first they came for the canary

what are the police doing in egypt?

At a cer­tain point dur­ing the recent (2011) Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion it was not always clear with which side the police iden­ti­fied. These Police are dif­fer­ent. They’re singing about canaries in coal mines. They offer a per­son­al­ized vari­ant of the old metaphor.

First to fall over when the atmos­phere is less than per­fect
Your sen­si­bil­i­ties are shak­en by the slight­est defect
You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walk­ing in a straight line

Here’s that “orig­i­nal” canary:

coal miner's canary

a coal min­er’s canary

human canaries, or “the canary and the jewish question”

Near­ly 50,000 pages turn up when you search for “Jews: Canaries in the coal mine?”. We seem to be some sort of human DEW Line. As is clear from the Google search, numer­ous con­tem­po­rary com­men­ta­tors have made the asso­ci­a­tion. Some, how­ev­er, cau­tion us Jews of being too self-cen­tered. David Hirsch in his arti­cle Jews as canaries and hawks sug­gests this is what Holo­caust schol­ars Yehu­da Bauer and Emmanuel Sivan warn:

…the fight against anti-Semi­tism is only part of the gen­er­al fight against big­otry. Both [Bauer & Sivan] found it nec­es­sary to spell out what ought to have been obvi­ous to the del­e­gates: that the strug­gles against Islam­o­pho­bia and oth­er types of racism are inti­mate­ly relat­ed to the fight against anti-Jew­ish racism.

This care­ful dis­tinc­tion does not seem to be the issue for oth­ers. Canary In The Coal Mine, an unsigned blog orig­i­nat­ing in Phoenix, Ari­zona shares “News and infor­ma­tion about anti-Semi­tism and Islam. Expos­ing the tox­ic nature of the Quran and all of Islam who adhere to its oppres­sive and dead­ly ide­ol­o­gy includ­ing anti-Semi­tism and vicious hatred.” Paul Belien who wrote (in June 2010) at The Brus­sels Jour­nal about ““Decoy Jews” in Ams­ter­dam”:

In an effort to arrest the cul­prits who ter­ror­ize Jews, the Ams­ter­dam author­i­ties have ordered police offi­cers to walk the streets dis­guised as Jews. The Dutch police already dis­guise offi­cers as “decoy pros­ti­tutes, decoy gays and decoy grannies” to deter mug­gings and attacks on pros­ti­tutes, homo­sex­u­als and the elder­ly. Appar­ent­ly send­ing out the decoys has helped reduce street crime. The “decoy Jew” has now been added to the police attrib­ut­es.

One of the com­men­tors to the arti­cle sug­gests, a re-read­ing of pas­tor Mar­tin Neimöller’s “poem” even though he seems to have mis­con­strued the sequence of events report­ed in it.

jews on first?

While there are sev­er­al vari­ants of Neimöller’s state­ment, not one of them has the Jews as the first for whom the Nazis came. A thor­ough study of the his­to­ry of the expres­sion was (even con­tin­ues to be) made by Prof. Harold Mar­cuse (Her­bert’s grand­son). Neimöller first spoke these words in 1946. Per­haps the stan­dard vari­ant is that post­ed at the Wikipedia (I don’t think he spoke in Eng­lish con­trac­tions so I’ve changed those):

First they came for the com­mu­nists,
and I did not speak out because I was not a com­mu­nist.

Then they came for the trade union­ists,
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade union­ist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

historical periods and cultural situations change

The Neimöller state­ment does not lay down a law of his­to­ry, but describes a grad­ual process that enabled peo­ple to remain qui­es­cent as social dan­gers increased. Since 1946 when he first start­ed using the image in his speech­es, Neimöller’s state­ment has been used in a vari­ety of con­texts, some apply­ing to com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions and oth­ers absolute­ly invert­ing it’s orig­i­nal mean­ing. Clear­ly, “The Author­i­ties” have come for var­i­ous indi­vid­u­als and groups in sequence long before there were any com­mu­nists or trade union­ists. In these dif­fer­ent peri­ods and set­tings oth­ers take on the role of “canary”.

In the recent Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion, the Egypt­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty had already been out­lawed and was so small that, even though it has a blog, and what seems to be a press release at the Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Social­ist Renew­al it does not even have a page at the Wikipedia. Scratch them off the list. Sim­i­lar­ly, the state con­trolled Egypt­ian Trade Union Fed­er­a­tion was dis­band­ed, at a meet­ing in Tahrir Square dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, to form a new, inde­pen­dent Fed­er­a­tion of Egypt­ian Trade Unions. The vast major­i­ty of Egypt­ian Jews, of course, had left. In 1948, when the State of Israel was estab­lished there were 75,000 Jews liv­ing in Egypt. By the time of the Suez war of 1956 only 50,000 remained and almost half of those left. Fol­low­ing the 1967 war, near­ly all Egypt­ian Jew­ish men between the ages of 17 and 60 were either thrown out of the coun­try imme­di­ate­ly, or tak­en to the deten­tion cen­ters. Today, where Mein Kampf can be pur­chased at the Cairo Sher­a­ton Hotel’s gift shop, only a hun­dred or so remain.

In Jan­u­ary of 2008, Bruce Baw­er used the phrase “First They Came for the Gays” to describe young Mus­lim men involved in an unprece­dent­ed wave of Oslo gay-bash­ings. Sim­i­lar­ly, in Octo­ber of 2010, Dov Bear report­ed how “anti-gay goons at West­boro Bap­tist Church” had announced that they would pick­et Torah Temimah, Chaim Berlin, and a Chabad shul in Brook­lyn, using the head­line: “First they came for the homo­sex­u­als, and I said noth­ing…”.

In June of 2010, Dou­glas Rushkoff, warn­ing about the like­li­hood of the Inter­net caus­ing the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­ism, claimed that “First they came for the musi­cians”.

In Decem­ber of 2009 Jon Stew­art ques­tioned Fox News com­men­ta­tor Lau­ra Ingra­ham’s use of the phrase (in her com­plaints about the pend­ing health care reform bill): “First they came for the rich but I did­n’t speak up because I was­n’t rich”, won­der­ing if she rec­og­nized that “came for” was a euphemism for “round up and kill.” He pledged: “If the gov­ern­ment begins to round up and kill the rich and the landown­ing and those who choose to exer­cise the right to bear arms… I’ll speak up.”

Addi­tion­al vari­ants appear on YouTube. Some have very high pro­duc­tion qual­i­ties:

One uses a con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean set­ting:

And yet anoth­er cre­ates a mashup of the above two and sets the pro­gres­sion in Malaysia;

Many more ver­sions are avail­able on the Web, eas­i­ly found by search­ing for “first they came for”.

pink triangle and yellow star

I have used the Neimöller text in the pro­logue of my Hag­gadah (with a vari­ant sequence of my own, that I will change to match the text quot­ed above). There I also sug­gest an anal­o­gy to an ear­ly rab­binic thought about how our enslave­ment occurred:

Our rab­bis also tell us that the enslave­ment pro­ceed­ed grad­u­al­ly. First, the Egyp­tians asked us to work for the Pharaoh because of an emer­gency. Then they told us we had to work one day a week. As Pharao­h’s demands became grad­u­al­ly more restric­tive our peo­ple did not resist. Even­tu­al­ly they took our rights and inde­pen­dent lives from us.

But, it’s Bruce Baw­er and Dov Bear’s use that inter­ests me today the 27th anniver­sary of the death of Pas­tor Mar­tin Neimöller. Some­time in the late 1980s or 1990s a but­ton was pub­lished that does put Jews on first, but on a pin the col­or and shape of the badge gays were forced to wear in Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps.

I wear lapel but­tons as a way of speak­ing out pub­licly. I have been wear­ing the Neimöller but­ton this past week as I stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty and see attacks on Amer­i­can pub­lic employ­ees unions, a vari­ant of the “trade union­ist” in Neimöller’s state­ment.

first they came

first they came…

Date: 1980s or 1990s
Size: 4.4 [equi­lat­er­al tri­an­gle]
Pin Form: clasp
Print Method: cel­lu­loid
Text “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak
out- because I was not a Jew. Then they came
for the com­mu­nists and I did not speak out-
because I was not a com­mu­nist. Then
they came for the trade union­ists and
I did not speak out- because I
was not a trade union­ist. Then
they came for me- and
there was no one left to
speak out for me.”

-Pas­tor Mar­tin
(vic­tim of

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

This entry was posted in holidays, judaica, lapel buttons, personalities, politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.