Rabbi Gary Creditor: "Who was Pastor Martin Niemöller" (March 12, 2010)
And I Didn't Speak Up Because…
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
March 12th, 2010
Who was Pastor Martin Niemöller? He was a German pastor and theologian born in Lippstadt, Germany, in 1892. Niemöller was an anti-Communist and supported Hitler's rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. He became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to Hitler. Unlike Niemöller, they gave in to the Nazis' threats. Hitler personally detested Niemöller and in 1937 had him arrested and eventually confined in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Niemöller was released in 1945 by the Allies. He continued his career in Germany as a clergyman and as a leading voice of penance and reconciliation for the German people after World War II. The poem he wrote is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy, as it often begins with specific and targeted fear and hatred which soon escalates out of control.
This is his poem.
In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me —
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
He first said this on January 6th, 1946 in a speech before representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt, Germany. In variant forms he repeated it at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, in 1959 (or 1960), and it appears in the Congressional Record, 14, October 1968.
I have grown up with those words from the first moment as a young person that I heard about the Holocaust. In the beginning I didn't really understand how it could happen. Perhaps I still don't. But I learned of the silence that surrounded the disappearance and the destruction of European Jewry. I learned how Hitler singled out (supposed) Aryans as superior and everyone else as inferior. Yet beyond that, Hitler stripped away civil rights from everyone who was inferior, all in Pastor Niemoller's poem, but also from homosexuals as well. Reading his poem today I would insert a stanza that reads:
Then they came for the homosexuals –LGBTQ – in inclusive language,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a homosexual.
That is why, because this poem echoes in my ears and to my heart about silence, apathy, and indifference, for the second week in a row I went to the Student Commons at VCU for the rally held last Wednesday (March 10th) in protest against the letter send by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to the state colleges and universities in Virginia directing them to rescind their policies forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He should have stuck to global warming. He certainly turned up the heat. I have left the activism in this sphere to our son Menachem who has been a great champion of civil rights in these matters. But perhaps because this episode happens immediately after last week's experience of the Westboro Baptist Church venomous, vile language not just against us, but against homosexuals as well, right after Purim where Haman wants to commit genocide and Ahashverosh goes right along, maybe because it come so close to Passover where we proclaim liberty instead of slavery, God's redemptive love instead of human hatred, that I felt compelled to be present at this rally. A week ago, at the Holocaust Museum, people of all sexual orientations were for present for the Jews. This time the Jews would be present for people of all sexual orientations.
Hatred of one is hatred of the other. Evil is evil.
The subject of homosexuality is very complex. Religious teachings about the nature of society are interwoven with core values, ancient world views, and visions of the construction of the fabric of society. Society changes and accommodates new models slowly. Yet Attorney General Cuccinelli's position and letter unequivocally and unambiguously allowed for if not encouraged discrimination in all civil matters because of one's sexual orientation. It would not matter how competent, how capable, how honest, how just, how scrupulous, how talented, how dedicated a worker, a professional, a person you are. If your boss doesn't have a broad vision of humanity, if your boss does not evince tolerance of others, then either you would not be hired or you could be fired, or in any way discriminated against without recourse to the law of the Commonwealth. The Governor's statement does not go far enough. I am not sure how the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Romer v Evans affects legal standing.
But this I do know:
I know hatred when I hear it.
I know hatred when I see it.
I know hatred when I feel it.
In this letter of the Attorney General, I heard it. I saw it. I felt it. I got it.
I am not a communist.
I am not a trade unionist.
I am not a Catholic.
I am not a Protestant.
I am not an LGBTQ. But I am a Jew.
And if I want to be respected for being a Jew;
And if I want civil rights, as I am a Jew,
And if I don't want to be discriminated against because I am a Jew,
Then I stand up for everyone else- all the time, and they will stand up for me.
Our faith gave the world the verse:
"Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Our religious writings – by Hillel - first wrote the dictum:
What is hateful to you, do not do to another: this is the whole Torah, the rest is
commentary. Now go and study it. [Hillel, Shabbat 31a. ARN, ch. 26.]
Our Torah asks the eternal question that echoes from the Garden of Eden in Genesis:
"Where is your brother?"
Our innermost soul must cringe when we read Cain's retort:
"Am I my brother's keeper?"
The space between the verses screams out: "Yes!"
God rebukes Cain and says:
"What have you done?
Hark, your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground!"
Hatred has shed enough blood on this ground. Especially in Richmond.
Especially in the capitol, so near to Lumpkin's jail.
Em ayn ani li me lee If I am not for myself, who is for me?
U'kh-she –ani l'atzme, mah ani If I care only for myself, what am I?
V'eem lo ach-shav, ay-mah-tay And if not now, when?