In the 1960s, the Communist Party cut the Russian Jews off from the Jewish people. They prohibited them from wearing tefillin, or celebrating b’nai mitzvah, or expressing support for the State of Israel. They intimidated and imprisoned them. And the Communist Party governed with one big antisemitic lie: The Jews are the enemy of the workers.
When my father Elie Wiesel visited, the Russian dissidents would ask him eagerly: How many in America are marching for us? And my father would be too ashamed to tell them how few there were. He wrote a book about it called “The Jews of Silence.” Many thought he was referring to the Soviet Jews, who had to study our sacred texts in hushed secrecy.
But he was referring to us: the American Jews who refused to speak up for their Jewish brethren across oceans and borders.
Today, we are still victims of a terrible antisemitic lie, one that well-intentioned progressives who care about justice have too often swallowed. This big lie seeks to turn the fire of the racial justice movement against its earliest supporters: The Jews are White, the Palestinians are Black.
The inconvenient truth for our haters is that the Jewish people are not the enemy of the workers. Or of people of color. Or of social justice. And that the modern Jewish nation has sought peace with her Arab neighbors since before she was created in 1948.
The truth is that when half of our number finally governed themselves once again in their ancestral homeland of Israel, they built the socialized health care system that Bernie Sanders dreams of. The sons and daughters of the Ethiopian Jewish community, airlifted out of Africa by Israel in the 1980s, are reaching the Knesset and the Eurovision stage. LGBTQ Arabs can follow their hearts and their faith freely in Israel, and an Arab political party may yet be the kingmaker in this year’s elections.
The truth is that Hamas endangers civilians, Palestinian and Israeli, just to feed hatred. Their goal is the total eradication of the State of Israel.
And now, once again, too many of us have shamefully become the Jews of Silence. We have spoken up for every cause but our own.
It is time to shed our silence and speak with a loud voice.
If you have been silent because you feel Israel can take care of itself, think again. Your voice matters. Just weeks ago, Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israeli population centers with the express intent of maximizing civilian deaths. Iron Dome is why there aren’t thousands of murdered Jews. Some in Congress are clamoring for the United States to defund it.
If you have been silent because you feel Israel can never have security without peace, then commit yourself to peace. And while you build this critical common ground with our Palestinian cousins, speak up for Israel which has given up land in the name of peace, most recently with disastrous consequences in Gaza.
If you have been silent because “antisemitism could never happen here,” then take a look around. It is no longer just the Lubavitch asking “are you Jewish?” to help you do a mitzvah. Roving gangs of anti-Israel demonstrators in New York and Los Angeles are asking the same question. They brandish knives. They throw fists, bottles and hateful words.
If you have been silent because ‘antisemitism could never happen here,‘ then take a look around.
And if you have been silent because you felt you stood alone, I promise you that you are not alone. Over 30 years ago, my father and other leaders of the Jewish community convened a quarter of a million of us and our allies in Washington, D.C. to show solidarity with Soviet Jewry on Freedom Sunday.
It is now our generation’s turn to speak our truth: Neither the millions of us here in the United States nor our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel are going anywhere. We will not bow to terror.
At the height of this most recent conflict, President Biden defended the dream of a two-state solution and directly spoke against the hatred at the core of the Hamas charter, saying, “Until the region says unequivocally that they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace.”
I am grateful to President Biden for standing with the Jewish people.
Now it is our turn. Let’s end our silence and join him.
Elisha Wiesel is the son of Marion and Elie Wiesel. This piece is adapted from remarks given at the IAC Rally for Jewish Solidarity with Israel last Sunday, May 23 2021.