“The world is too dangerous to live in — not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.”
— Albert Einstein
Since the Holocaust, Jews the world over have asked: How could the people of Europe have allowed the extermination of 6 million Jews? We are perplexed that people who otherwise might have been upstanding Europeans morphed into genocidal perpetrators. More interesting is our deep disgust with those Europeans and others who stood by apathetically. While I am deeply disturbed by bystanders who enable genocidal demagogues, I recognize that most people — including most Jews — have been and continue to be bystanders to the 47 genocides that have taken place since the Holocaust.
Our ancient texts admonish us to take responsibility for those who are vulnerable and victimized. Yet many Jews not only refuse to support organizations that are dedicated to combating contemporary genocide and providing aid to survivors, they also argue against Jews using Jewish resources to help non-Jews: Darfuri genocide survivors or Congolese survivors of massive femicidal rapes.
Every Jew should be among those leading the charge against genocide and mass atrocity. If we are not leading the charge, if we are not protesting loudly against genocidal behavior, then we are — for all intents and purposes — bystanders. Or, in Einstein’s words, we are sitting and letting [bad things] happen.
Janice Kamenir-Reznik’s central analogy casts all of today’s Jews in the role of European citizens during the Nazi era who “stood by apathetically” — who did not resist the Nazis’ accession to power. There is little question that the Nazis relied on this sort of acquiescence in order to achieve their genocidal aims. However, the analogy to contemporary Jews elides the difference between the obligations of citizens and the obligations of people anywhere. The obligation to protest wrongs committed by one’s home country is, and ought to be, different from the obligation to protest atrocities throughout the world, because citizens of a country have particular knowledge of that country’s dynamics.
States and international institutions have a legal and moral obligation to act in the face of mass atrocity. But acting on one’s individual conscience is different. Individuals cannot be relied upon to identify situations abroad that call for intervention. It is misguided to cast the political need to create robust institutions to resist genocide as a matter of personal virtue.
My late father used to ask me: “Why do you want my shul to announce your rallies (for various Jewish causes)? You know the people are not going to attend.” And I would respond, “But if we don’t announce the rally, your fellow congregants won’t even feel guilty for not showing up.”
Today, when the allotment of time for work is so enormous and the capacity to pay attention so diminished, it is more difficult to get people to register any protest — beyond a sympathetic mouse click or smartphone tap on an online petition. Thus, family — our collective Jewish family from Israel, the former Soviet Union, Europe, Ethiopia, and the Americas — should be first in our prioritized concerns. And yet, if we fail to at least consider the plight of so many others in distress, we’ve failed our moral responsibility to acknowledge God’s dominion over all His creations. —Glenn Richter
Appealing to scripture within a moral debate treads on difficult territory. For most moral claims, texts exist to both support and contradict the claim. For example, biblical texts that enable genocide parallel those that affirm the value of all human life. Particularly in Jewish social justice circles, we find ourselves tempted to select and cite isolated texts that support our moral inclination.
But if our use of scripture is to have integrity, we must be able to respond to those who challenge us with competing texts. We need to articulate general rules that guide how we use scripture to explain why we favor one text over another — something scholars call “hermeneutics.” I favor the system of Dr. Charles Cosgrove, who offers five principles in his book, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate. His system brings a comprehensive rather than a selective search, in which we enhance the strength of the moral claims we make and our ability to answer critics. —Sarah Bassin
Implicit in Kaminer-Reznik’s call to action is a difficult question: What is the scaffolding that enables individuals to move from a bit of knowledge on a subject to action? This shift eludes most of us most of the time on most issues. Many of us verge on feeling overwhelmed “just” from meeting the demands of our work and personal lives. Add to this that the number of issues meriting paramount attention is enormous and we have a serious situation of overload and possible paralysis.
Here are three antidotes:
• Foster a personal, emotive response to the people affected by an issue. Meeting, listening to, and engaging with a live human being is worth a thousand virtual articles.
• Build a community with whom you commit to act on an issue. Be missed if you don’t do your part.
• Be accountable to your community and track yourself! Keep a written record of what actions you perform, including “small” ones. Recognize that the energy you expend will help get you “unstuck,” paving the way for more energy and more action.