Liel Leibovitz last week in Tablet Magazine wrote about what he learned from his grandfather Siegfried, who fled Vienna soon after Hitler took over. Here is some of it (edited, bolded and formatted by me for length and clarity):
He was spooked by the goosesteps of Hitler’s goons. He convinced two of his sisters to trade in a continental future for one less tender on the shores of Palestine. His family and friends were all soon seized, deported, and murdered.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather’s story this past week, and in it I find three simple commandments I can’t bring myself to dismiss.
- Treat every poisoned word as a promise. When a bigoted blusterer tells you he intends to force members of a religious minority to register with the authorities – much like those friends and family of Siegfried’s who stayed behind were forced to do before their horizon grew darker – believe him. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t lean on political intricacies or legislative minutia or historical precedents for comfort. Don’t write it off as propaganda, or explain it away as just an empty proclamation meant simply to pave the path to power. Take the haters at their word, and assume the worst is imminent.
- You should treat people like adults, which means respecting them enough to demand that they understand the consequences of their actions. Explaining away or excusing the actions of others isn’t your job. Don’t waste any time, then, trying to understand: Then as now, many were amused by the demagogue and moved by his vile vision. Some have perfectly reasonable explanations for their decisions, while others have little to go on but incoherent rage. It doesn’t matter. Voters are all adults, and all have made their choices, and it is now you who must brace for impact. Remember that what matters now isn’t analysis: It’s survival.
- Refuse to accept what’s going on as the new normal. Not now, not ever. This isn’t a political contest – it’s a moral crisis. When an inexperienced, thin-skinned demagogue rides into office by explaining away immensely complex problems while arguing that our national glory demands we strip millions of their dignity or their rights, our only duty is to resist by whatever means permitted us by law. The demagogue may boost the economy, sign beneficial treaties, and mend our ailing institutions, but his success can never be ours. There’s no point indulging in the kind of needlessly complex thinking that so often plagues the intelligent and the well-informed. The only thing that matters now is the simple moral truth: This isn’t right.
Like my grandfather, I’m a simple Jew, and like him, I take danger at face value. When the levers of power are seized by the small hands of hateful men, you work hard, you stand with those who are most vulnerable, and you don’t give up until it’s morning again. The rest is commentary.
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