by Dana Fleitman
Just about everyone who’s sat through even a basic lesson on the Holocaust has heard the powerful and famous Martin Niemoller poem. But just as a quick refresher, it starts:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
So let’s pretend you had to read this poem in a class and then answer this question:
What is the main point of this poem? What is its warning?
- Every group is on its own. Everyone should care primarily, and perhaps even exclusively, about his or her own group, because no one else will care or say anything.
- We need to recognize that when something bad is happening to any group, we should take a stand, because it could happen to us, too. We would want other people to speak out if we were in trouble.
To me, answer #2 is the clear winner. The emotional impact of the poem is in the realization that your silence enabled a horrible event, and just as you failed to speak up for others, now no one’s speaking up for you. In fact, your silence killed those people, and now you’ll suffer the same fate and you are at least partially responsible for not stepping in when you had a chance.
But I’m hearing a lot of Answer #1 from people these days. There’s a lot of “me and mine” before “you and yours” going around, and a lack of awareness that issues impact everyone.
Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s natural to identify with your own group, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with Jews paying special attention to Jewish issues, giving to Jewish causes and maybe even feeling more emotionally invested when Jews are involved. I think that this is how most people feel about their own groups, and that connection makes sense.
But it isn’t an “either-or.”
We can’t keep sharing articles questioning where the outrage is about anti-Semitism in Europe while at the same time turning a blind eye to the racism happening in America. We can’t say, “How could people sit by when the Holocaust happened?” and then totally ignore the systematic and escalating violence against underprivileged people at home and abroad.
Especially as a group that experienced (and still experiences) victimization, it’s really not a stretch to make the connections. In Ferguson, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, and beyond, we see a militant, violent, state-sponsored institution practicing fascist behavior targeting a specific group of people, sometimes even rounding them up and imprisoning them for no good reason. We have a media and society that is actively dehumanizing this group, presenting them as animalistic, criminal and sub-human.
We have refugees fleeing unspeakable violence in their home countries, risking everything with the hope that they can make a safe home in the United States, and the U.S. government is sending them back, saying we can’t keep them here. We have a culture that sees these people as dirty, sneaky and undesirable.
If these experiences don’t sound familiar or relatable to you as a Jewish person, you need to brush up on your history – ancient, recent and current – and start making the connections. This isn’t about equating or ranking suffering, but it is about recognizing that while there may be different details, scales and nuances, at the end of the day, dehumanization, fascism, violence and oppression are Jewish issues. They are human issues.
As a Jew and a human, I empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the refugees, with all victims of war and violence, with everyone who has systemic barriers barring their success. We were and are right to be shocked and angry when others fail to pay attention to our suffering, but instead of turning inwards and saying “every man for himself,” let’s actually look outward and say “we see you, we’re paying attention, and we won’t allow another situation where no one is left to speak.”