The (ir)Relevance Of Speaking Up

Written by Jahnavi Jayanth, writer and curator at Bolti Bandh.
Illustrations by Natanin Rachpradit, creator of Bluish State of Mind, consultant illustrator and designer and Bolti Bandh's in-house illustrator. 
Published on November 10th, 2019.  

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series. Read parts 2, 3 and 4 when you're done reading this one. 

Disclaimer: The insights and claims made in this article regarding conflict are made in reference to the masses of people involved in conflict, and not individual political influencers that were/are accused rightfully for crimes against humanity. No comment has been made about the role individual political influencers have played; with the focus solely and entirely on how masses reacted, if at all these individual political influencers were involved in the narrative.

“Remember the name, Róża Robota. Those women, they smuggled gunpowder out of a munitions factory and blew up the crematorium where they were forced to burn their own. Remember them, they tried.” 

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Morning. 

Inside the sprawling memorial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, dedicated to the Jewish people that were victims and resistors of the Holocaust; survivors and their children spend their days remembering every name.  That morning, the air was dry and still. It felt like every leaf and blade of grass on that hilltop were in solemn, silent reverence. We made our way into the museum and saw smiling children waving at us from a tall sloping black-and-white screen. They belonged in the previous century. They were surrounded by men talking business, women greeting each other on the streets and other children kicking a ball around. Then the scene swiftly shifted to a choir of little boys and girls, looking up at the sky and singing Hatikvah, a Zionist song meaning ‘hope’, and then looking squarely into our eyes - my eyes - as if to say, “we’re Jewish, human too, like the rest of you”. 

I can’t remember exactly when the back of my throat began to burn; I wasn’t fighting the tears anymore and a vicious swirl of anger, indignance and panic had found my stomach. Perhaps it was the torn, nailed and singed shoes, perhaps the captured sight of several men being shot while others simply watched, perhaps it was the cartographical shape of Poland when it was secretly taken control of - a shape that looked eerily like Kashmir. I saw that sight days after Kashmir was secretly taken complete and utter control of. 

In children’s books and their newspapers, there were caricatures of frightening monstrous men with large noses and greedy eyes. In his speeches, they were the enemy. It began slowly and from Jews not being German enough, to Jews taking what was rightfully German before anybody realised what had crept upon them, every last Jew in the world, down to even the 200 Jews in Albania, were to be destroyed. I will try to not tell you why the propaganda reminded me of my own people back in this peninsula; of the claims that the Kashmiri Muslims ‘deserve it’. Or why the National Citizens Registry (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, reek of the yellow stars of David. Why our silence on communal violence is burning through us, like the silence in white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed people allowed 6 million lives to perish. How we continue to pass along fake forwards about Muslim terrorists as they passed along fake news of Jewish thieves. How we are supposed to inextricably see our country in its leader and be hauled up by a mob or the government itself, as being a traitor for not doing so. Plenty has already been said and plenty has been silenced. Those of you who know, know. Those of you who see, but don’t want to know, I can’t change that in a paragraph. 

Opposition leaders and influential figures - before Hitler ousted them and disposed of them - thought they saw warning signs. They dismissed these red flags justifying that there wasn’t much harm one man’s rhetoric could do. And even if it did, they would tackle it when the time came. We all know that didn’t work. 

That’s the thing about fascism, it coils its way around your body and before you feel its slimy, tightening clutches, your bones have already been crushed. I am not saying this. Experts are. 

And our country is in the throes of a fast-becoming-fascist culture and political climate. I am not saying this. Experts are. 

“After everything, I think we do need and deserve to feel secure? Have a country we can call our own, just ours.”

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Afternoon.

I was beside myself in frustration, helplessness and an unshakable urgency. I had a lot to say. I wanted everyone to be saying something. I stand corrected. I wanted everyone who was thinking the same thing I was, to say something. And I wanted every person who didn’t agree - the kind of people who didn’t speak up against cruel oppression to stay silent. 

We came out of the museum and walked into a smaller office building and settled ourselves noiselessly into plastic chairs packed in congested rows and columns inside a tiny room. Warm sunlight streamed through the windows on our left and we looked at the smiling old lady sitting across from us. We smiled back and laughed nervously as she made a few familiar ‘I was young once’ jokes. She was an endearing white American, Israeli Jew, who halfway through her conversation with us said, “Whatever is happening to the Palestinians, we really do deserve a country that is only for our people. I appreciate Trump for what he has done for us.” I did not agree with her, but I did not dare utter a word.

Rena is a Holocaust survivor, who was born into the genocidal flames already setting the world ablaze. She was a three-year-old who ran away from a ghetto in Poland, while everyone trapped inside was shot to death. She then donned the guise of a boy to stay alive. Staying alive meant being tortured in a slave factory. Soon after, she was thrust in a cattle car in the company of mangled, starved and diseased bodies, many dead and rotting. She walked the death march, her bare feet ploughing through the cold snow - she said she doesn’t remember a time from her childhood, “...strange as it seems now, when it wasn’t snowing, it was always biting cold...”.  When she was a little older, liberated and taken to America with an adopted mother, this mother died. She found it strange that so many cried at one small body being gently lowered into the ground when she had, after all, seen thousands of bodies with their bones protruding and parts missing being shovelled into massive craters by gigantic moving machines. 

I could not bring myself to do anything but listen to her, I could not pass judgment on what she said or analyse why she was saying it or even try talking to her about ‘yes, but’s. I didn’t have anything to say, I could hear or feel nothing but the sound of her voice and the pain ringing in it. Suddenly and for the first time ever, as far as I recall, it didn’t feel like it was my place to speak up - that anything I say would be useless and unwarranted - most importantly, uninformed with a blatant lack of understanding. 

How could I possibly question Rena’s desire (and the desires of others like her) for safety and her suspicion of anyone remotely unlike her? I am still not in support of what she is saying, but then again, who in the world am I to say that to her? 

I have been a cocky writer. I have always thought expression came easy to me.  At the very least, a few eyebrow raises and intonated grunts or whines; if not arduous and admittedly convoluted monologues; if not pithy and confident statements. I have revelled in knowing that when I am ready to speak my mind, and that has been frequent, I can. Two months ago, with a determination to understand why the Israelis treat Palestinians as they do, I went to the Israeli-Palestinian territories. 

My confidence, and you could say, desire to speak my mind disquietingly disappeared on me. If you are someone I commonly disagree with, or would if I had the chance to, I didn’t want to attack you anymore, either.

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series. Read parts 2, 3 and 4 when you're done reading this one.