They are still coming for the Jews. So why is nobody speaking out?
By Dan Hodges
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
When I turned up for my first day of work in the House of Commons in May 1992, Pastor Martin Niemöller’s haunting words were one of the first things I saw. They were on a poster that hung in the corner of my new office.
They’d been left there by a previous occupant, and no one had thought to remove them. So they sat there, for another year or so, until someone else claimed the desk, and put up their own poster. But for a year, that phrase greeted me every morning: “and there was not one left to speak for me”.
I replayed it in my head again today, when I saw that Theresa May had told a service to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Paris terror attacks: "I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community would say they do not feel safe in this country”. I suspect very few of us will have thought we would have lived to see so black a day. Unless, of course, we are Jewish.
A couple of days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, I did a debate with the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins on the PM programme, about the appropriate UK security response. In the course of conversation Simon came out with an illuminating statement. “Britain is a robust country”, he said. “We’re not vulnerable to these people. Accidents will happen, terrorist incidents will happen. But we mustn’t dance to their tune”.
I think I know what Simon meant. That for all the harm they do, terrorists do not represent an existential threat to our society or way of life. Indeed, this has been a common response amongst the liberal commentariat. Polly Toynbee wrote a similar piece last week: “In everyday life, Britain has become remarkably safe – relatively crime-free, children rarely die, most people live to a ripe old age. Life is so dull we invent fears”. And Simon and Polly are right. You are not all that vulnerable. Many of your fears about becoming a victim of terrorism are invented. So long as you are not Jewish.
Whenever Martin Niemöller’s warning is quoted, it is always used in the past tense. But as the Paris attacks proved, they are still coming for the Jews. In reality, they have never stopped coming for the Jews.
Attend a wedding, or other social function hosted by a prominent member of the Jewish community. You will be met by smart young men with name badges and ear pieces, who will politely ask you your business, and check your bag. Walk past a Jewish school. You will see the high gates and CCTV cameras. Walk past a Jewish school in France, and you will see soldiers with automatic weapons. They are not there to ward off imaginary monsters, but real ones.
Not everyone in the public sphere has been silent to this truth. Since the Paris attacks I have seen several commentators passionately speaking out about the real and present threat to the Jewish community. Emma Barnett, Jonathan Freedland, Danny Finkelstein, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch. But that underlines the problem. It is mainly Jews that have again been left to speak out for the Jews.
The reaction from outside the Jewish community follows the same pattern. Like Simon Jenkins and Polly Toynbee, we try to hide behind a veil of self-centered proportionality. Or, we cry “look over there!” Yes the Jewish community is under threat, but what about the “revenge” attacks being launched against the Muslim community? Or we deploy the “some of my best friends are Jewish” argument. Yes some Jews are being targeted. But look at what’s happening to the Palestinians. Should we really be surprised? Yes, obviously we must condemn the “terrorists”. But don’t we have an obligation to try to understand them as well?
And what lies at the heart of this response? If we’re honest, if we’re really honest, it’s that those of us who are not part of the Jewish community have subconsciously – and shamefully – come to the view that being a target of terrorism is merely one of the occupational hazards of being a Jew.
The words on that poster on my office wall used to inspire me. But in the past week they have come to chill me. Why? Because the full implications of them have finally dawned on me.
We should not speak out because what is happening to others is wrong. We should not speak out because what we are witnessing is unconscionable in its own right. The only reason we should speak out is because if we don’t, then one day they may come for us.
That’s not good enough. It was not good enough then, and it is not good enough now.
We all have to speak out now. The time for qualification is over. We must rage against the fear. Scream ferociously “this will not stand”. That in 2015 we will not sit by whilst out neighbours feel scared to go to their shops, or take their children to school, or go to their place of worship.
We need to say: “They came for the Jews. And I spoke out. Because I am not a Jew”.