One book, more than any other, influenced my ultimate career choice. It was Arthur D. Morse’s “While Six Million Died,” documenting what the U.S. government and people knew about the unfolding Holocaust in Europe in real time.
The role of bystanders in enabling evil to take root particularly concerned me and led to my determination to find a platform for lifelong meaningful activism, which I found in my many years with the Jewish Community Relations Council.
A close cousin of bystanders is overlookers — people who build a rationale for why they are justified in not responding to objective wrongdoing. Unfortunately, it is a growing trend. And what people are willing to overlook today has implications for the Jewish community and our entire society tomorrow.
In a 2011 Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings poll, only 30 percent of white evangelicals in the U.S. agreed that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”
Just five years later — in October 2016, right before the presidential election — a whopping 72 percent of the respondents agreed with that statement.
While there are numerous possible explanations for this huge swing, the major driver appears to be the belief that it was better to align with a seriously personally flawed individual who would champion their core issues (taxes, abortion, immigration, etc.) than with someone who did not exhibit such personal lapses but would not carry their water on their priority issues.
There is something profoundly troubling here: the ease and speed with which people are willing to abandon long-articulated personal values and overlook previously abhorred behavior because their overriding agenda makes it inconvenient to cling to those views.
In the case of white evangelicals, it is over the question of whether immoral personal acts are a disqualifier from public office. Equally troubling is the likelihood that in a highly polarized environment, such examples of abandonment of core values will become even more common place because those values suddenly seem less important than defeating the other side (whether left or right) which is now perceived as an existential threat.
Take, for example, the 80 percent of white evangelicals who, according to exit polls, voted for Roy Moore in Alabama.
It was a casebook study of this trend as overlookers quickly jettisoned long-held beliefs about personal morality because of the ends they desperately sought.
This phenomenon is by no means limited to the right. For example, there is extensive soul searching on the part of Bill Clinton supporters who were willing to overlook his immoral personal behavior because of their priority issues.
Once overlooking becomes a set pattern, almost anything can be overlooked.
Overlookers are quick to remove their previous red lines. Look at the slippage among many former cold warriors who were passionate about viewing Russia as a key adversary of the United States, but not anymore. (Exceptions such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. John McCain of Arizona stand out.)
So what does this have to do with the Jews?
Simply put, once overlooking becomes a set pattern, almost anything can be overlooked.
We have seen how hesitant the president and some of his closest allies have been in addressing anti-Semitism in the alt-right and racism and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville because of fear of alienating a key part of his base.
In the Bay Area, we also have seen reluctance by some in the progressive community to challenge anti-Semitism emanating from anti-Israel quarters because anger toward Israel’s policies creates its own overlooking syndrome.
As Jews we should pay close attention to major overlooking swings.
Decades of work have gone into stigmatizing anti-Semitism and developing major educational efforts at every level of society aimed at dramatically reducing anti-Semitic behavior. Our continued vigilance is more important than ever.
In this atmosphere, it is sadly less certain that if someone espoused anti-Semitic views but championed populist causes such attitudes would be the kind of disqualifier for a majority of the electorate they have been in the past. Their views could too easily be spun as not actually being anti-Semitic.
Equally important, other groups may be targeted before Jews — for example, Muslim Americans and African Americans. It is imperative that we speak out loudly and quickly when any group is the victim of hate, because 1, we surely know what it means to be singled out for prejudice; 2, our foundational Jewish values stemming from the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God compel us to speak out; and 3, we will all be more vulnerable if we do not come to each other’s defense.
There will always be bystanders afraid or unwilling to respond to wrongdoing. Add to that a rapidly growing cohort of overlookers who convince themselves that what they see does not amount to wrongdoing and we have an even greater challenge.
It is probably no surprise to readers that I am ultimately optimistic, in large part because I have seen the power of different communities coming together and because we have no choice but to meet this challenge.
JCRC, with its commitment to mobilizing the community on key issues of concern, serves that critical role of bystander antidote for the community — from fighting for racial justice to combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
That organization and others will play a critical role as we move forward in this new environment.