Erasing History vs. Just Smudging It

At the risk of giving you an earworm, I’d like to play a revised version of Sesame Street’s (slightly renamed) “Which of These Things Are Not Like the Others” song/game.

  1. New Orleans removing the statue of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate statues, monuments, and memorials.
  2. Yale renaming the John Calhoun residential college.
  3. Proposing that Princeton delete Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public & International Affairs and a residential college.
  4. Removing the names of former school presidents from Georgetown University buildings.
  5. Limiting the display of the Confederate flag.
  6. Removing the fact that the assassin of Gandhi was a Hindu nationalist from an Indian state’s social studies textbooks.
  7. The Kremlin’s altering photographs by removing images of purged officials.
  8. UNESCO’s denying the historical connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem and similar denials by others of a Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael.
  9. North Korean state newspapers deleting 99 percent of their online archives.
  10. Denying that Jews were gassed in Auschwitz.

First, the similarities. All of these actions have been called, by some, “erasing history.” Now the differences: numbers 6 through 10 do, in fact, attempt to erase history. Numbers 1 through 5 do not.

Let me explain.

In the second group, either historical facts are physically removed from the public record or the existence of indisputable historical facts are denied. Thus, the ideology of Gandhi’s assassin has been excised from at least one Indian state’s history curriculum, the Soviet Union literally erased faces of purged Communist Party leaders from important photographs, and the cleansing of North Korean newspaper’s online archives eradicated any history they contained. And ignoring the facts establishing the millennia-old relationships between Jews and Jerusalem and Israel is an attempt — which so far and hopefully forever will be unsuccessful — to erase those relationships from humanity’s memory. The same is true with respect to Holocaust denial.

The reason that none of the first group is erasing history is simple. Indeed it is almost a tautology; no history is being erased. Photographs and textbooks aren’t being censored or altered, curricula aren’t being red-penciled, newspaper stories aren’t being destroyed, and undeniable facts aren’t being, well, denied. To the contrary, the changes — proposed and/or carried out — represent an honest attempt to come to grips with a more complete, and often more complicated, picture of a history that until now had been bowdlerized.

For example, whether or not Wilson’s name continues to grace Princeton’s buildings, his laudable successes as president (including his important support of the Balfour Declaration) still will be taught and written about, as they should be. Now, however, his racist policies and deplorable institutionalizing of segregation in the federal civil service, which previously had been either ignored or downplayed, are also finally getting the public notice, discussion, and place in American history courses they deserve.

I don’t deny that something is, in fact, happening, but it’s not erasing history.

Rather, by finally recognizing a more comprehensive story, it is honors and glorification, not history, that are being rethought, removed, and erased. The purpose of the Battle of Liberty Place Monument and others like it, of flying the Confederate flag, and of putting names on buildings was not to teach history. It was to honor — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not — white supremacy, either in the guise of a terrorist group that attempted to overthrow New Orleans’ integrated government and police force during Reconstruction, of rebels who fought for the right to continue to own enslaved people, and of those people who — often in addition to praiseworthy activities — also participated in the slave trade, passionately promoted slavery as “positive good,” or used their power to increase discrimination.

Removing these monuments, symbols, and names rejects and tries to remove this honor and glorification. (Those are words supporters rarely use.) But the history remains.

Ironically, some of those who shout “you’re erasing history” the loudest are the ones actually holding the erasers in their hands. Those who proudly wave the Confederate flag while claiming that the Civil War and the Confederacy were not about slavery are the ones who try to erase the second line in Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession — “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world” — and similar language in other such declarations. Denying the pro-slavery and discriminatory aspects of the Confederate symbols and statues being dismantled, and making heroes out of those being removed from the pedestals, are as wrong as denying the atrocities of Auschwitz.

It’s this last connection that makes it so important for our community to identify and oppose real, and not pseudo, erasures of history. If we are indifferent to erasing part of our history as Americans, it can be done, Heaven forbid, to our history as Jews. Erasing the true causes of the Civil War and its participants and aftermath and continuing to honor and memorialize undeserving people and events is just one step removed from erasing the Jewish people’s glorious history over thousands of years in Israel and Jerusalem, and proclaiming Hebron as a Palestinian heritage site.

Of course, as with most matters of historic import — or, indeed, any import — nuance is always helpful. Thus, for example, if I were emperor of Princeton, I would decree that Wilson’s name remain on the Public & International Affairs School because his achievements in those areas deserve honor. But I also would order his name removed from the residential college, because no African-American student should have to choose between living in a dormitory named after someone with Wilson’s shameful racial record and being excluded from membership in a particular mini-community.

But I’m no emperor, so Princeton’s on its own.

Our tradition teaches over and over that “the seal of the Holy One is emet — truth.” (BT: Shabbat 55a; Yoma 69b; Sanhedrin 64a) And our seal should be imitatio Dei.


About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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