I want to stand up somewhere, everywhere, and declare myself. At Thanksgiving a young actress, a neighbor of the owner of the house where we were celebrating, spoke up in a Giving Thanks circle, declaring that she was overwhelmed by the recent war in the Middle East and really sad that not one of her non-Jewish friends had reached out to her, a Jew, to see how she was doing. Then another guest, older, 89 actually, who had lived through the Holocaust as a child and climbed over the mountains from France to Spain with his parents to escape the Nazis, spoke about how he never thought he would live through the same circumstances a second time in his life.
A few days later, I watched a Zoom presentation by a young Jewish artist exhibiting at Brandeis who spoke out about estrangements with several very close old friends over the Middle East situation. Also, she had suddenly been dropped from a long planned solo museum exhibition, and the only reason she could imagine for the cancelation was her outspoken views. She said that the bombardment of antisemitism surrounding the Jewish community had resulted in her inability to make new work. She was immobilized. Nonetheless, she spoke in a clear and confident voice.
Both these women were forthright, but also performers. Meaning that speaking up was woven into the fabric of their work and perhaps even their personalities. And the survivor is a regular speaker at Holocaust Museums. I am not a performer. And yet…
I want to be able to stand firm at a time of such anger and hatred. To know what I know: that we, in the western world at least, are repeating history. All the American press pundits are blowing their horns, declaring something that the rest of us common folk could have and did predict seven years ago. The newsflash is that in our politics and our behavior we are replicating 1930’s Germany, and yet most of us are continuing on with our lives like nothing is happening. And it isn’t just in the Middle East and the U.S. There’s a pervasive contagion of populism, dictatorship, hatred.
We are reliving the darkest moments of history, walking towards the worst side of human nature: Lying, deceit, corruption, scapegoating, and violence. Is this how we imagine our future? Is there anything to be done to impede the tsunami already building momentum and heading our way?
What should we, I, be doing then, I find myself asking. The whole world is on fire. Do I need to drag this old broken-down body out of cold storage and take a stand? And where would I do that? How to declare my allegiance to a better world? I just read a magazine article about the original March on Washington in 1963… Martin Luther King and all those valiant leaders doing something unprecedented. Are marches even still a thing? Are they effective in these years of online brain deadness? Who cares about hundreds of thousands marching when many times that number buy into their news through a screen? But there must be something useful to do, other than whining or cowering in fear.
I pledge myself to speak without trembling, quavering, losing my voice. As I write, I am part of an art exchange with a duo of planned exhibits in L.A. and Switzerland coming up. The large corner painting I will be showing was chosen before Oct 7th. It is called ‘In Hiding (Out)’ or ‘The War, Paris 1940.’ Suddenly the piece holds a different meaning. Two people, a couple, are standing at a railway station in Paris, hiding their faces. There are soldiers everywhere. The two figures are Jews, of course.
Will I stand up in front of my art and explain that while the piece was selected (a loaded word in the nineteen forties) before the October 7th attack, it has even more importance now as a reminder. We have been here before. With Jews throughout history all over the world, with African Americans ever since slavery in the U.S., with Asians in the U.S. during WWII and since Covid, with Muslims in the U.S. after 9/11, and with any population that is seen as the enemy at any time: Gays, transgender people, women. People hated for being themselves.
I remember that often referenced statement by the German pastor Martin Niemöller paraphrased: First they came for the Communists, then the trade unionists, then the Jews, and finally when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up and help me.
The truth is that I wouldn’t be at the end of that list, but at the beginning. It’s up to each of us, old, young, of any religion or race or gender to remember — it’s only a matter of time. They say that antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine. It signals fascism. And we all lose in that reality. If we pretend that it’s business as usual with this surge of hatred, of violence, and with the extraordinary danger of our upcoming elections, we are lost. I’m going to the metaphorical gym to get in shape for the work ahead of us. I hope that we all can build our courage muscles and our vocal cords. It’s going to take a movement. I’ll see you there.