Jewish Federation director, Journalist
BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA —Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) posted an interesting piece recently connecting the new museum in Montgomery, Alabama focusing on American racism and lynchings to the ways the Holocaust has been remembered.
The story, written by reporter Ben Sales, was headlined, “What a new memorial for black lynching victims learned from Holocaust commemoration.”
Sales reported that museum founder Bryan Stevenson “wanted to evoke the same feelings in Americans in the design for The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, the first physical space dedicated to the victims of slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration.”
In 2016, Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, told JTA, “Auschwitz is a place you visit. It sobers you with the horrors of the Holocaust. When you leave these places, you want to say, ‘Never again should we commit this kind of suffering and abuse.’”
The connection between the new Montgomery museum and the Holocaust is an interesting one that hit home — literally — for me, as a Jewish Federation director in Alabama and someone who lost substantial extended family in the Holocaust. I’m also proud to see our state rethinking and struggling with its racist past, something Birmingham has been doing in earnest since the 1970s.
I was the City Hall reporter for the Birmingham News in the late 1970s, as the aftershock of the Civil Rights era — an era of violence, oppression, bombings and upheaval that rocked our city in the 1950s and 1960s — was still being felt.
David Vann, who as a young attorney had helped the city navigate its way through its racial minefield, had been elected mayor. About midway into his term, Vann proposed constructing a Civil Rights museum in Birmingham, an idea that gained some support but also was met with much resistance.
“Why do you want to keep harping on all that stuff?” Vann’s critics asked. The museum eventually was built during the administration of Richard Arrington, Vann’s successor and Birmingham’s first black mayor.
Today the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute — which is both a museum to the racial struggles that took place in our city and state and a learning center — is nationally recognized. Visitors from all over the country, including a growing number of Jewish groups, have come to Birmingham and other Civil Rights sites in Alabama to learn more about this difficult era. Certainly, the Montgomery museum will be a can’t-miss stop.
With that said, there’s a danger perhaps of an important message being lost in all of the remembrance of both America’s racial oppression and the Holocaust. The message may be implied but it seems that it is rarely expressed explicitly.
This message is that it’s a dangerous world we live in, where the strong — if given enough motivation and opportunity — will oppress and devour the weak. In fact, nothing has changed this principle of human behavior, even with the amount of time, money and energy that has been poured into teaching about the Holocaust. Just ask people in Cambodia (1970s), Rwanda (1990s) and Syria (2018) and in other places where genocide has taken place in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
To me, the unspoken message implied in the Holocaust-response phrase “Never Again” should be that never again will we as Jews allow ourselves to be defenseless. This is why Israel should be important to all Jews. Israel is the instrument and epitome of Jewish power, a country which by its very existence is dedicated to the principle that Jews should never again be powerless.
Though I haven’t yet visited the new Montgomery museum, I hope that a takeaway is that African-Americans should do everything
possible to never again be powerless and defenseless.
In America, this means, among other things, assembling political, economic and organizational power and using these assets strategically. These are things that American Jews and African-Americans do well, and which have enhanced our respective well-being.
Perhaps it this lesson — to never again be defenseless— that truly unites Blacks and Jews, and ties together the saga of America’s racial brutality with the savagery of the Holocaust.