Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Not Silent Bystanders

It's International Holocaust Remembrance Day (one of several such memorial days worldwide). Last year, I quoted a piece about remembering by Holocaust survivor Gene Klein. He wrote a timely piece about intervention last November that I wanted to feature this year:

In the time preceding our deportation from our home in Hungary, my family experienced many acts of anti-Semitism. A brick was thrown through our living room window. A man spoke at an assembly at my school, shouting that the Jews were responsible for all of the country’s troubles. My sister’s high school prom was ruined by a group of local hooligans who burst in shouting anti-Semitic slogans. The street became a gauntlet of threats and taunts.

All of our assailants felt empowered by the Nazi party influence in Hungary, but none of these actions were officially sanctioned by the government. They were the result of people inspired by racial rhetoric to take matters into their own hands.

I am reminded of these affronts to my family’s freedom and safety as I read the news about the dramatic increase in racial hate crimes since the election (as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups). Some people now feel empowered to insult immigrants, African Americans and Muslims the way people in our town felt empowered to say hateful things to us. It felt terrible to be the target of such hatred, having done nothing to bring it about. And most of all, it felt incredibly lonely. The abuse that we experienced before we were deported took place in public, often in front of many onlookers. The failure of others to intervene—those who watched silently and then carried on with the business of their day—was socially isolating, and their silence dramatically increased our sense of fear and vulnerability.

It is critical in today’s climate that we not be silent bystanders who simply witness the victimization of others. Social psychologists have studied for decades the circumstances under which people will intervene when others need help. They find that three factors are critical. First, when we feel empathy for the victim, we are more likely to help. Second, when we feel that we have the ability to help, we will feel more confident about stepping in. And third, when we recognize that it is our responsibility to help, we are more likely to do so. When there are many onlookers, this responsibility can be diffused in a crowd: everyone thinks that someone else will help, and so no one does, and since no one is helping, it seems like the appropriate thing to do is just to watch or walk by.

What this means for all of us is that if we witness someone who is abused because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, there are three things we can do:

1. Feel their pain. Imagine what it would feel like to be in their place. Even if you see that person as very different from you, we can all remember—or at least imagine—what it is like to be threatened, shouted at, or physically harmed. Act as if the victim is a family member or a close friend.

2. Feel confident, because it is not that hard to help. All you need is a few kind words for the victim. Simply walking up to the target of the attack and asking if he or she is okay can mean the world to that person, and this will likely encourage others to follow your example. Research on bystander intervention tells us that once one person helps, others follow. That first courageous helper sets the tone, makes clear that intervention is called for, and leads the way for others to join.

3. Recognize your responsibility. If you think that you can remain quiet because others will step up, the victim is likely to go unaided. Imagine you are the only witness—that unless you help, you are condemning someone else to suffer.


Klein provides a vivid example of this:

When my two sisters and my mother were in a concentration camp, they were marched through a German town every evening on their way to work the night shift in a munitions factory. They were often taunted by people on the street. Children would stick out their tongues. Passing soldiers would curse at them. On one occasion, Hitler youth wearing neatly pressed uniforms and ugly smiles shouted at them, and the women were surprised when an elderly German man shouted back at their persecutors: “Don’t laugh at them! There is nothing for them to be ashamed of. It is not their shame; it is our shame!” The boys stopped and stared at the old man, uncertain of what to do next, then straggled off. My sisters always remembered that German gentleman who stood out in contrast to the malice all around them.

My hope is that if a woman is yelled at today on the street of your hometown for wearing a headscarf, she will find herself surrounded by others defending her right to dress as she pleases, and the perpetrator will stand alone, shamed. I hope that if you see an immigrant being told to go back to where he came from, you will stand with him in support of his right to be here. We must all be ready, always, to demonstrate what this country truly stands for.


I normally avoid getting too topical with Holocaust posts, but the relevance of these issues is unavoidable. The sobering reality is that ugly incidents are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. As Klein notes, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations have been tracking an increase in hate crimes. And the national news continues to be troubling.

Consider: President Trump lied about the size of his inauguration crowd (size insecurity) and then had two surrogates aggressively attack the press for fact-checking his obvious lie. Trump compared the CIA to Nazis and then blamed the media for depicting a "feud with the intelligence community" by Trump. These are bullying, authoritarian moves, amounting to 'suck up to me, agreed with my lies or I'll hurt you.' Candidate Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the United States, lied about seeing thousands of American Muslims cheer the 9/11 attacks and has otherwise lied to incite racial tensions and violence (as Josh Marshall points out, "authoritarian figures require violence and disorder"). Candidate Trump repeatedly referred to Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists and has vowed to go ahead with his crazy plan to build an expensive wall on the Mexican border. He's ordered that a weekly list of crimes by undocumented workers be published, which is sure to stoke further racial tensions. Trump has claimed, without a shred of proof, that 3 to 5 million illegal votes caused him to lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, has cited bizarre, illogical reasons for believing this and has announced he will investigate voter fraud, which is likely laying the groundwork for further conservative voter suppression efforts. Trump claims that he'll defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo on the issue of torture (officially, they don't endorse it), but he's a strong proponent of it, even though a mountain of evidence shows that torture is notoriously unreliable for producing accurate intelligence. This means Trump has accused Americans of being Nazis… while endorsing torture techniques used by the Nazis (among others). In terms of lessons learned from World War II and the Holocaust, so far Trump has shown he's learned all the wrong stuff. And Trump has only been president for a week. Things can get much, much worse.

Hatred and fear certainly don't need to reach the level of genocide to destroy a country, and many lives before that. We know how these stories can go. The United States has plenty of ugly history but also some great accomplishments. Right now, we're seeing shades of the same spiteful, hateful and fearful spirit that displaced and killed Native Americans, enslaved black people, held lynchings as public entertainment and perpetuated Jim Crow laws. We don't need to and dare not wait for those impulses to grow further to oppose them. Luckily, we're also seeing some of the same spirit that moved abolitionists, suffragettes and freedom riders and we can't encourage or support those impulses enough. As Klein says, we can "demonstrate what this country truly stands for." We don't need to be silent bystanders. The lessons to be learned from World War II and the Holocaust are many, but they include: The nation that held the Nazis accountable to the rule of law at Nuremberg should not throw away those principles every time some insecure bully with a megaphone shits his pants. Bigotry must be challenged. And we can empathize, intervene and support one another.