A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from April 25, 2010
“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

"If not us, who? If not now, when?” This quotation is similar to what Rabbi Hillel the Elder wrote in the Pirkay Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

Michigan Governor George Romney (1907-1995) said this—reversed from its most popular form—in 1963, while encouraging Michigan to enact a 2% personal income tax: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Massachusetts Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) is often credited with the saying, but there is no documentary evidence to support his use of it. U.S. President Ronald Reagan used the saying in the early 1980s.


Wikipedia: Hillel the Elder
Hillel (הלל) (born Babylon traditionally c.110BCE-10CE in Jerusalem) was a famous Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar, he was the founder of the House of Hillel school for Tannaïm (Sages of the Mishnah) and the founder of a dynasty of Sages who stood at the head of the Jews living in the land of Israel until roughly the fifth century of the Christian Era.

He is popularly known as the author of two sayings: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” and the expression of the ethic of reciprocity, or “Golden Rule”: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

Hillel lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus. In the Midrash compilation Sifre (Deut. 357) the periods of Hillel’s life are made parallel to those in the life of Moses. Both lived 120 years, and at the age of forty Hillel went to the Land of Israel; forty years he spent in study; and the last third of his life he was the spiritual head of the Jewish people. A biographical sketch can be constructed; that Hillel went to Jerusalem in the prime of his life and attained a great age. His activity of forty years likely covered the period of 30 BCE to 10 CE.
(...)
In Avot, Hillel stated “If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” The third part contains the admonition to postpone no duty, the same admonition he gave with reference to study (Avot 2:4): “Say not, ‘When I have free time I shall study’; for you may perhaps never have any free time.”

Wikipedia: George W. Romney
George Wilcken Romney (July 8, 1907 – July 26, 1995) was an American businessman and Republican Party politician. He was chairman of American Motors Corporation from 1954 to 1962, the 43rd Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, and the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969 to 1973. He is the father of former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney and the husband of former Michigan U.S. Senate candidate Lenore Romney.

Wikipedia: Robert F. Kennedy
Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy (November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968), also referred to by his initials RFK, was an American politician, a Democratic Senator from New York, and a noted civil rights activist. An icon of modern American liberalism, he was a younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and acted as one of his advisers during his presidency. From 1961 to 1964, he was the U.S. Attorney General.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum
Quotations of Robert F. Kennedy
Undetermined quotation: “If not us, who. If not now, when?” This quotation has been attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, but we have not found any written confirmation of this fact, although many individuals have stated that they heard him say it at various times.  There are several translations of the original quotation, a saying of the Rabbi Hillel from the Pirkay Avot, a book of the Mishnah, the first part of the Talmud. Here is one translation: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now—when?”

13 September 1963, New York (NY) Times, “Romney Offers Fiscal Reforms; Calls for a Flat Levy of 2% on Personal Incomes,” pg. 16:
LANSING, Mich., Sept. 12 (UPI)—Gov. George Romney made a strong plea today for adoption of his state fiscal reform program.
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“We should ask ourselves two questions. If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Mr. Romney’s voice choked as he went on: “As far as I’m concerned, I have answered those two questions and I am indifferent to the personal political consequences involved.”
(...)
The program, which could make Michigan the 36th state to have a personal income tax, was premised, Mr. Romney said, on two basic principles—“jobs and justice.”

Time magazine
Nation: If Not Now, When? If Not Us, Who?
Friday, Sep. 20, 1963
Michigan’s Governor George Romney last week faced without flinching his state’s tax mess. At the same time, he laid his political future on the line.

Romney appeared before a special session of the legislature to present a tax reform program that included a flat 2% personal income tax, a 3½% corporate profits tax, and a 5½% income tax on financial institutions. It was a tough plan and by no means popular. But upon its success or failure may rest Romney’s chances for the G.O.P.’s 1964 presidential nomination.

Bluntly charging the often recalcitrant legislature to act, Romney said: “We should ask ourselves two questions: If not now, when? If not us, who? Applause began to build among the legislators, and Romney’s voice choked as he finished his speech: “As far as I’m concerned, I have answered those two questions, and I am indifferent to the personal political consequences involved.”

Google News Archive
15 November 1963, Ludington (MI) Daily News, “Romeny’s Political Future May Have Died With Tax Reform Bill,” pg. 1, cols. 5, 7:
LANSING (AP)—Gov. George Romney’s fiscal reform program for Michigan went down the legislative drain Thursday—and his political future may have gone down with it.
(...)
In working out this proposal, I asked myself only two questions: If not now, when? If not us, who?”

11 September 1981, New York (NY) Times, “Reagan Orders Cabinet to Act On Budget Cuts” by Howell Raines, pg. D6, col. 4:
“All of us came here because we knew the country couldn’t go on the way it was going,” Mr. Reagan was quoted as telling the Cabinet members in what Mr. Gergen said was a tone of exhortation. “So it falls to all of us to take action. We have to ask ourselves if we do nothing, where does all of this end.”

“Can anyone here say that if we can’t do it, someone down the road can do it, and if no one does it, what happens to the country?” he continued. “All of us know the economy would face an eventual collapse. I know it’s a hell of a challenge, but ask yourselves if not us, who, if not now, when?”

25 September 1981, New York (NY) Times, “Transcript of the President’s Address on Proposed Spending Cuts” (Ronald Reagan), pg. A28:
We asked ourselves two questions—and answered them: “If not us—who? If not now—when?”

A Blog By James Curran
Saturday, June 21, 2008
“If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?”
Ronald Reagan quoting the prophet Hillel - when skeptics panned his Reaganomics- made that saying famous.

And inflation? From 1980 to 1988, it dropped from an annual rate of 10.4 percent to 4.2 percent, and unemployment dropped from 7 percent to 5.4 percent. When Reagan made clear that he was willing to support a tightening of the money supply to fight inflation, some advisers warned that such a policy might bring on recession. Reagan responded by using the prophet Hillel’s words: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release March 08, 2010
Remarks by the President on Health Insurance Reform
Arcadia University
Glenside, Pennsylvania
11:23 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT (Barack Obama—ed.):  Hello, Pennsylvania!  (Applause.) Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  This is a nice crowd.  (Applause.) Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Well, what a wonderful crowd.
(...)
Now, since we took this issue on a year ago, there have been plenty of folks in Washington who’ve said that the politics is just too hard.  They’ve warned us we may not win.  They’ve argued now is not the time for reform.  It’s going to hurt your poll numbers.  How is it going to affect Democrats in November?  Don’t do it now.

My question to them is:  When is the right time?  (Applause.) If not now, when?  If not us, who?

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (1) Comments • Sunday, April 25, 2010 • Permalink


The response to the President’s rhetorical use of Hillel’s words comes from the very next passage in Pirkei Avot, which quotes Shammai, a contemporary of Hillel.

Posted by selnadav  on  04/27  at  07:11 PM

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