Semitic bureaucrats referred to warnings about Nazi perpetrated atrocities on Jews from various sources as, “war rumor inspired by fear”. Of course it did not help to save Jews when a group of anti-Zionist rabbis formed the ‘American Council for Judaism’ to lobby against the efforts of Zionists to have the Jews of Europe enter Palestine.
Because 85-90 percent of Jews had supported Roosevelt’s elections, it seemed rather incongruous that Rabbi Wise felt compelled to urge Jews to “vote as Americans, not as Jews”. The irony is that many of our fellow Jews who proudly proclaimed, “I’m an American first and a Jew second”, failed to recognize that to many outside of the tribe, their loyalty was viewed in reverse order. Tragically, Wise and his community of admirers were too blinded by their loyalty to FDR to see the shadow of death casting its penumbra across the European landscape. And the failure of those who were delinquent in their moral obligation to publicly rally against the enormity of the crimes against humanity, is a testament to the perverse nature of the compliance of silence.
Today our Jewish youth, who express support of Zionism, find themselves increasingly isolated on college campuses. They are accused of backing colonialism and apartheid and are denounced as being beneficiaries of Jewish white privilege. But it is their antagonists, blinded by bigotry, who fail to see that there are many Zionist Jews of Color as well. “From the River to the Sea”, is the battle hymn of the cadre-of-the-intolerant, chanted to the accompaniment of a deluge of anti-Semitic tropes, canards and lies. Anti-Zionism is the new manifestation of anti-Semitism; it is plainly visible beneath the ebb and flow of shallow minds polluted in waters of bigotry.
Today we have ant-Semitic and anti-Zionist organizations with Jewish sounding names like Jewish Voice for Peace, New Israel Fund, and Jewish Democrat Council for Israel, as well as, J Street which claims to love Israel, yet supports organizations advocating for BDS. Such groups adopt Jewish-friendly sounding names to give an air legitimacy to their perverse anti-Israel activities. Unlike Wise, who believed that the FDR’s political and social policies were best for society, those pseudo Jewish-friendly groups champion the Palestinians’ cause at Israel’s expense.
Our history teaches that those in the past who advised Jews to be silent in the face anti-Semitism were wrong. And today, those who choose to remain silent are wrong. Have we learned nothing from our history? Did we not learn that Joshua entered the Promised Land, not with reticence and silence, but by bringing down the wall of Jericho, with the blast of the ram’s horn and the people’s great shout.