Menu JTA Search

Op-Ed: Sports and the many sides of silence

(JTA) — Over the past few days, we find ourselves grappling with the concept of silence in two contrasting ways. First, a silence of indifference, acquiescence and complicity, and second, a silence of strength, principle and memory.

In the case of the Penn State tragedy, Coach Joe Paterno and others committed the sin of silence. Their silence of indifference, acquiescence and complicity led to the perpetuation of a vicious and destructive pattern of behavior that destroyed the lives of many young boys.

But somehow lost in the headlines this week is the grappling with the need for the silence of strength, principle and memory.  

As we look toward the Summer Olympics, the families of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches slain in the 1972 Munich Olympics have asked for a moment of silence in London. What a moment of unity it would be to express the infinite value of human life and abhorrence of terrorists who target the innocent and mercilessly maim and murder in, of all places, the Olympic Village.

But sadly, the more we grapple with the unfathomable resistance to this proposal, the more it is feeling like the silence of indifference, acquiescence and complicity.  It is because we fear that many of the countries represented do not share the belief that targeting innocents, in this case Israelis, should be met with strength. For them, there are causes that justify terrorism.

This type of silence is nothing new.  It is the silence of those who say nothing as terrorists are venerated as honorable martyrs all over the world — in Tokyo, Moscow, London, Madrid, Tel Aviv and New York. Until the world recognizes that there is no such thing as good terrorists and bad terrorists — that nothing, nothing justifies focused attacks against innocents — terrorism will thrive.  

Let it be said clearly: Rejecting the moment of silence at the 2012 Olympics sends the message that you can kill and massacre and the world will go on as usual. Responding to the request for the moment of silence with silence itself is unacceptable. It is legitimizing the horror.

Even if the International Olympic Committee rejects the request, athletes of good will should not. The games are not about the IOC and its members, whose names few people know. It’s about the athletes, the role models, who set the example.

There have been moments in the Olympics that transcended athletics. Some were glorious, like when Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the ’68 Olympics raised their clenched fists in solidarity against the discrimination of blacks. Some were infamous, like when two Jews, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were removed under Nazi pressure from the American 400-meter relay team in the ’36 Olympics. What will happen in London this year has the potential to be one of those moments when athletes will be judged not by athletic prowess but by ethical integrity and the courage to stand up for what is right.

Imagine, just imagine, if during the Games, LeBron James and Michael Phelps and the whole American team would declare their own moment of silence of strength, principle and memory for the Israeli 11. Others would follow and the world would hear clearly that terrorism is beyond the pale.

In so many ways, sports is associated with a call to make more noise and get louder. But in other ways it teaches the challenge of silence.

Penn State has shown us that silence can reflect the greatest abuse of the power of sport. But there is hope. It’s up to these great Olympians to make the ultimate dunk, the ultimate record-setting race, to show that athletes can be true examples of a different type of silence — a silence of strength, principle and memory — one that can raise a voice of moral conscience.

To paraphrase the Book of Ethics, “In the place where is there is no person, stand up and be a person.”

(Rabbi Avi Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of YCT Rabbinical School, both in New York. Rabbi Aaron Frank is the principal of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School in Baltimore.) 

NEXT STORY