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The Importance of American Jewish History in Race Relations

I read with interest Ariel Levenson’s article, “Time to Raise Our Voices” (August 13, 2020).

Later in the day, my perusal of a book on Jewish history gave me pause to consider. I wonder how many students in modern yeshivot have ever heard the names: Yoseph Trumpeldor, national Zionist hero and “Defender of Tel Hai”; Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who helped develop the Israeli defense forces; or even Meir Kahane, founder of the JDL and member of the Israeli Knesset.

But these same students can probably rattle off the names of sports players and their statistics. (Some of those athletes being far from models of morality.)

They may learn that Peter Stuyvesant was colonial governor of Dutch New Amsterdam, but are they taught about his rampant anti-Semitism? How many yeshiva students are aware that this Monday, August 24, marks the anniversary of the 1929 Hebron massacre, the slaughter of Jews by a murderous mob of Arabs, on the Sabbath? (Long before the State of Israel was declared.)

Ms. Levenson writes that Jewish schools must emphasize anti-racism in their curricula. With all due respect, how many students know about the many Jews, and rabbis, who marched with Martin Luther King? Indeed, it is the Jew’s profound understanding of his past that allows him to empathize with the oppressed and downtrodden. All good people of conscience were appalled by the killing of George Floyd. But how many yeshiva students are aware that, while Africans were enslaved in the American South, their own great-grandparents probably suffered persecution, deprivation, and brutal anti-semitic attacks in pogroms, preferably committed by the perpetrators deliberately on the Sabbath?

Sadly, from my meetings with Orthodox young people, I have come to realize that many are ignorant of their own history.
That is tragic and dangerous. To quote the famous phrase of Santayana; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Jewish education must stress Jewish history – our history – the brutal repetitions of historical patterns of social relief and assimilation followed by persecution. That is the key to understanding “the other.” And that is the key to survival of our people.

Ms. Levenson cites the racism of Huckleberry Finn. Yet, is she aware that Mark Twain, who grew up with the common prejudices of his time, later wrote with admiration about Jews and welcomed his daughter’s choice of a Jewish husband? Regarding African-Americans, Twain provided financial assistance to one of the first black students at Yale Law School. In a letter to the dean of the school, he wrote: ‘’I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger,’’… but I do not feel so about the other color… the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.’’ *

Students must first be given a clear vision of history, of their own past and their future – which should include the Jewish homeland as the only safe haven for the Jewish people. Coupled with a sincere understanding of the Torah’s teachings, this is enough to equip any young Jewish person with the emotional tools of compassion to fight for justice for all.

Hindishe Lee
Passaic
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