What would you do if you were in an office building and smoke starting pouring out of the air vents? Most of you probably think the answer to this is simple: you would alert someone, you would pull the fire alarm, you would dial 911, you would leave the building, etc. But if you are like 9 out of 10 people in a real-life experiment that was done, you would simply sit still and choke on the smoke- as long as one simple condition was put into place: An actor who was in on the experiment was put into the room with a number of other unsuspecting people. Smoke was then blown in through the air vents, and the actor was instructed to glance at the smoke, shrug, and look back down at his or her magazine. When this happened 9 out of 10 people in the room would reliably also do nothing and sit in the room as it literally filled with smoke, even to the point where they were coughing and gagging.
Often in human interactions we look to others for cues as to how to behave, or what the correct way is to deal with a given situation. We think we would make the right decisions, or stand up and be a leader, but when it counts, do we really have what it takes to be the 1 out of 10?
When I used to teach world history I would tell my students about Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. They could never understand how Hitler came to power democratically (yes, that’s true), and how the German people could have allowed the Holocaust to happen in their own backyard. Every year I would get the same sorts of questions. They just *knew* that Germany had to be SO backward and SO racist and SO ______________ (insert the unflattering adjective of your choice). I repeatedly assured them that, in fact, Germany was quite cultured. The citizens were highly educated and literate. They considered themselves respectable and mannered. Germany had pretty much everything you could have wanted in a 1st world country of its time.
When the first reports started coming out of Europe that Jews (and other “undesirables” like Slavs, nuns, and homosexuals) were being sent to camps where they were stripped naked and gassed to death, nobody believed it was true. Of course this didn’t come without plenty of lead-up. There had been intense violence against these same groups, and government-mandated ghetto-ization (some said for their own protection). There were sparse reports of people who stood up, at great risk to themselves and their families, and helped to shelter these targeted people, but these were the 1 out of 10 (in actuality less).
I was going to write a blog post about the anti-Jewish violence that has been going in Europe. There have been attacks in England, Belgium, France, and Germany (probably other countries as well, but these are the ones I can think of off the top of my head). I was going to tell you about how deeply afraid this makes me, and how the deafening silence of the world echoes back to the 1930s in a way I can only UNEXAGGERATATEDLY explain as history repeating itself.
But then this weekend a relative of one of my former students was killed in Florida. He was shot to death as he walked to religious services, for no other reason than that he was obviously Jewish, in an incident that the authorities were quick to label as “not a hate crime”. This same weekend, an Orthodox Jewish woman in New York was beaten up by a group of teenagers screaming anti-semitic things at her. Who knows how many people could have stopped this or intervened, but didn’t? The more important question, I think, is why this brazen attack happened in the first place?
When I was growing up in the midwest in a diverse community, all of the kids played together. The Jewish kids were friends with the Christian kids and the Black kids and the Asian kids and the Arabs. We had no divisions, and our parents were all assimilated enough not to put any baggage onto us about supposed differences there might be between whatever places we came from in the distant past (some more distant than others). Some of us had grandparents who spoke in haunted voices about the Holocaust and, frankly, we thought they were cuckoo bananas. They would tell us how you couldn’t trust this one or that one- how they might seem like your friend today and turn on you tomorrow, and we would try to explain to them how maybe that was like that in backward Europe, but never in America, where everyone was the same. They would freeze when they saw German Shepherd puppies romping around, and we would laugh and scratch their fur and giggle as our petrified grandparents watched in terror, remembering the attack dogs that were used against their friends and family members when they were our age. We would have non-Jewish friends over and our grandparents would gasp, “You mean they know your ADDRESS?” and we would die of embarrassment at how crazy these people were and how we must be the only kids in school with this shameful secret- that our grandparents all lived like they were in the witness protection program. Didn’t they know this was the 1980s? Things like the Holocaust could never happen again…
Flash forward to 2014. Who would ever have predicted that I would be sitting in Seattle scared to let my kids walk around in our neighborhood? Who would have thought that people would really need to decide whether it would be safer to trust the governments in Europe to clamp down on anti-Semitism or start to make plans to pack up and move entire families to Israel (where, ironically, they can be safer than in European countries where their families have lived for hundreds of years?). Who could have imagined that congregations would be locked in synagogues while groups outside shouted about wanting to kill them and attempted to set the building on fire? Anti-Semitic graffiti is cropping up like weeds all over America and people are oddly silent. Rather than mass mobilizations against this hateful behavior, local towns seem to have a sort of “huh” reaction.
I remember going to a Holocaust museum and looking at a wall that had the total numbers of Jews killed in each country. The total for Denmark was like 16. The docent told a moving story about why this was the case, even though in all of the surrounding countries there were thousands, if not tens of thousands, killed. When Hitler’s troops came to Denmark demanding that the King mark all of his Jews with yellow stars so they could be rounded up for transport to the extermination camps the citizens of Denmark did a remarkable thing. They ALL turned out in the streets wearing yellow stars. The message of solidarity was very clear and very beautiful. As a result (of this and other heroic measures taken by the people of Denmark), the Jews of Denmark were saved.
We always think that pivotal moments happen in other times and to other people. Usually we don’t know that we are being called upon to do something great until after it has already happened. Consider this a wake-up call and a warning. You can’t say you didn’t know. Now you just need to ask yourself: if it comes down to it, do you have what it takes to be the 1 out of 10 who calls the shots, or are you going to be one of the 9 who chokes on the smoke?