Silence is a choice

Katherine Schultz, a professor and scholar of education (and, coincidentally, my grade four and five science teacher), has written extensively on the meaning and role of silence in the classroom. Silence, she observes, can indicate any number of things: obedience, defiance, thoughtfulness, indifference, engagement, participation, or withdrawal. The key is accepting the full range of interpretations and intentions, along with an openness to appreciating its meaning for all involved in a given context or situation.

Over the past week, numerous organizations and individuals have broken their silence to send encouragement and extend support to the Jewish community publicly or to Jewish friends privately. From university administrators, student groups, and the Toronto Raptors, among many others, these messages have provided comfort during what is probably the most challenging and horrific episode Jewish students have lived through as Jews. A sense of personal torment can be exacerbated when everyone else around carries on as normal or ignores what looms large in our minds, and with gratitude, we take solace in the fact that we are not alone, that there are others who see our anguish and are with us in this time of crisis and pain.

Others have broken silence in less constructive and even destructive ways.  Statements that respond to these attacks with even-handedness, overly sanitized euphemisms for cruelty, and erasures of the organizational affiliation of perpetrators or the identity of victims are disappointing, galling, and baffling.  Warping the scale’s beam in seeking artificial balance, they dilute specific concern for Jews and Israelis – which would seem appropriate on a day that yielded the highest number of Jewish murder victims since the Holocaust – with general laments about regional distress. Two truths can coexist: Palestinian suffering is all too real and calls out for acknowledgement; and requiring that every recognition of Jewish suffering be presented only in tandem with a conditioning counterpart and yoking them unidirectionally reveals a broader hesitancy to prevent, call out, and respond to antisemitism. In its more extreme and collective form, Yehuda Kurtzer notes the discussional disparity between “the ‘prospect’ of Israel committing genocide in a military campaign that hasn’t started” and “the *actual* genocide by Hamas which started this war.” Such equivocation and ostensible even-handedness (if it can be called that) in the face of calamity and catastrophe amounts to a dismissal of Jewish agony and a disregard of self-professed morality, leaving Jews fearful that a need for symmetry will overpower any desire to provide safety in times of danger.  

More disturbing, if not quite surprising, are the messages of praise for the attacks and the attackers, none of which bear repeating here. They range from denials of established reality to mélanges of argle-bargle, word salad, and incoherence – as if the author randomly picked and arranged words out of an introductory sociology textbook – to so-called justifications that frighteningly and knowingly reflect an intense hatred and dehumanization of Jews.

But what strikes me most is the silence of those who have said nothing, those we considered friends, those whom we’ve known for years, those whom we’ve sat next to in class, eaten dinner with, and had deep, transformative interactions with. With some of you, we’ve shared what being Jewish means, how important it is to us, or even the adversity we’ve faced as Jews. You have been absent from our lives when most of us are very much not OK, and your choice not to speak – and to be clear, remaining silent is as much a choice and as much an action as speaking – speaks volumes.

I’ll share my personal perspective, but I believe I’m far from alone: your silence feels like betrayal. At a time when we, perhaps more than ever, needed people to express their concern and care, you’ve opted not to, effectively skipping out on the basic foundations of friendship and relationship and abandoning us to our fear and isolation. As if the news weren’t dizzying enough, your perceived indifference makes us question if the connections and bonds we thought were strong were actually mirages, further disorienting us when we’re already reeling.  

As a rabbi, I know how hard it is to figure out what to say when someone’s in pain or scared or grieving. It’s easy to fear that you’ll say the wrong thing, that you’ll make it worse, or that you’ll take on some of the pain and relive your own experiences with sadness and loss. It’s ironic, then, that the most comforting phrases are often the simplest: “Just wanted to let you know that I’m thinking of you”; “I can’t imagine how this feels for you, but I’m ready to listen if you want to share”; or “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you. Let me know what I can do” None of us expect you to have answers; we just hope for you to be here, with us.

It’s late, but not too late. For those of you who haven’t, I encourage you to reach out to Jewish friends and colleagues, to express your concern, to see how they’re holding up, and to ask how you can support them. I can’t say what the impact will be, but I imagine that their response and the effect will be better than if you continue to say nothing.

In this moment, Schultz’s comments are apt: silence has a wide range of different meanings, ones that often reflect the perceiver’s stance and perspective as much as the silent individual’s, and regardless of which one dominates, we hear your silence.  Whether intentional or not, in this moment, it’s much louder than you think, and for many Jews, it inflicts pain on top of pain. You have the power to help ease that, but it requires you to end your silence.  Please.

About the Author
Originally from Philadelphia, Seth Goren lives in Toronto and is Hillel Ontario's Chief Executive Officer.
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