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Sha Shtil!

By Varda Epstein
5/13/2014, 2:05 PM

The line between being somebody and being nobody is very thin. The good news is that if you forget where that line begins and ends someone will remind you. That happened to me on Sunday, though the story began on Thursday.

As always, Thursday was jam-packed with pre-Shabbos tasks. Then at last, done for the day. I got into bed with my laptop for one last glance at my inbox before turning out the light.

I probably shouldn’t have done that because there in my inbox was a situation that called for an urgent response. A friend had sent me an article by Daniel Mael about Avinoam Baral, a candidate for student council at UCLA. An editorial in a Muslim student newspaper had demanded he sign an “ethical statement” or be disqualified from running for student office.

Here are some choice excerpts from that statement:

We, as UCLA students from various backgrounds and perspectives, ask that elected officials refrain from taking free or sponsored trips with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League or Hasbara Fellowships . . . Both AIPAC and the ADL (as well as its current president) have histories of Islamophobia. AIPAC has sponsored Islamophobic speakers at its conferences and has also consistently pushed for war with Iran, even while the Barack Obama administration has sought a diplomatic route. AIPAC also marginalizes the Afrikan and Palestinian communities, as the organization has consistently endorsed and protected actions that have violated human rights and international law.

Hasbara Fellowships is housed under Aish International, an organization that has helped disseminate Islamophobic materials on campuses and around the country. These materials portray the Muslim community as threats, have incited violence against Muslims and serve to marginalize Muslim students on campus.

We further ask that Undergraduate Students Association Council members do not accept free or sponsored trips [to Israel] that marginalize communities on the UCLA campus. This includes any outside non-student organization that promotes discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, age, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental ability, marital status, financial status or social status or which engages in any form of systematic prejudiced oppression . . . Please sign as a candidate in the upcoming USAC elections assuring the campus that you will decline these trips while in elected office.

Avinoam had refused to sign the statement and so had the members of his Bruins United slate. The statement was an inversion of the truth. The real truth was this: the “ethical” statement itself, was racist. Its intent was to smear Jewish organizations and disqualify Avinoam’s slate on the basis of his religion.

The other candidates had signed.

Why not? It was no skin off their teeth. None of them were Jewish.

Avinoam Baral

And here’s where the story turns hairy. Mael had mentioned in an earlier piece that the “ethical” statement had been proposed by members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Armenian Students’ Association, and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The JVP and SJP were part of the monolithic effort to “promote the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which targets only the Jewish state of Israel on campuses across the country."

The ADL pinpointed the JVP, for example, as one of the ten most anti-Israel organizations in America, “JVP uses its Jewish identity to shield the anti-Israel movement from allegations of anti-Semitism and provide a greater degree of credibility to the anti-Israel movement. JVP recognizes its role as such, specifically noting that the group's Jewish nature gives it a "particular legitimacy in voicing an alternative view of American and Israeli actions and policies" and the ability to distinguish ‘between real anti-Semitism and the cynical manipulation of that issue.’”

The involvement of these two groups, the JVP and the SJP, suggested the attempt to disqualify the Bruins United slate was part of a wider, concerted plan. These efforts were intended to cement the fallacious idea that Jewish organizations are anti-Muslim, and Israel, an American ally, an anti-Muslim state. This idea had been thrown out into the ring, a gauntlet.

And the Jewish organizations were silent.

Where Are The Acronyms?

My friend Michael Behar, who had sent me the link to the Daniel Mael article, asked rhetorically, “Where is Hillel? Where is the federation? Where are the ADL, AJC, ZOA, and the JCC?”

I frowned. The thought of this young man left unsupported hurt me as a mother and as a Jew.  Avinoam was in a terrible bind and needed help from us, his people.

There was little time to fight this thing. The election was at 4 PM. the next day. It would be Shabbos in Israel by then.

Getting It Out There

I knew what I had to do. I had to blog the story to get it out there. It was what I could do.

I drank some strong coffee and crafted a call for action. I shared it wherever I could, and then knowing there was nothing more to do, I went to sleep.

The next morning I sent the ADL a message about Avinoam. I wrote to anyone I could think of that might be able to help. I stopped my Shabbos cooking periodically to run back to the computer thinking of yet another person to contact, someone that might have the magic clout or formula to help that boy in California.

Then It Was Shabbos

Then it was Shabbos and time to put it all out of my head.

As I had hoped, there was a message from Michael, waiting for me after Shabbos. Avinoam had won the election.

I was ecstatic at the victory, but at the same time, knew this election had been but a single battle in a war of great momentum. In fact, though the election was over, the deadline for signing the ethics statement was still in the future, the following Monday at 5 PM. Meantime, in the run-up to the election, our side had failed to confront the enemy. There had been no organized response from the established American Jewish community. Not a peep.

I wondered at the silence.

David And Goliath

Had this modern day version of David versus Goliath gone down so quickly that the situation had escaped the notice of the Jewish establishment? I didn’t know. I only knew that Avinoam had been left to fend for himself against a giant.

I thought of the silence during the Holocaust and the phrase “Never Again.” I shivered.

I thought I knew what I was seeing. And then it was confirmed.

I heard back from someone I had contacted on Friday for help. He was highly placed in the Jewish community and based in Washington, D.C. I had summed things up and written:

Do you know anyone who can help? The SJP and JVP are bringing their weight to bear on the issue but the Jewish orgs aren't stepping up to the plate. It all goes down at 4 PM today Fri, May 9.

Now that the election was past tense, he wrote:

I am aware and we are engaged - but we don't want to bring additional attention to it, so we are doing [so] quietly.

So. I was right. The silence of the Jewish community was purposeful!

“Sha Shtil!” I thought. “Be quiet. Be still.”

Don’t make trouble.

It was the way of the ghetto Jew, meek and frightened of his shadow.

(credit: Michael Behar)

I knew in my gut this was the wrong approach. These groups and others like them must be fought in the public arena without constraint. We must show a strong front.

I knew, however, that if I said anything I would look the fool. I was boxed in. My contact knew I had no familiarity with back channels, Washington deals, and the behind-the-scenes machinations of VIP’s and politicians.

His terse response had served to remind me that I am nobody. He had put me in my place. I’m a blogger and have no real influence. Whereas he, my contact, is somebody. He knows how these things work. With his opening parry, I had been blocked from venturing an opinion.

I, however, remembered my lessons, in particular the lessons of the Holocaust, when Jews kept silent.

Sha! Shtil!

Sha! Shtil!

“No!” I thought. “I have a voice and I will use it.”

 I wrote:

At the risk of sounding naive, this approach is difficult to understand. The SJP and the JVP are not quiet. It looks like the Jewish orgs and Washington are afraid to stand up for this boy.

Luckily, he won this battle, but this business has stained the ADL* and everyone else who should have spoken out loud and clear on behalf of this boy and on behalf of Israel.

Do you, dear Reader, see what I did there, saying that I risked sounding naïve? Yes. It was my ploy to forestall him from telling me I was naïve. And no, it didn’t work.

He wrote:

We've been talking to the university and to lawyers. We don't want this to spread to other universities. No good can come from us giving them publicity.

Sha! Shtil!

Sha! Shtil!

Not spread to other universities? It was already an epidemic. If I were raising a child in the States, I would not send him to college. The fake eviction notices, the demand for an “Open Hillel”, and the banning of speakers such as Ayan Hirsi Ali and Noni Darwish? It frightened me. Worst of all was Yeshiva University honoring Jimmy Carter, the most obscene Jew/Israel-hater of all.

I wrote:

I fear for this boy’s safety. It is all over U.S. campuses. No good can come from remaining silent. That is the lesson of the Shoah.

I hadn’t gotten the message. Apparently. And so he delivered the one-two punch:

His lawyers haven't mentioned his concern for his safety. We can get him protection. But if you think this kid's situation is parallel to Holocaust victims, I think that is so incredibly disrespectful to their memory, that we have nothing left to say to each other. Lila Tov.

Now I was not comparing this boy’s situation to the fate of the 6 million, as he well knew. It was a patently false assertion. A way to end the conversation. Sha! Shtil!

But Sha Shtil was no longer an option when Jews are targeted for being Jews.

Sha Shtil, in fact, had never been a workable option.

It hadn’t worked in the past. It didn’t work during the Holocaust or at any other time in Jewish history. And it will not help the Jewish children on American college campuses today, where they are still targeted by the most virulent hatred because they are Jews.

Sha! Shtil!

Sha! Shtil!

We’ll hobble the boy with bodyguards but we won’t cry out against injustice.

My contact had turned my words against me to remind me that I’m nobody. Which is probably why I don’t get how these things are meant to be handled.

I don’t understand Sha Shtil. Because I am nobody.

And I won’t be silent.

The "Somebodies" Failed

Because the way I see it, the somebodies have failed the test. They have failed to absorb the lessons of history, of the Holocaust, of Sha Shtil.

That means there are only nobodies left to speak out. People like me. People like you.

If we are to survive as a people, we need to bury Sha Shtil, bury it deep underground.

So our voices can triumph over evil.

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. Pirkei Avot 2:6

*To their credit, the ADL did finally issue a (tepid, in my humble opinion) statement. From the May 12, edition of the Daily Bruin,“The Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind released a statement on May 9 saying that [trips to Israel] can provide students with educational experiences. Susskind said the council members did not engage in a conflict of interest and that accusations raised against them are false.

The Anti-Defamation League’s statement also criticized a Joint Statement on USAC Ethics, which members of Jewish Voice for Peace, the Armenian Students’ Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Students Association, the Afrikan Student Union and Samahang Pilipino support.”