05/25/2011 06:22 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2011

An Unconscionable Silence

Where are labor's allies? Where are Israel's friends? Where, exactly, are the supporters of civil rights, immigrant rights and women's rights?

Each core Democratic constituency is under attack. Many of the attacks are vicious and unrelenting. Some are presented as nuanced disagreements, but are no less traumatic in the long run. Still others face the silent and deadly assaults of indifference and inertia.

And yet, each attack is mostly met with silence by those not directly under attack.

When collective bargaining -- the raison d'etre of the American labor movement -- is being erased for public employees, the impact on their members' lives is immediate: reduced salaries and benefits, lay-offs and furloughs. The longer term implications are even worse: a declining standard of living, a diminished respect for their talents, and a weakening of labor's political power. So, to me, the silence of labor's allies is beyond troubling. It is unconscionable.

When Israel's security -- its defense both militarily and diplomatically -- is diminished ever so slightly, the Diaspora reacts instantaneously, and justifiably so. In the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, Jews everywhere learned how vulnerable Israel was and how precarious were the peacetime promises of support. However, after these two Wars, two Intifadas, incessant rocket attacks and suicide bombings, Palestinian population growth and extreme regional instability, the risks that individual Israelis face daily are somehow taken for granted. So, too, is the existence of the State of Israel. Neither should be. Not now, not ever. And when they are met with silence from Israel's alleged friends, it is more than ominous, it's unconscionable.

Last month the "official" unemployment rate among African-Americans stood at 15.9 percent and the "official" jobless rate among young Black teenagers was 38.3 percent. The "official" unemployment rate among Latinos was 11.2 percent. Black women and Latinas had "official" jobless rates of 12.8 percent and 11.4 percent, respectively. And yet, virtually no one in government said a word, even though real unemployment among Blacks and Latinos is easily twice as great as these dismal "official" rates. That, to me, is also unconscionable.
Why are the sounds of silence so pervasive?

Are we simply afraid? Are we afraid to criticize Congressional Democrats for fear that Fox News will loop our comments? Are we afraid to challenge the first African-American president of the United States when his policies ignore harsh realities? Are we afraid to tell our allies, friends and supporters an uncomfortable truth just to keep peace in the family?

Perhaps I lack the standing to say this. For I do not belong to a public employee union; I am not a Jew; I am not Black, Latino, female or young; and I am not jobless. But this unconscionable silence is doing all of us a grave disservice.

This silence encourages our foes, gives comfort to our enemies and guarantees that, sooner or later, our opponents will prevail. And when they do, you -- and I -- will rue the day when we muzzled our own voices... and also allowed others to remain mute.

Pastor Martin Niemoller, fondly remembered for his "then they came for me" quote, came to recognize the collective responsibility of German civil society for the Nazi atrocities. In a speech to the Confessing Church in Frankfort on January 6, 1947, he said:

We preferred to keep silent. We certainly are not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934... 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities had defended the truth until their deaths?

We are not in an analogous era. The attacks we face are mere pinpricks compared to the millions of deaths in Germany and across the globe between 1933 and that 1947 speech. But Pastor Niemoller's observation -- we preferred to keep silent -- and his nagging question -- what would have happened, if -- are powerful reminders that silence in the face of injustice is not golden.

I, for one, prefer to speak up. I urge you to do likewise. And I plead with our allies, friends and supporters to speak out with clarity and conviction.

For every voice raised against an injustice adds more than decibels to the debate. Every additional voice adds diversity, legitimacy and vibrancy and inspires others to act.

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