Have We Learned from Our History?

Last night and this morning, many people have been talking about the whitewashing of history. That by taking down statues of Confederate soldiers or perhaps even monuments to our founding fathers who owned slaves that we are stripping away our history. This is our history, some of which we should be proud, other moments we should be ashamed, nevertheless the question is not about the statues or monuments themselves, it is whether we have learned from our history that those who are memorialized, should not necessarily be idolized

Today I can stand before the Jefferson Memorial proud of what he accomplished in helping build our nation, yet realize that slavery and racism can never be justified. Can I layer my 21st century sensibilities on President Thomas Jefferson, no, but nor can I think that they way he saw the world in 18th century is how we should live today. If we cannot understand that simple fact then certain monuments must come down.

Bryan Stevenson, for whom I would argue is a role model for all of us, is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Alabama. In his TED Talk in February 2012 (transcript below) he made the following observation.

(min 10:19) “I was giving some lectures in Germany about the death penalty. It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.”

“And yet, in this country, in the states of the Old South, we execute people — where you’re 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, 22 times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white — in the very states where there are buried in the ground the bodies of people who were lynched. And yet, there is this disconnect.” [Bryan Stevenson – We Need To Talk About An Injustice]

In July 2017 Mr. Stevenson wrote “today in Germany, besides a number of large memorials to the Holocaust, visitors encounter markers and stones at the homes of Jewish families who were taken to the concentration camps. But in America, we barely acknowledge the history and legacy of slavery, we have done nothing to recognize the era of lynching, and only in the last few years have a few monuments to the Confederacy been removed in the South.”

To acknowledge there are two equal sides to a disagreement between those who fight for minority rights and those who have shamefully not come to understand that we are all created in the image of God, regardless of our religion nationality or the color of our skin, is to show that we have not yet learned the lessons of history.

I pray for the day when we can distinguish between the mistakes of our past, the reality of our present and our hope for the future.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Abraham is the Rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, NE. Rabbi Abraham graduated from the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in May of 2011, where he also received a M.A. in Jewish Education. Prior to attending JTS, he earned his B.S. in Business Management from the University of Baltimore. Rabbi Abraham currently sits on multiple boards in the Omaha area including the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands. He is also honored to give back to USY by serving as a member of the USY National Teen Leadership Committee. Rabbi Abraham is married to Shira J. Abraham, from Highland Park, IL. They have two children, Naama (5) and Leor (2).
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