When the meaning is in the mission
December 18, 2020
I recently read with dismay two opinion pieces in the Heritage, both of which dealt with the “Uprooting Prejudice” exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Research and Education Center. Pardon the pun, but the exhibit obviously got under their skin, in Rabbi Bernard Rosenberg’s case because it didn’t deal specifically with the Holocaust, and in Alan Kornman’s because, supposedly, the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-Semitic. Let’s peel these back one at a time.
The mission statement of the HMREC is simple and straightforward. “We use the history and lessons of the Holocaust,” they state, “to build a just and caring community free of anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice and bigotry.” Nowhere does it say we only teach about the Holocaust. Nowhere does it say we are limited in using the example of the Holocaust. It says that their mission is to use what we have learned from the Holocaust to, effectively, build a community and help build a world that is free of prejudice and bigotry. The HMREC helps to re-educate skinheads about hatred and prejudice. This would be an inappropriate activity, according to Rabbi Rosenberg, because it doesn’t teach about the Holocaust directly. It only deals with current Nazi-style actions and philosophies. It would also be wrong, then, for the HMREC to bring other acts of genocide to light. Forget teaching about Cambodian, Armenian, Rwandan, Bangladeshi genocides which totalled upwards of 9 million innocent souls murdered. Forget teaching about the history of slavery in the United States. And by all means turn a blind eye to bullying, current acts of anti-semitism, and the undeniable, systemic racism that has always been part of the American culture
As long as minorities are chased, beaten, arrested, jailed, and killed at abnormally higher rates than white people, as long as being black or brown makes it more difficult to get equal pay and meaningful employment, as long as poverty and violence are more pronounced in minority neighborhoods, as long as someone sees a black man walking in a predominantly white neighborhood and wonders what he’s doing there, as long as any of these conditions exist it is appropriate…no, it is vital for organizations like the HMREC to teach modern lessons of acceptance and compassion with the historic tool of the Holocaust in their pocket.
Which leads to the second question. Is the Black Lives Matter movement anti-Semitic? And is it wrong for the HMREC to put on an exhibit that deals with the murder of George Floyd and other black men?
First, is there ever justification for synagogues being defaced, or Jewish businesses (any businesses, for that matter) being looted and burned, or statues being destroyed? The answer is obviously no. Is there a Black Lives Matter mission statement that supports and promotes any of these activities? The answer again, is no. It’s not part of their goals or objectives. The goal of the BLM is, much like the HMREC, simple and straightforward. It is to make clear that black people in the United States have historically been marginalized, minimalized, and persecuted by the social systems and institutions we take for granted, the police being one example. Would a white man be shot and killed if he were wandering the streets with a knife, or would he be tasered? Would a white man be shot in his car as he reached for proof of insurance when he’s pulled over for a traffic violation? Would he even be pulled over as often? These are questions we, as Jews, have to confront, have to try to understand and grapple with as we deal with the inequities of our society. These are moral dilemmas, life-shattering dilemmas that serve as the core of the mission of the HMREC. They need to be explored and illuminated, and I for one applaud the organization in its attempts to do so.
For those of us who equate any references to “Free Palestine” with anti-semitism, it must be stated that there are two sides to this coin. Yes, it can be a sign of anti-Jewish bias and a real lack of understanding of Middle East history and politics. And yes, Israeli society is not wholly innocent or pure when it comes to its treatment of Palestinians. Far from it. There are significant problems there that cannot be ignored, and which we must admit we sometimes blind ourselves to because of our passionate support of Israel.
So kudos to the HMREC for its “Uprooting Prejudice” exhibit, and here’s to many more like-minded displays that will highlight humanity’s inhumanity, and how we face it and change for the better. The past can never be forgotten or ignored. But hatred, bigotry, oppression, prejudice, and genocide should never be ignored, no matter where or when they occur.
And that’s the good word. Best wishes for a 2021 that makes 2020 a distant memory, and truly a thing of the past. I’m David Bornstein. Feel free to contact me through the Heritage, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.