As we get ready to celebrate Independence Day this weekend, it is hard to ignore the anxiety and uncertainty gripping the country. There are so many significant issues we as a nation are grappling with, among them, our renewed soul-searching surrounding our painful, ingrained history of racism.
On one hand, we are about to celebrate the 244th anniversary of the greatest and most successful experiment in Democracy. Our country was founded on the noblest of ideas: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Yet throughout most of our history, we have failed to seriously confront the stark reality of the racism and discrimination that continue to plague our society. This keeps us from more fully realizing our mission as a country to form a “more perfect union” in which all people live in liberty and truly have equal opportunity.
Surprisingly, however, I find myself more hopeful as we approach this Independence Day. In the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, protests across our country and the globe have forced a reckoning I do not believe we have ever witnessed.
At 61 years old, I am now confronting my own white privilege for the first time, and my professional imperative as a Jewish educator to do more. And, as a staunch lover and supporter of Israel, I have made peace with the statement, “Black Lives Matter.” Each of us has to be able to say that with full sincerity, recognizing this statement of truth does not mean the same thing as the organization that mistakenly tied itself to anti-Israel rhetoric. I believe we must both say and teach that black lives matter, and that all people of color, all genders, all humans deserve the same rights and opportunities. Thank you to all who have taken to the streets to light a fire in the soul of America to do better.
As a nation, we are at a tipping point and it feels as though just and lasting change can actually happen. Much of my optimism comes from the younger generations, who I believe are ready and willing for this growth. We hear this in national and local conversations about race and police brutality, as well debates over the appropriateness of statues that commemorate a history that terrorized Black people.
Our school will be taking a closer look at how we teach our students American History; how we teach racism, hate, prejudice, and discrimination. We are already proud that we have broadened the themes around hate through our Holocaust studies program. Our Facing History and Ourselves curriculum has been powerful in bringing these issues to our students. But much more needs to be done and we will do our part.
I believe our Jewish tradition will continue to help inform these conversations. I have written in the past that Jews share memories, not history. This is significant because memories are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which include our values and priorities. While not perfect, our memories create a picture of a people whose flaws are entirely human, yet are constantly striving to live just and compassionate lives. Our story is one of our patriarchs, matriarchs, and leaders – each struggling to realize the vision to be “a light unto all nations.” We deeply appreciate and admire our ancestors, not because they were perfect, rather, that despite their imperfections and mistakes, they never lost the passion to pursue their better selves and their dream of building a holy nation of people who were inspired by acts of doing good – Mitzvot!
Many of our heroes in the Bible, however, were slave owners. The Torah, our most sacred text, acknowledged the institution of slavery, though introduced the concept of treating slaves fairly and releasing them. Nonetheless, we must continue to confront the shortcomings of our ancestors; the verses in the Torah that trouble us, and learn from them. At the same time, we strive to internalize the values, ideas, and way of life that were passed down to us through the stories of our people. We are flawed; this is what it means to be human. We make mistakes. Our obligation is to learn and atone for our mistakes so that we become better as a people, better as a nation, and as a society. That is, in part, the story of the Jewish people and it can inform how we tell the American story.
As parents and educators, we must teach the complexity of the American story and how it favors whites over people of color, then and now. We need to be honest that until all people have the same rights, no one is completely untethered from responsibility. An unexamined past will continue to weigh us down. This does not mean canceling the greatness of our founders. We need to be honest about their complex personalities. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most prolific writers on freedom and liberty, held slaves until his death. He was a liar and a cheat, and ultimately fell short of the ideals of which he wrote. Yet, it was his ideas and his willingness to fight for them that led to our great democracy. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr., while sitting in a Birmingham, Alabama jail, quoted from Jefferson’s writings.
George Washington, who led the Continental Army to victory and served as our first President, lived a conflicted life over slavery and left directions for his slaves to be freed upon his death. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were among the staunch abolitionists who opposed slavery and wanted slaves freed upon the founding of the United States. They had to compromise to bring the South along, or independence may not have come and there certainly would not have been enough money to fight England. A mistake for sure. They ended up simply delaying the Civil War for a little less than a century. These were great, flawed individuals pushing civilization towards a better vision of life, liberty, equality. However they fell short, they still advanced the cause.
We need to teach this truth without removing symbols and statues commemorating the aspects of their lives that stood for the greater good. We should not blur lines between those driven by still-sacred ideals and those who took up causes of hate and evil. There is no place for Confederate flags or statues that were often placed in public squares to intimidate the Black community. Nor is there a place in 2020 for any American military base to glorify a Confederate general who was, in truth, an enemy of the United States and freedom.
As Jews and Americans, it is our sacred responsibility to teach our children truth. No matter how complicated it is, we must better position them to one day contribute to fully realizing the dream of America and the values we hold dear as both Americans and as Jews.
So let’s celebrate July 4th and the dream of a more perfect union; a dream where no one is judged by the color of their skin, their gender, or their religion. Today, amidst the turmoil we are enduring, I believe and hope that we are closer to realizing this dream than we were two months ago. Happy July 4th. Stay healthy – wear masks and continue social-distancing.