Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Problem of Silence

"When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and 
the most tragic problem is silence." 
- Joachim Prinz, 1963

A few years ago I produced and edited a documentary film titled Heart of Stone, which told the story of Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey and its hallowed history. The school in its formative years was a reflection of the neighborhood in which it existed then, which was predominantly Jewish. In the sixties at the height of the civil rights movement, there were race riots in Newark. The Jewish population migrated to the suburbs and African-Americans took their place. In telling this part of the story, the film set the context of the civil rights movement by showing footage from the famous "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Washington Memorial in 1963. What I learned was that before Martin Luther King made his epic speech, there was another speaker who graced the podium with considerable charisma. That speaker was Joachim Prinz. 

Joachim Prinz was a Rabbi who had escaped Nazi Germany and come to America only to find that racial discrimination and bigotry was also tearing this nation apart. He quickly got involved in the civil rights movement, joining picket lines and making speeches at protest marches, adding to the sea of change that was to come. It is on that eventful day in 1963 that he uttered the words quoted above, that have come to define the human condition through out the world then and now.

The problem of "silence" has often allowed injustice to prevail in all corners of society. Silence from individuals has led to genocide and war. It has had neighbor kill neighbor for being a different creed. It has allowed corruption to poison power and leave dysfunction in its path. Silence has been an impediment to progress where ever it was most needed and it is the opposition to silence, that has most often brought about significant change.

July has been a bloody month in many parts of the world. An airliner was senselessly shot down in a war zone, killing almost three hundred innocent civilians. The bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians reached another horrific milestone with more than a thousand civilians killed. In Iraq and Syria the carnage continued with no end in sight. In Libya a civil war threatened to derail a fragile government and break a fledgling nation. In other places rape, murder, bigotry and hatred continued to claim victims unabated.

The recent conflict in Israel and Palestine left disturbing images all across the news media to ponder. The militia on both sides, not willing to relent, sacrificed innocent lives with rockets and massive bombardments. A poll carried out by the University of Haifa in Israel claimed that the war was very popular in Israel, with over 85% of the population supporting it, no matter the death of innocent women and children. Though Israel has a strong non-violent peace movement, that pushes for reconciliation and justice, and many there oppose military action of any sort, when rockets rain down their voices get silenced and sidelined. When war becomes this popular, one wonders where humanity is heading no matter what. United Nations Human Rights chief Navy Pillay called out on Israel and Hamas for having committed war crimes. Racial profiling of Arabs/Palestinians living in Israel increased dramatically revealing a disturbing side of a fragile society. Ironic for a nation born out of the worst atrocities committed against a people in the name of bigotry. The problem of "silence" that Joachim Prinz talked about, seems to be plaguing the very people who were meant to be symbols of perseverance and justice. A loss of history, fear of survival and self preservation seems to be turning a nation inward.

There is enough blame to go around for the present war. Hamas "terrorists" to some, and "freedom fighters" to others are willing to sacrifice their people for a cause, the unconditional freedom of their people. When an occupying force chokes a people, exerting immense power over a disenfranchised and emaciated people, there is bound to be resistance. History has shown that an occupying force can only prevail by oppression and oppression alone. Hamas was born out of that oppression that has existed over decades. By never being sincere about finding a solution Israel and its backers have created a situation that has periodically boiled over. Silence and inaction has lead to violence on an unprecedented scale and can only repeat over and over again as the roots of the problem are never sincerely addressed. 

The United States which for decades has tried to broker peace never stepped up to the plate as an impartial negotiator. When this war comes to a cool, there is very little hope that there will be any real change. Israel would have successfully created a new generation of hardened fighters from the mayhem young eyes have witnessed. The popularity for hardline leaders on the Israeli side would have increased, as Israeli citizens would like to go back to their beaches and night clubs and have a vibrant economy while a few million people live in squalor a few miles away in a walled ghetto. 

Every political stalemate in the most extreme and disparate situation has only come to some sort of conclusion through truth and reconciliation. Even a gulf as deep and wide that exists between Israelis and Palestinians can be bridged, if the silence can be addressed on both sides and reconciliation can be attempted in a sincere manner. As a distant observer who perceives situations by reading, seeing, hearing and listening to people engaged in the conflict, I could be presumed naive. But the alternative is unsustainable and apparent for all to see. The periodic culling of innocent life can never be justified in the name of national defense. One can only assume that the history of a people can bring justice to bear and the killing to cease. Otherwise all that will be left is fear and annihilation.

To speak up against power, status-quo, injustice and bigotry takes courage. Those who have, have changed the course of humanity for ever. Great voices like those of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Bobby Sands, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, Steve Biko and many unknown others were attempted to be silenced. They only grew louder causing all obstructions to obliterate, achieving liberation in some cases and revealing the potential that lies within us as individuals.

If peace, freedom and justice are universal cravings, then no power on earth can stop people from achieving it. And those who stand in silence beside those who do not have it, will only find themselves losing the most precious thing they cherish. It is what it is.