Standing as close to her as he could, my grandfather surreptitiously pushed his elbow into my grandmother’s ribs: ‘Say nothing; don’t react.’ He involuntarily imitated the action as he recounted the incident to me decades later. He’d seen the Gestapo officer watching them as they passed the poster with its typical Der Stuermer caricature of Jews.
That was Frankfurt in 1938. ‘There’s a time to keep silent,’ wrote Ecclesiastes. If ever there was such a time, that was it.
There are many kinds of silence and many different reasons for maintaining them. Mercifully, many have more to do with compassion than repression. Through life one tries to learn to discern when words are an impediment to communication, when it’s important not to interrupt, how to let listening deepen, how to avoid obscuring with words the heart’s intuitive alertness to the unspoken, when not to break the communicative silence.
But, as Ecclesiastes also says, there is also a time to speak out.
I’m mindful of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, because we will read it in synagogue tomorrow, on the Shabbat of the festival of Succot. It has no obvious connection with the season, except perhaps for its ‘autumnal tone’ with its chorus line ‘vanity of vanities’, as if it were translating the leaf-fall of the forests into the world of human society: What’s left when all the paraphernalia of life is stripped away? What’s life’s heartwood?
But I’m also thinking of Ecclesiastes because of that line ‘There’s a time to speak.’ Of course, one has to be cautious, because words, once spoken, can never be dissolved back down into the expressionless ether.
But there’s a time when truths must be spoken and across the world it appears that this time is now.
I therefore respect Jonathan Freedland, the staff of the Royal Court Theatre and those who spoke out, in particular the members of my own community Luciana Berger and Dr Tammy Rothenberg, to create his play Jews In Their Own Words, naming and calling out often denied forms and foci of antisemitic hatred and abuse.
Across the world, it is impossible for those of us who have lived in freedom to come anywhere near to appreciating the defiant courage of hundreds of thousands of young people in Iran, especially women, who, despite knowing they may be beaten, shot, seized, and made to disappear, cry out against unbearable repression, impoverishment and degradation.
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize marks an essential moment in the moral history of humanity. It was a wise decision to award it to two organisations, Memorial and the Ukranian Centre for Civil Liberties, and one individual, Ales Bialiatski, who, despite imprisonment and all the armamentarium of totalitarian states, persist in telling truth to power. It expresses on behalf of us all our solidarity with those who refuse to succumb to the politics of lies and fabrications. It gives recognition, in a world in danger of becoming inured to fake news with its narratives of falsification and suppression, to the supreme importance of truth.
Memorial was established by Andrei Sakharov in 1987 to document the horrors of Stalin’s regime. In the recently published volume My Father’s Letters, Correspondence from the Soviet Gulag, Irina Scherbakova, a founding member of Memorial, concludes her preface by quoting from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:
Neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State…has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings… In this alone lies man’s eternal victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be.
‘The world stands upon three things, truth, justice and peace,’ Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamliel observed nineteen hundred years ago. Without truth, there can never be justice and without justice never ultimate peace.
Therefore, in Ecclesiastes’ words, we need, no less that the wisdom to understand when to keep silent, the courage to know when to speak out.