Steve Freedman

Silence is complicity

Note: I wrote this blog on Wednesday before the F.B.I. issued an alert in our State about a “credible threat against NJ Synagogues.”

This is not the blog I wanted to write this week, but recent events leave me no choice. It is no secret that antisemitic incidents have been on the rise in recent years. According to the ADL, in 2021, they tabulated 2,717 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States. This was a 34% increase from 2020 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. In addition, antisemitism has been on the rise on college campuses for years and in many instances Jews have been “canceled” on campus.
The right wing believes we are non-white aliens and the left thinks we are super-powerful white people. So we get attacked from both sides – meaning antisemitism is a scourge across the political spectrum.
It seems now that one can be openly antisemitic and unconcealed antisemitism is acceptable. Recent examples come from an Oklahoma legislative candidate who has said “the Jews” are evidence that “evil exists,” and of course Kanye West (Ye) who has more followers than there are Jews on earth. And then there is the antisemitism that is often veiled as an attack against Israel. And as much as some want to argue, hateful, anti-Israel (anti-Zionism) speech that calls for the end of Israel is antisemitism (For clarity – this is different from legitimate criticism of policies and decisions the Israeli government makes). The defacing of Jewish institutions, hateful banners being publicly displayed, and an increase in attacks against Jews are all becoming even more frequent.
There has been a long standing saying the Jews are like the canary in the coal mine. (Until 1986, canaries would be sent into coal mines as they were very sensitive to carbon monoxide and other toxic gasses.) The idea is that Jews are the “canaries” in society and if hate and violence goes up against Jews, it is an early sign that the society is in trouble and likely in decay.
The problem with this metaphor is that the canary being sent into the mine was in a cage and helpless. They were sacrificed to save the miners.
We Jews are not helpless, nor should we be the sacrifice for a society at odds with itself. On the contrary, we are powerful voices for reason, for sanity, for justice, and for equality. And while we have been very good at using our voices for the vulnerable and disenfranchised around us, as we should, we need to sharpen our voices on behalf of ourselves, especially now. We cannot be silent and believe others will come to our defense or believe this will pass. While that may all end up being true, history has taught us not to count on it. With Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass” coming up next week, commemorating the first organized Nazi raid on Jewish synagogues, homes, and businesses that left many dead, property destroyed and the Jewish population stunned, I believe it would be a terrible mistake for us not to be vocal and assertive in our fight against the rise of antisemitism.
What can and should we do?
We need to support organizations that expose and fight antisemitism. We need to support candidates who condemn antisemitism and work towards a more just society. We need to actively work against candidates who have espoused antisemitic sentiments and we need to talk about it with our family, friends, neighbors, and when appropriate, our children. Any public official, celebrity, or leader who remains silent during this time is complicit. We Jews are also capable of complicity when we play down these remarks, remain silent, or explain away these antisemitic attacks made by politicians and candidates just because they support policies we care about. To me, that is short sighted and dangerous.
Let’s be honest – antisemitism enables the far left and far right to become “strange bedfellows.” And when we, within our communities, are more focused on pointing fingers as to who is more to blame for the rise of hate and divisiveness in our country, “my party or your party,” the antisemites win. It is up to our leaders, and to all of us, to tone down the rhetoric, stop pointing fingers and to start exploring what we hold in common. For us Jews, there is more we share in common than separates us. We need to rediscover it.
The Kanye West controversy has been both alarming and, in some ways, heartening. Alarming for the hate he has been spewing – especially in the context of the wide reach he has. We know he says what many others believe. Heartening because we’ve seen so many people and corporations distance themselves from him. The public rejection of his statements is important for everyone to see, and especially important for our children to see – especially the older ones who have purchased his products or enjoyed his music.  This controversy has shown that there are consequences for our words and actions – and hate has no place in our society.
In the past week there seems to be an increasing concern that the antisemitic rhetoric and hate speech is going too far and is becoming more dangerous for Jews in America, and thus Americans at large, leading to more explicit media coverage – late, but welcomed. The attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband by an individual who espouses antisemitic hate further accentuates how dangerous this is becoming.
At our school we will not be silent. We are, and will continue to teach, that hate has no place in our world.
We are addressing this topic explicitly with our 7th and 8th grade students. What we teach reflects our values of justice, compassion, courage to speak truth, the importance of advocacy (we cannot be silent), pride in being Jewish and Tikkun Olam – how they can be the change they want for their world.
Silence has no place in our schools. We have much to be proud of as Jews and Americans. Our students need encouragement to stand tall in the face of antisemitism, understand its long sordid history, and learn how to fight hatred and bigotry against our people. Without fear mongering, that is exactly what we are doing.
About the Author
Steve is Head of School at a Jewish day school and has served as a Head of School for over 21 years. He also served as a Congregational Education Director. Steve has taught and mentored new educational leaders, has led sessions on leadership and change at Jewish Educational Conferences, and at Independent School Conferences.
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