Silence is complicit: Lawyer associations, organizations abandon members | Anita Szigeti

By Anita Szigeti

Law360 Canada (October 31, 2023, 9:24 AM EDT) --
Anita Szigeti
Anita Szigeti
Organizations like to tell different stories about themselves, but it is how they act in moments of crisis that act as a distillery, showing us what lies at their essence and what comes out as noxious fumes. In the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre by the terrorist organization of Hamas, and in the exponentially climbing death toll of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, Canadian lawyers have watched this distillation crystallize in real time.

We now know who can lead with maturity, empathy and grace and who pays lip service to civility, diversity and inclusion — all while admonishing us to mind our mental health. When the moment of truth hit, so many leading associations and organizations chose “silence is golden.” Well, it isn’t. Silence is complicit.

“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”

                                                                           – Mahatma Gandhi.

As members of the legal profession continue to grapple with the war in the Middle East, along with the rest of the world, the ripple effects of atrocities and tragedies continue to touch each of our lives. They are ripping off bandages on intergenerational trauma for Jews, especially descendants of Holocaust survivors, but also for Palestinian descendants of the Nakba. There are different triggers perhaps for each of us, but the trauma we are experiencing is deep and shared among Jewish, Muslim and Arab members of Canada’s legal profession.

Both antisemitism and Islamophobia are alarmingly on the rise. Canadian Jews and Muslims are (tragically, separately) living in fear, and mourning their families, friends and communities. The tenor of discussion between lawyers, including on social media, is fuelled by emotion on all sides. “Civility” went out the window, expletives and ad hominem attacks taking over. Some long-standing professional and collegial relationships have been irretrievably shattered. Young lawyers fear being black-listed for speaking out and expressing their views on the plight of Palestinian civilians, while at some law schools, student unions are hailing Hamas’ slaughter as justified “resistance.” Some Jewish students on university campuses are cowering in fear, if they even attend class. Trauma does not discriminate. It is ravaging us all. Things will get much worse, before they get better, if they ever do.

These are the defining moments that call for true leadership that affirms the pain of any organization’s members. This is where the rubber hits the road. Now is the time to show what you’re made of, not just as individuals, but as organizations that purport to lead or even govern this profession. 

How you do that is by speaking. Release a Statement. Let people know you see them and you support them in their legitimate, devastating pain. Call for a united front against all hate. Remind people of our shared humanity. Encourage genuine inclusion and express hope for peace. Remain open to hearing your members’ distress. You don’t censor legitimate civil discourse, but you remind us of the lines we must not cross. And more.

Some organizations had the courage to say something. Some of those things were better than others. Some statements were inexcusably thoughtless. Some were entirely one-sided. Many caused bitterness and outrage. Those were bad statements.

But some managed to get it right. Those statements drew no backlash. They gave lawyers and law students comfort, the knowledge that they were recognized and supported by their lawyer association or organization. That their leaders had the integrity and strength of their convictions. That those leaders were not just mouthing the words “diversity and inclusion,” when they were seeking votes during their election campaigns.

Sure, there’s understandable cynicism about “releasing a statement.” Some statements are hollow, published for optics, utterly devoid of substance. Conversely, organizations may show sensitivity to the situation without a formal statement, but by their other actions. They might pause marketing expensive retreats or making announcements about the minutiae of new services nobody can be bothered to care about right now. But in moments of serious crisis that transcend whatever lawyers’ daily woes might otherwise ever be, lawyer associations and organizations cannot choose silence.

The deafening silence from some of the largest groups has not gone unnoticed. We can all see you plugging your ears and humming, shutting your eyes tight against the human tragedy unfolding all around us. We can see the hesitation, the fear, the reluctance to risk alienating anyone. The problem is that silence really is complicit. And its consequence is lost faith and confidence, but most of all credibility.

Still, all hope for the future is not lost. At least one group of young lawyers-to-be found their voice along with their hearts, minds and spine. At the uOttawa’s Common Law Faculty, the Jewish Law Students Association and Muslim Law Students Association issued a joint statement. It begins:

“We are coming together at a very troubled time to acknowledge each other and the need to keep our spaces safe and open for dialogue. We want to focus on what unites us, not what divides us, and that is our common humanity.”


Anita Szigeti is the principal lawyer at Anita Szigeti Advocates, a boutique Toronto law firm specializing in mental health justice litigation. She is the founder of two national volunteer lawyer associations: the Law and Mental Disorder Association and Women in Canadian Criminal Defence and co-author of five textbooks on mental health law. Find her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter and on her blog.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice. 

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