The proverb “silence is golden” was first coined in the English language by the British poet Thomas Carlyle in 1831. He ended his admonition with “Speech is of time, Silence is of eternity.”
We can use more silence in contemporary society. We live in a constant stream of verbal cacophony evidenced by the endless jousting of talking heads on news channels fed by hosts posing questions sure to fuel the fire of partisan passions. These verbal gladiators go at it during the 24/7 news cycle. All too often what is sold as news has morphed into the realm of entertainment. Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant screenplay for the film “Network” rings even truer today.
The late Vin Scully, the voice of the Brooklyn and later the Los Angeles Dodgers for 67 years, was ironically rhapsodic in his praise of silence. Why interrupt the flow of a beautiful play by unnecessary verbiage? In this vein of less is more, Mark Twain once quipped that he didn’t have the time to write a short letter.
And yet silence is conjoined with indifference when we need to speak out and act. When Elie Wiesel wrote his landmark “The Jews of Silence” in 1966, conveying the persecution of Soviet Jews who were silenced about their lack of religious freedoms and desire to emigrate to freedom, he exhorted the Jews of Silence in the West to speak out and act. And the Jewish community responded by sponsoring perilous visits with “refuseniks” under the watchful eyes of the KGB, lobbying the State Department, raising funds through UJA and alliances with interfaith allies, all culminating in a protest rally in Washington witnessed by moer than 200,000 people. The massive aliyah of more than 1 million immigrants to Israel markedly upgraded its human capital, leading it to become a leading technological power in the 21st century.
More recently, after the 9/11 attacks, Amiri Baraka wrote a poem on this catastrophe titled “Somebody Blew Up America.” In it he asked: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed? Who told the 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? Why did Sharon stay away?” A poet has artistic freedom and can write even the venomous libels Baraka invoked. But he was the poet laureate of New Jersey, a state employee.
At a Jewish Federation of MetroWest executive committee meeting, we debated what we should do. There were some voices for silence. Why make waves with the Black community? Besides, would we win? Losing would be an embarrassment for the Jewish community. Other voices said that inaction would in effect condone Baraka’s hateful comments. And what will we tell community members and our children if we didn’t act?
The voices for action prevailed. With intensive lobbying with Governor James McGreevey and friends in the Senate and Assembly, legislation was passed eliminating the position of poet laureate. So a state-funded position was vacated so that antisemitic slurs would not be sanctioned on the State’s payroll.
Just last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, against the wishes of some in the Biden administration. Whether the trip was wise or not, one can debate. But once it became public the United States could not back down, as it would demonstrate weakness against the ruthless Chinese Communist party.
Why was Pelosi so motivated to visit Taiwan, even though it would cause such controversy and exacerbate tensions with China? According to Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, Pelosi was inspired by her late father, Thomas D’Alesandro. He was a loyal Democratic congressman from Baltimore who stood up to FDR, urging him to allow more Jewish refugees to enter our shores during the Holocaust.
According to Dr. Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, D’Alesandro, at his own political peril, lent his signature to ads placed in leading newspapers by the Bergson Group urging America to grant haven to Jews fleeing Hitler. Appearing in more than 200 newspapers, the ads inflamed FDR and his administration, who insisted that there was little they could do. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of approved immigration slots from Europe went unfilled because of the antisemitism infesting the State Department.
While extolling D’Alesandro in his book “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Holocaust,” Medoff also showed the dangers of silence. (Dr. Medoff will talk about “Lessons from the Holocaust we can apply to combating antisemitism” in a Zoom talk on Thursday, October 27, at 8 p.m.)
Can this be appended to my op ed?
An early activist for Zionism and the Jewish people and founder of the American Jewish Congress as an alternative to the then non-Zionist American Jewish Committee, Rabbi Wise was silent for too long about the horrors facing European Jewry. In 1942, he withheld vital details of what was transpiring to the world at large in part so he could continue to ingratiate himself with Roosevelt, whom he idolized, and ensure continued access to top officials in his administration.
This is not to say that Wise didn’t care about the plight of European Jewry, but his focus was compromised because of these other considerations. He also condemned the public actions of the Bergson Group as a circus, even condemning the group in testimony to the U.S. Congress. Sowing disunity in the public during those perilous days was a prescription for disaster. Only with continued pressure, primarily from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., did Roosevelt belatedly agree to the establishment of the War Refugee Board in 1944. That ultimately saved 200,000 lives.
History is 20/20 hindsight. It’s hard to know what we should have done during a crisis of this unparalleled dimension. But one thing is certain, we cannot be silent when we witness acts of antisemitism from either the left or the right or when we see the hostile environment our Jewish students encounter in campuses throughout the United States. When a politician spews antisemitic tropes we must call for condemnation for this hatred of Jews, instead of having the condemnation enveloped with all the other isms of hate. When we hear excuses for antisemites because of their poor background or the fact that chasidim were changing the demographic character of a neighborhood in Jersey City, we should speak out. We have done an excellent job as a community to secure needed security and training grants for our institutions. But prevention is the best cure, and we should redouble our efforts to strengthen alliances with other groups who share our values.
To our credit as a people, Jews contribute disproportionately to colleges, cultural institutions, and political parties. This was not the case during the 1940s. We should leverage our financial largesse to ensure that the poison of antisemitism and Israel-hatred is not harbored in these settings.
Silence is sometimes golden. We must speak up when necessary. But speech alone is sometimes not enough. We must learn from our sage Shammai, when he wrote, in Sayings of our Fathers: “Say a little and do a lot.”
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.