Perils of Indifference 2018

When I heard about the horrific attack on the Tree of Life Congregation, I was overwhelmed with emotions. Was it anger, sadness, frustration, shock? Probably all of the above. My day could not possibly continue as usual. Ironically enough, that day of such tragedy and grief, was also my birthday. I turned on the news and glued myself to it… my attempt to find the answer to the obvious question: why? After a couple of hours, I decided that I wanted to write something, make the world (or at least the small number of people who read my blog) know about what just happened and how it made me feel. After writing a couple of sentences, I stopped. Instead of continuing to write, I told myself to turn this into a test which will examine if this tragedy will make all people understand the destructive power of hatred, intolerance and prejudice against Jews.  Will this act stop anti-Semitism in America?  I launched my test with the intent that everyone will internalize the dangers of antisemitism and that this will be the last anti-Semitic act on American soil. In his song Imagine John Lenon said “You may say I’m a dreamer” and in my case I hoped that I will not be the only one. I was disillusioned. Antisemitism did not disappear. The indifference towards it didn’t disappear as well. On April 12th, 1999, Eli Wiesel gave an impressive speech called the “Perils of Indifference”. My test and this article are inspired by that speech.

In that speech Eli Wiesel presented how indifference had a significant role in allowing the Holocaust, the systematic murder of approximately 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, to happen. Until 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor, many in the United States were indifferent to what was happening in Europe and to the plea of European Jewry. In his speech, Wiesel mentioned the indifference FDR showed towards the plea of the St. Louis. The St. Louis was a ship of Jewish refugees, post-Kristallnacht that sailed from Nazi Germany seeking refuge in the US. They were denied entry and were forced to return to Nazi Germany. That same indifference was practiced 10 months earlier in the Evian Conference. In July 1938 delegates from 32 countries met in Evian, France to discuss the problem of Jewish refugees. Although all countries expressed sympathy to the Jews, almost none agreed to accept more refugees. Without a country of their own, without a safe haven to which they could flee, the Jews were left without hope.

What happens to a person when he loses hope?

He becomes indifferent to his situation, apathetic to his surroundings and acceptive of his cruel faith. In his poem “The City of Slaughter” Haim Nahman Bialik, paints a horrific and detailed picture of the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom. In one segment he shares with us a disturbing scene. Some of the survivors that hid during the riot and did not fight against the perpetrators, left their hideouts and saw their dying wives’ bodies on the ground. Instead of helping them, they rushed to their rabbi to ask if they are permitted to them. When they became indifferent to their situation and accepted anti-Semitism as inherit part of their lives, they lost their humanity. Wiesel provides us with another example in his speech. Wiesel talks about the Muselmanner: “they would sit or lie on the ground, staring vacantly into space, unaware of who or where they were, strangers to their surroundings. They no longer felt pain, hunger, thirst. They feared nothing. They felt nothing. They were dead and did not know it”. One can ask how far are we from accepting anti-Semitism as an inherit part of our daily lives today. How far are we from turning into the survivors from Bialik’s poem? How far are we from letting indifference consume our humanity?

Following the attack on Tree of Life Congregation many people were shocked and felt unable to continue their ordinary lives. Vigils offered a platform of support of the Jewish community and against the hatred and its deadliest repercussion. That was the case at Vanderbilt University where I serve as the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Vanderbilt Hillel. Many students came to remember the victims and unequivocally say that antisemitism doesn’t have a place in Vanderbilt. Another vigil took place the same day at Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville. On that day and the following days many discussions about anti-Semitism took place in lecture halls, Shabbat dinners and town halls meetings. Education is the solution but there were those who learned a different lesson from the attack. There were those who were inspired by the Tree of Life attack and not in a good way.

Since the deadliest attack on the Tree of Life Congregation dozen of anti-Semitic incidents were reported. Not many of them reached the headlines of the major news channels or newspapers and if they did they weren’t there for long. Since Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Binghamton, Woodbridge, Miami Beach, Barbaro and the list goes on witnessed anti-Semitic incidents. Anti-Semitism is not new, not even in “the land of the free and home of the brave”, but the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh was different. In none of those attacks that followed Pittsburgh, no one thankfully was killed, but if we learned something from the attack on Tree of Life is that tiki torches can transform into bullets and “Jews will not replace us” chant can transform into “all Jews must die” battle cry. That correlates with ADL warnings about a historic 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017 in the US.

We cannot remain indifferent and silent to this historic spike. Accepting hate speech against Jews and Zionism and not taking a firm stance against it, makes us complacent when it comes to anti-Semitism. According to Wiesel: Indifference is not only a sin, it is a punishment.

Some might argue that democracy dies in darkness, I will argue that democracy bleeds in the darkness, but it dies in the light so we all could see our punishment for being indifferent.

The question is what are we doing to stop the bleeding?

About the Author
Max is an M.A. in International Relations student at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse University. Former Escoll Family Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Vanderbilt Hillel. Max oversaw Israel programing at Vanderbilt Hillel and provided opportunities for students to engage with Israel in an open and supportive environment. Max made Aliya from Ukraine and served in the IDF Nahal Brigade. Max graduated from IDC Herzliya with a cum laude degree in Government and he is an Argov Fellowship in Leadership and Diplomacy alumni.
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