Abe Rosenthal, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (California, Univ of California Press 1964), pp. xxvii-xxix

 

Original Text:

In the middle of a cold night, thirty-eight people refused the risk of being stabbed or getting involved by answering a cry for help of a person they could not see. Is that a greater mystery, a greater offense, than that by light of day thousands on a single street withhold help to suffering people, when it would cost them virtually nothing and put them in no peril, even though they see their faces and sores? Are the people who turned away that one night in Queens, each in a separate decision, any more immoral or indecent or cowardly because there happened to be thirty-eight, than if there were just one of them? Does God judge by the individual or by head count? And what if we hear the scream but cannot see the screamer? Of all questions about silent witnesses, to me this is the most important. Suppose the screamer is not downstairs but around the corner. Surely somebody else is closer, so we don't have to run out, do we? What is the accepted distance for hearing but not moving—two flights down, five, one block, two blocks, three? Suppose you know people are screaming under persecution—not discrimination but persecution, as in imprisonment, torture, genocide, forced starvation—for their race or their religion. You have seen the pictures of African children with their bellies distended: our own government, even this government, defines this as a genocide. You know they scream, but they are not within sight and you cannot reach out and touch them, nor are you allowed to visit them. But the screams are piercing. How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to shul and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something. Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Queens, or from here to Sudan and Chad for victims of genocide anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the thirty-eight? Tell me, is there any question more important than this?

Translation:

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. What is the phenomenon that the author of this text is criticizing?
2. What is he asking of us? Does it seem reasonable to you?
3. What social justice themes emerge from this text?

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Related Sourcesheets:Responsibility 101, Pikuach Nefesh: Saving a Life- Discussion Questions, What are our obligations to help another person? , Leadership: Step Up and Speak Out, CCAR: The Rabbi's Role in Human Rights

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