Human beings are inherently imperfect. This simple truism is being ignored by a lot of Americans as they view our country’s history. There’s been much fuss of late about monuments to famous Americans viewed as less than admirable by contemporary standards. Some such monuments have been removed by methods both legal (legislative or administrative action) and illegal (vandalism). There have been calls for more such removals.
Those of us who are Jews should be concerned about this trend. We are, after all, a people of history, inextricably tied to the past. We celebrate and mourn for events in our history, often utilizing elaborate rituals as a barrier to forgetfulness. We are a people defined by the experiences, positive and negative, that define our history.
Americans as a whole, on the other hand, are not a history conscious people. For most, history is what happened yesterday, and ancient history is what happened last week. To some extent, the American aversion to history is the flip-side of the forward-looking ethos that has made us an engine of progress; we look ahead, not behind. But the typical American’s ignorance of history makes us as a society vulnerable to the manipulation of history by demagogues left and right.
American Jews should be conscious of our history in America. Though there have certainly been ups and downs, our overall experience here has been overwhelmingly positive. In the history of our exile, no other country has welcomed us as consistently and unambiguously, and in no country have we thrived to the same extent. Jews have reached the highest levels in business, academia and (with the exception the Presidency) government. For this, we owe our fellow Americans an obligation of hakarat hatov (gratitude).
We have to recognize that not every group of Americans has been as fortunate as we have. African-Americans and native Americans, in particular, have a less favorable relationship to American history, a history dominated by the enslavement of the former and the dispossession of the latter. That brings us to the question of the appropriateness of various statues and monuments: how should we, as Jews, react to historical figures whose statements and actions were offensive to others among our fellow citizens?
The easiest case is the display of the Confederate flag. That flag, to African-Americans, is the equivalent of a swastika to Jews. Though its display by private individuals may be constitutionally protected from government interference, its public display should be condemned by all decent Americans and rejected by all lawful means. It should go without saying that its display by public institutions is unacceptable. The same should be true, for the most part, of statues and monuments honoring Confederate generals. Some may have been decent people in their private lives, but the statues don’t honor their private lives. They honor their fighting on behalf of a rebellion which fought to preserve slavery. (I’m less sure about changing the names of Army bases. For many who know nothing of the Confederate generals for whom those bases were named, those names bring to mind the generations of men and women in uniform who have deployed from them to fight — and in some cases die — on behalf of the United States in subsequent wars.)
When we get beyond Confederate generals, however, we step into dangerous territory. Human beings are inherently flawed. Even the greatest have done and said things that offend our sensibilities. Because societal standards change over time, moreover, the earlier the person lived, the more likely we are to find something about him or her that offends us. As time marches on, stretching the interval between their lives and ours, the likelihood of our finding something that offends us grows.
Already there have been objections to honoring George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, because they were slave owners. Teddy Roosevelt’s statue was removed from the entrance to the Museum of Natural History, and Princeton University is taking off the name of Woodrow Wilson (who before becoming President of the United States, was President of the University) from its school of public policy. And of course, protests against honoring Christopher Columbus in any form have been with us for years.
But Washington and Jefferson are not honored because they were slave owners, but because of their role in the founding of the country and articulating its founding principles. Roosevelt’s statue stood outside the Museum because of his role in protecting the environment. Wilson’s name was not on a Princeton school because he was a racist (though he was), but because of his service as Princeton’s president, his progressive policies and — most important — his role in establishing the foundation underlying today’s international relations.
Columbus is a particularly problematic case. Much of his behavior toward the native population after he landed in the New World was undoubtedly reprehensible, even by the standards of his day. But that’s not why we remember him. It’s noteworthy that October 12th, the day we celebrated as Columbus Day before it fell victim to our infatuation with three-day weekends, is not Columbus’s birthday but the day he first landed in the New World. What we celebrate on Columbus Day — and what we honor in statues and place names recalling him — is not Columbus as a person, but the permanent connection between the Old and New Worlds that resulted from his historic journey. Thus, those who object to honoring Columbus, whether by holiday, statue or otherwise, are in effect not so much objecting to his individual character but as asserting the belief that the connection between those worlds, and everything that followed from that connection, is not worth celebrating, i.e., that the resultant contact was more harmful than beneficial. That is a proposition that I cannot accept either as an American or as a Jew.
While it is impossible to know for certain what our world would look like if these two hemispheres had remained separated for decades or perhaps a century longer, there can be no question that humanity as a whole has benefited from the events that followed that contact. Counterfactual history may be interesting or even useful as an intellectual exercise, but it cannot be a substitute for reality. We cannot change history; we can only learn from it.
I also cannot accept the propositions implicit in the objections to honoring Jefferson and Washington, the proposition that everything else they did is somehow negated by their ownership of slaves. The principles on which American democracy rests, including the principle that “all men are created equal,” were set forth in the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson wrote, and their application was confirmed at the constitutional convention over which Washington presided. The reach of these principles was further expanded through the Bill of Rights, whose primary author, James Madison, was also a slave owner. It is these achievements (among others), not their slave ownership, for which we cherish their memories.
When it comes to later figures, the urge to knock them (literally or figuratively) off their pedestals is even more problematic. Neither Woodrow Wilson nor Teddy Roosevelt owned slaves, of course, and both advocated policies progressive by the standard of their era. Yes, Wilson was a racist, and Roosevelt advocated policies which many today view as colonialist. But once you begin dishonoring leaders of the past because of differences with their opinions on issues of their day, there is no obvious stopping point.
So how do we understand our national heroes’ ownership of slaves, or their devotion to racism or its offshoots? Americans must understand what Jews have always understood. Human beings are inherently flawed; perfection is not a realistic aspiration. The founders of our country were men of their times, and they behaved like men of their times. Had they sought to behave as we would expect twenty-first century men to behave, their contemporaries would probably have considered them delusional, and they surely would not have achieved what they did: the articulation of the fundamental principles on which later generations have built a stable — and so far enduring — democracy.
While Jews cannot condone chattel slavery, we have good reason to remember our country’s founders with gratitude and admiration. The primary reason that Jews and Judaism have thrived in America is that the equality of all regardless of religion has been built into our national DNA. Article VI, Section 3, of the Constitution provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment (incorporated in the Bill of Rights), prohibits any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. These provisions were confirmed by President Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I.:
For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Perhaps more than any other community, Jews have learned from experience what it means to live as (barely tolerated) strangers. We know the difference between living under oppression and living as citizens in a free society. We owe America a debt of gratitude.
How then should we react to those Americans whose historical — and indeed contemporary– experience has been less positive? We must acknowledge the reality of their grievances and join with them to make America conform to its own founding principles. We must strive to make America better while realizing that no country or other human institution can be perfect. What we cannot do is to succumb to the temptation of ingratitude. We must acknowledge the historical experiences of others — but not at the price of forgetting our own.