Do Not Stand Idly By

I am writing from Krakow, Poland, where the memory of genocide haunts every corner of my neighborhood. I am here as an American Fulbright Scholar staging Yiddish-inspired performance art, but each day as I pass by the buildings of the former Jewish ghetto, the civilians in Gaza who are being bombed and forced to flee their homes are on my mind. 

As a Jewish-American artist, I am dedicated to the Eastern European Jewish legacy of antifascist solidarity. I am here in Poland to ground myself in the early 20th-century Jewish socialist principle of doikayt, a Yiddish word that means “hereness.” It is a call to be present and pose questions about belonging and embodying Jewishness in the diaspora. I am creating site-specific, collaborative performance art intended to transform the cultural memories of genocide and displacement into reparative tools for healing in the present. 

It is because of my proximity to the memory of genocide in Nazi-occupied Poland that I am speaking out against the American-supported Israeli invasion of Gaza, state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank, barring of humanitarian aid, and continued expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. It is also because of the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, the obligation to save lives above all else, that I am speaking out. 

I am devastated by the murderous Hamas attack in Israel on October 7 and heartbroken for the Israeli hostages still being held by Hamas. Likewise, I am alarmed by the rise of anti-Jewish hate globally. My grief expands exponentially day by day and my Jewish spiritual practice grounds me. Over and over again, I hear the Torah passage: “Do not stand idly by at your neighbor’s blood.” 

The Israeli government’s collective punishment of the people of Gaza is a disproportionate response to the Hamas attack and according to some analysts, it amounts to genocide. While many debate the semantics of war, scholars and practitioners of international law and genocide studies issued a clear public warning on October 15 of a potential genocide in Gaza. Weeks later, with over 10,000 Palestinians killed, including over 4,000 children, their call is like an echo in the abyss.

My daily encounter with the loss of Jewish life and culture in Poland, where Jews lived for over 900 years before the Nazi occupation and three million Polish Jews were murdered, intensifies my reaction to the images of death and destruction emerging from Gaza. Bombed-out scenes of entire Gaza neighborhoods and families fleeing en masse remind me of photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto, where 380,000 Jews were forced to live in overcrowded, dire conditions and eventually deported to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942. Though the historical contexts are widely different, the cultural memory of the Holocaust is so imprinted in my mind that to witness Israel’s brutal invasion of Gaza and remain silent is, for me, impossible. 

Perversely, the memory of the Holocaust is being used by American, Israeli, and German leaders to justify Israeli state violence. From my perspective in Poland, the horrors of the Holocaust point to our obligation to speak out against war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. After all, that’s why the Geneva Conventions were ratified in the aftermath of World War II.

I am not alone in my perspective. On October 18, the largest-ever Jewish protest in solidarity with Palestinians took place on the National Mall in Washington DC, and on October 27, thousands of members of Jewish Voice for Peace and their allies shut down the main terminal at Grand Central Station to demand a ceasefire in one of New York’s largest acts of civil disobedience in 20 years. 

Recently, I visited Around Us a Sea of Fire, an exhibition about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The show tells the story of the uprising from the perspective of civilians who hid in bunkers and refused to comply with the Nazi deportations to the death camps. A soundscape permeated the exhibition, voicing the words of ghetto inhabitants, collected from archival materials. “The burning ghetto is bleeding day and night, day and night people are burning in the flames,” a voice repeated. As I moved through the exhibition, carrying the grief of my ancestors close to my heart and thinking about my Israeli friends hiding in safe rooms, I also thought of the civilians in Gaza, defenseless against the bombings and deprived of basic human needs like water, food, and medical supplies. 

The last room of the exhibition featured a speech by Polish historian, journalist, and Holocaust survivor Marian Turski, given on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “Don’t be indifferent,” he said. “Do not be indifferent when you see historical lies; do not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against; do not be indifferent when power violates a social contract.”

The tragic connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel and the Nabka is not lost on me. It is for that reason that I refuse to normalize genocides of the past, present, and future; this is my Jewish conscience.

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