The façade of the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan on the Upper West Side displays, in very large print, a quote by Elie Wiesel, from his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” When I first read these words, in front of an institution that leans openly left, I wondered whether my fellow JCC community members would group me with “the oppressor” if they knew of my right-of-center perspectives on many issues on which the JCC seems to advocate taking sides.
My issue is not with the quote itself, of course, but that its display is devoid of context. Wiesel spoke in reference to the Holocaust, genocide, and other acts of human depravity, on a mass scale; yet those who read his words outside the JCC see only a forceful message that encourages “taking sides.” In the current climate of political polarization, should we assume that the message means for us to choose sides between Democrat and Republican? The “Resistance” and Trump? Black Lives Matter and the police? Taking a knee and standing for the National Anthem?
I’m conservative and, therefore, not a relativist. I do believe that there is right and wrong, and that it is important to support what is right and good. I believe, for example, in siding with our ally Jordan in taking out ISIS extremists, to save the innocent people of that region. I also believe that we should steadfastly side against the North Korean government, an authoritarian regime from which half of my family fled. I doubt, though, that these are the positions that the JCC has in mind.
I’m troubled to think of the possibility that JCC members may use Wiesel’s quote to justify a comparison between 2017 America and Hitler’s Germany—as Barack Obama did yesterday, in Chicago. The principle of “taking sides,” while sometimes necessary, is not constructive to community cohesion. Communities in democratic societies, including the JCC, are comprised of people with a diverse set of perspectives, and minority views should not necessarily be anathematized.
It’s no secret where the Upper West Side Jewish demographic, and by extension the JCC itself, generally stands politically: they aren’t fans of Donald Trump or Republicans or conservatives. Some openness to alternative points of view, though, especially from people who consider themselves tolerant, would be a good test of how seriously liberal institutions live their professed values. I reached out to the JCC with my concerns, and the administration thankfully has been responsive.
After communicating the very message written here, the initial reaction was appreciation for bravely opening up in an intimidating environment for those not in political lockstep. I went on to propose an initiative to help the JCC advocate for “bridging sides” rather than “taking sides.” Experiment in Dialogue and Make America Dinner Again are just a couple of the grassroots efforts being made to mend political polarization and humanize the other side through personal dialogue. As a founding member of EID, I’m spearheading a partnership with the JCC. The hope is to facilitate a truly inclusive community at the JCC—one open to diversity of political perspectives.
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