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Racists on Trains and the Silence of the Bystander

22/04/2015 10:53 BST | Updated 19/06/2015 10:59 BST

A response to Ashitha Nagesh's article'If I'm being racially abused I don't need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me'

Students at Leiden University in the Netherlands went on strike in 1940 over the Nazi-ordered sacking of a Jewish professor, and three non-Jewish academics protested so fiercely for their colleague that they were sent to concentration camps.

But Ashitha Nagesh would say that these heroes had a "saviour complex" and should have allowed victimised Dutch Jews to speak for themselves.

She was writing in The Independent about this week's viral video, showing an Australian woman sticking up for a Muslim couple who were being strafed by racist abuse on a train. The woman's actions, it was said, were "incredibly patronising" and "treated the couple like children", denying them an opportunity to "deal with a crap situation by themselves".

I spent last week on March of the Living, an international Holocaust commemoration event held in Poland, witnessing first-hand the gristly reality of the "crap situation" faced by European Jewry under the Nazis.

Something that my fellow youth workers and participants discussed a lot was the categorisation of 'victim, victimiser, helper, bystander'. Why include bystanders, when their tangible impact was, by definition, neutral? Because in such a situation they hold the balance of power. They can choose which of the other three groups to join, and if they shirk that choice they uphold the status quo.

Becoming a helper does not require a "saviour complex", nor a patronising attitude towards minorities. Was Miep Gies an insufferable interfering do-gooder when she hid Anne Frank's family from the Nazis? Should she have stood back to let them "deal with [the] crap situation" of Dutch Jewry being cleansed, in their own way? Of course not. The idea is ridiculous.

Sometimes people need help.

The thing about racists is that they believe themselves to be intrinsically superior to their victims. So it's hardly surprising that when those victims argue their case alone, their voices are typically ignored. If bigots will give more weight to protests from people of their own race, that is dispiriting, but then racism is dispiriting. The more people countering its invidious impact the better.

And sometimes people need support.

"What hurts the most is not the actions of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander." This is what Arek Hersh, the inspirational Auschwitz survivor who accompanied my group on March of the Living, wrote in his book A Detail of History.

Knowing that other people care about you, that you and other members of your minority are not alone, surrounded by an indiscriminate mix of the hostile and the indifferent, is an incredibly powerful and empowering feeling. Jewish staff at Leiden University were drummed out of their workplace by sinister, anti-Semitic foreign forces. Think what a difference the support of hundreds of colleagues and students - at great risk to their personal safety - must have made to them. I cannot believe that they wanted to be left to speak for themselves, or that they would slam their supporters for having an imperialistic "saviour complex".

Ms Nagesh's argument encourages insularity. The fabric of society is damaged when people only looking out for themselves and their own. As the poem says, if we do not speak out when enemies come for others, who will speak out when they come for us?

So while Stacey Eden's spirited defence on the train may have involved somewhat overdramatic YouTube-able, Hollywood heroism, she rightly recognised that everyone loses out when prejudice is allowed to flourish. She acted on her conscience. What better video to go viral on Yom haShoah, the Jewish day of Holocaust commemoration?

History's worst acts of evil all happened amidst the silence of the bystander. Ms Nagesh is most unwise to encourage her readers to keep quiet when they witness acts of hatred.