This is where it begins — a peaceful reminder to resist oppression ceased by authority.
Words aligning with the notion to stomp out bullying, exactly what we teach in schools, is now unacceptable in the Central Bucks School District, as it is said to violate a new advocacy policy. The principal ordered the librarian to remove a quote from the library’s wall, noting that there would be consequences for not following through.
Holocaust survivor, professor, writer and political activist Elie Wiesel said the words removed: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Wiesel’s words are a direct reaction to the horrors he endured in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. These words reminded students to stand up for those being bullied — in a district that has outwardly threatened the basic human rights of minorities, including those in the LGBTQ community, in recent months.
The implementation of this new policy was meant to ensure balance in the classrooms — to maintain the notion that students learn best when they learn how to think, not what to think. But indirectly, this policy has told students what to think; it sends the message that the oppression of minorities is not only unworthy of discussion but a reminder of its existence is blatantly not allowed.
The confusing terms have teachers worried over what is or isn’t tolerated under the new policy, but any policy preventing anti-bullying language is harmful and places the vulnerable at risk.
Consistency of school-wide values helps to sustain a culture appreciated by everyone. When a school counselor relays anti-bullying curriculum within the classroom and the reminder to resist oppression is against an advocacy policy in the library down the hall, we are sending students mixed messages: We are damaging the learning environment and eroding students’ sense of safety and respect.
By forbidding Wiesel’s words, the school district is giving students the right to ignore bullying as they witness it in the school bathroom. More so, they are giving students the go-ahead to be the oppressor themselves.
We hear about the colossal, the violent, the brutal acts of discrimination. But we often don’t hear of the warning signs — the quiet, potentially deadly, discrimination like the forced removal of Wiesel’s words from a school wall.
But it doesn’t begin with a holocaust. It begins with hateful words. And it begins with the forced removal of countering words — those that express opposition of hatred. It proceeds by inducing fear to follow the path we know to be right. It continues toward the unimaginable mistreatment of humanity, and it simmers without the capability to ever resolve fully — families are forever scarred, minority groups are left in the dust and trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next.
The right to speak up against bullying — to display words that promote acceptance for all — is the right to say never again. We cannot prevent another Holocaust by ignoring the warning signs such as this one.
As a Jew, as a woman who acknowledges the family I never knew — those who perished in the darkness of the Holocaust and their descendants, my cousins — who never had a chance to exist, I will do exactly what Wiesel urged.
I will follow the words that no longer remain on the walls of a library in my community: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
The forced removal of a Holocaust survivor’s words from a library wall may seem benign, just as a banner over the busy 405 freeway in Los Angeles and a tweet on social media do. But antisemitic incidents, just like this one, reached an all-time high as of 2021.
If we don’t speak of these quiet, potentially deadly, acts of discrimination, we will find ourselves wishing we had. Because this is not where hatred stops. This is simply where it begins.
Lindsay Karp of Ambler is a freelance writer with a background in speech-language pathology. She writes about parenting, life with multiple sclerosis and other issues.