Silence is Acquiescence

Takeaways for those outside Israel who want to help but wonder how.
October 10, 2023
Photo by Maxim D. Shrayer

A former refusenik who has looked KGB thugs in the eye, a Jew by destiny born during the Six-Day War and a dual American and Israeli citizen by choice, I have spent the past four days in agony by proxy. I can only imagine what it’s been like for those living in Israel.

No, strike that.

I can imagine it because I’ve been in hourly communications with family in Israel, both on my side and on my wife’s, and I have an accurate picture of their reactions and feelings. Most of the cousins I speak to and messenger with are third-generation Israelis, my age, and in their company I often feel like a weakling. All have served in the IDF; two have children just two or three years older than mine who are currently in active duty. And one is my mother’s first cousin, son of my grandfather’s brother who came to Mandatory Palestine from Ukraine in the 1920s. This seventy-nine year old cousin lives in Israel’s North very close to the Lebanese border, and is still active in border police. He’s been preparing a neighborhood bomb shelter and installing a chemical toilet, and when we spoke yesterday, his youthful voice choked with anger when he told me that Israel needs action, not expressions of worry on WhatsApp. Thank G-d, members of our extensive family in Israel have been spared the carnage. But never, never once before have I heard my family members there speak of the situation in Israel as “hell” and “nightmare.” Remarkably, of all our cousins, only one has managed to conceal his angst most convincingly. He runs a dairy farm in south-central Israel, and cows need feeding and milking even in times of national disaster.

If those of us living outside Israel struggle to wrap our brains around what just happened, this is in part because this war has virtually no precedent in Israeli history. Yoav Fromer has referred to the attack as the “Hamas Holocaust,” and Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin has drawn direct parallels between the recent violence perpetrated against Israelis by Hamas militants on Israeli soil and the events of the Shoah. In both method and intent, and in the operational linkages between military tasks against Israeli targets and extermination of Israeli civilians, the actions of Hamas commandos in southern Israel are hauntingly reminiscent of what the Einsatzgruppen carried out in the occupied Soviet territories in 1941-1942.

Just like members of the Nazi mobile killing squads, the trained Hamas operatives murdered Israeli civilians in their homes and in their communities, and in doing so committed both war crimes and crimes against humanity. Their genocidal actions were marked by sexualized violence against women and girls, by infanticide, and by the perpetrators’ unabashed triumphalism. In a broader historical sense, the Hamas-perpetrated atrocities also displayed characteristic features of other genocides, especially of the mass violence against Armenians and Assyrians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915-1916. Make no mistake: This is genocide against Israelis by Hamas forces.

The second reason why it’s been so daunting and maddening to follow the events in Israel is the mainstream media’s pretense of journalistic neutrality coupled  with perfidious balancing acts by public intellectuals—all in plain view of the facts. How exhausting it has been to read in The New York Times about the number of people killed “in Israel” (and not Jews or Israelis!) and the number of “Palestinians” who died. Only on the fourth day of the war has the mainstream media begun to publish detailed reports on the massacres carried out by Hamas troops in individual Israeli communities and kibbutzim. How devastating it is to read statements such as this one by Kenneth Roth, formerly the head of Human Rights Watch: “Like the last war in Gaza, the Israeli military is again destroying large residential apartment towers—four of them so far. Any claim of a ‘Hamas office’ or the like does not justify the massively disproportionate effect on people’s homes.” And this statement by the esteemed human rights expert is marked by the hashtag #WarCrimes—not in reference to the crimes of Hamas against Israeli civilians, but to Israel’s provoked and fully justified military response. And all the while more and more evidence of genocidal atrocities emerges, such as the massacre at Kibbutz Kfar Aza. In the words of General Itai Veruv, head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Depth Command, “It’s something I never saw in my life. It’s something I used to imagine of my grandmother and my grandfather in Europe and other place.”

Finally, and I hear this from many whose hearts break for Israel: We are experiencing a sense of isolation. How many of your colleagues, friends or neighbors have approached you with words of sympathy or support? “Just to say I’m open-mouthed in horror at what’s happened in Israel. I’m so sorry and hope that everyone you love is okay”—I’m quoting a message I received this morning from Marcel Theroux, a London-based friend and a fellow writer, who is not Jewish. How heartening it would be to have more messages like this one. I have trouble explaining why I haven’t received more words of comfort and support from neighbors and colleagues. And I’m deeply grateful to my next-door neighbor, an Italian-American, for this text message: “Just wanted to send you a note to let you know we are thinking of you and Israel. I know you have close ties and family there, and I can’t even begin to imagine how you are feeling about this—it is devastating to me and I do not have those ties.” So far, such messages have been an exception.

Sadly, not merely a dearth of support but an active public resistance to pro-Israeli sentiments has been my own daily reality since the recent Hamas attack on Israel. This time, as previously, when I actively posted about Israel, especially on X—and I always do it with love and support—I have lost followers, and especially from among writers and academics. What does this melancholy fact tell you?

Israel and Israelis face an existential crisis. Of course, the romantics in some of us want to get on the plane and volunteer in Israel. But this may not be a viable option for many of us who think of Israel’s troubles as our own troubles. Let’s temporarily put romantic heroism on hold and don our pragmatic hats. What can we do to help? I have three uncomplicated suggestions.

The first is the most obvious one, but it will probably make the biggest difference. We can help financially. Israel’s is hardly a poor nation, but it’s resources are strained. So please donate money, but just make sure the outlets you’re using are solid and reputable.

The second way we can help is by breaking the silence and the isolation, by speaking out in Israel’s support. This is not the time of balanced historical arguments and intellectual contemplation. I loved a recent statement by my colleague, namesake and fellow ex-Soviet Jew Maxim Matusevich, a leading historian of Soviet-African relations and a professor at Seton Hall University. Matusevich’s mother lives in Ashkelon, her building faces Gaza, and she refuses to leave. On 9 October 2023 he posted on Facebook: “Death toll surpasses 700, over 2000 wounded, of those over 300 severely. […] It’s 2023. Jews were executed in and outside their homes. Jews were executed at a rave party. Dozens of women, children, and the elderly were force marched into Gaza. […] Don’t be silent. Don’t engage in whataboutism. Don’t overintellectualize intentional mass murder and extreme cruelty. There are situations in life, which require moral clarity. This is one of them.” I agree completely, and I also want to add that we’re not only surrounded by the morbid silences of academics, public figures, and members of the artistic intelligentsia. We also face a special challenge in the stance of Israeli intellectuals on the radical left, especially those living outside Israel and teaching at American, Canadian, and European universities, who regard Israel as guilty by default and dispute the documented evidence of the crimes of Hamas. An Israeli relative recently sent me a short beat-by-beat video about the massacres in southern Israel. After I shared it on social media, another Israeli referred to it as Israeli “government propaganda.” I immediately got in touch with my cousin in Holon. He fired back: “I know the name of the girl in the video […] a beautiful Jewish girl […] she was brutally murdered.” Solidarity with Israel also means sharing documenting evidence, however graphic its contents, and letting members of your communities see it.

Solidarity with Israel also means sharing documenting evidence, however graphic its contents, and letting members of your communities see it.

The response to the war in Israel has proved, yet again, that silence is acquiescence. This dearth of outcry in support of Israel also brings to mind the years that immediately followed the end of World War 2 and the Shoah, when the suffering and devastation of European Jews was often seen as “another’s woe” and ignored. The Russian-language expression chuzhoe gore (“another’s woe”) appeared in a 1944 poem by Ilya Ehrenburg, the leading anti-Nazi polemicist, who also compared the woe of Jewish survivors to a ”gadfly.” What Ehrenburg implied, referencing Plato’s words about Socrates, is that Jews often ask the kinds of questions that make people cringe, upset the status quo, or call on governments and fellow citizens to act.

Hence my third simple suggestion: that we all become gadflies at the service of Israel, become the sources of both knowledge and discomfort as we all scream, intone or just speak in support of Israel. How exactly one elects to support Israel would stem from their sense of both the poetics and the prosaics of everyday life.

And so in closing, allow me to commit a truism by repeating these words: Don’t be silent. Stay with Israel. Show your support any way you can. Talk to a neighbor about your family and friends in Israel. Talk to your mail carrier or your kids’ soccer coach. Just talk about it. Don’t be silent. Display the white and blue flag with a star of David in your window. Pin it to your social media profile. Fly an Israeli flag in your back yard.


Maxim D. Shrayer is the author, most recently, of the memoir “Immigrant Baggage” and a Professor at Boston College.

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