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Can Silence Be Courageous?

In her essay “The Cowardly Reasons Jewish Organizations Won’t Speak up against Trump Appointees,” Dr. Lila Corwin Berman speaks powerfully about a moment of moral failure in the Jewish community. If her critique is right, Jewish leaders today are repeating one of the worst mistakes of history: saying and doing nothing in the face of a resurgent white supremacism just as Jewish leaders once remained silent in the face of a growing Nazi threat.

I too am outraged by what Trump has said about Muslims and about women and by what his followers have said about (and done to) Jews and other groups. But I write to challenge Dr. Corwin Berman’s critique and to suggest another response.

Donald Trump has chosen to appoint an advisor who has helped to reintroduce bigotry into the public square and has been accused of outright anti-Semitism himself. Many Jewish organizations have chosen not to speak out against the appointment, and for Berman, their silence is a betrayal of their duty to serve the public good. There is nothing inherent in the status of being a charitable organization that exempts them from the responsibility to fight the evils of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia, she argues, no law against taking a political stand. She considers their silence inexcusable.

I have been heartened by organizations willing to take a stand against the prejudice and hatred that have boiled to the surface over the last year, but is Dr. Corwin Berman right to condemn those organizations that have chosen not to speak out? Most of us remember the famous saying: “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Given how Jews have suffered while good men did nothing, how can any morally conscious Jew today defend remaining silent?

At the risk of bringing down the judgment of history on my head, let me make an attempt. One problem with Corwin Berman’s critique is that many of the organizations she is denouncing aren’t doing nothing; they see themselves as serving the public good in other ways. Their silence can be understood not as cowardice but as coming from a commitment to another value or moral mission.

The Jewish community has advocacy, civil rights and self-defense organizations, and one rightly expects them to speak out in a moment like this, but other Jewish organizations have other missions. They serve the poor, the needy, the elderly and new immigrants. If they depend on philanthropic or governmental funding to serve those roles, any action which risks that support may pose a genuine moral predicament. Organizations that are remaining silent may be making the wrong calculation, but it is not self-serving or cowardly to decide that one’s most important obligation is to the people you’ve committed to help, people with perhaps everything to lose if you let them down.

Of course, speaking out in the face of injustice is an important moral obligation too, but lets face it: speaking out comes very easily these days. Who knows how many petitions I’ve signed and indignant posts that I’ve liked? But true moral action rarely comes so easily. There is usually great sacrifice involved, and those who have to sacrifice the welfare of others are in a different moral situation than those of us judging them from the outside. What might be cloaked by an organization’s silence is not cowardice or cynical self-interest but a group of good-hearted people wrestling with conflicting values and commitments.

This is not to say that one has to simply accept the silence of such organizations, but there is another possible response to it. Rather than denouncing organizations for cowardice, why not try to engage their leadership directly, as if they were principled human beings with a different set of moral commitments? Why not try to understand how they see the situation, and why they are acting as they do before deciding they’ve had enough time to figure things out and condemning them? There are many different kinds of courage. Maybe what this moment demands of us is not just the courage to speak out but also the courage of empathy which involves its own kind of sacrifices.

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