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Taking a Jewish approach to U.S. history

Article’s tags: International Law, Philosophy & Morality, Neo Anti Sem

As the United States endures this historic racial, health and economic mega-crisis, it’s also experiencing a crisis about its history. Americans often have viewed yesteryear far too uncritically; today, many view it far too critically.

Day by day, statues fall, reputations are trashed, buildings are renamed and many of the Founders are dismissed as slaveholders. The sins of 1619, when the first documented slave ship arrived in Jamestown, Va., seem to trump the spirit of 1776 — once the symbol of America’s promise, not its perfection.

Many Americans wonder: How can we still believe in the country’s ideals — and heritage — when so many of those who shaped the ideals and the heritage are so flawed? Americans are particularly unsuited to face such challenges, having grown up on a triumphalist diet, knowing their country was, in Lincoln’s words, “the last best hope on Earth.”

Alas, Jews grow up with a more tragic sense of history. Our Bible is filled with imperfect characters, and our history is pockmarked with days of mourning — offering timely seminars on coping with history’s messes.

Although Western civilization brutalized the Jews, Western values liberated us, too. We’ve learned that the best way to fight racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry is to sift through history, not purge it. We cannot change the past, no matter how ugly. There is too much to learn from its failures and glories.

When facing history’s challenges, better to squirm than sanitize.

The two of us were born into very different societies and encountered different forms of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, those contrasting experiences made us each appreciate the power of America’s redemptive ideals as part of our Jewish understanding that history is three dimensional.

The Bohdan Khmelnytsky Monument is one of Kyiv’s most majestic sites. Ukrainians revere Khmelnytsky as a towering hero who represents their centuries-long struggle for independence and freedom. Yet whenever I (Sharansky) visit my native Ukraine and pass that “statue you cannot avoid” dominating Saint Sophia Square, it’s always jarring. Because in Jews’ pogrom-scarred history, Khmelnytsky’s name is associated with the bloodiest of pogroms. From 1648 to 1649, as the Ukrainians rebelled against the Poles, tens of thousands of Jews were killed, with 300 Jewish communities destroyed.

In the Soviet Ukraine where I grew up, anti-Semitism was everywhere — although, officially, it was nowhere; it did not exist. So the Khmelnytsky pogroms “never happened.” When we stumbled across references to anti-Semitic riots in Ukrainian literature, our teachers — who translated any mention of “dirty Jews” as “class enemies” — reinterpreted the violence as inevitable overreactions when the oppressed launch their noble class struggle against their oppressors.

Today’s free Ukraine has eliminated the Soviet Union’s state anti-Semitism. Jews there feel free to express their identities openly. Moreover, Ukrainian society is increasingly open to addressing the history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations in all its complexity. But even my most sympathetic Ukrainian dissident friends and former cellmates make clear that downgrading Khmelnytsky as a national figure is inconceivable. After all, he was as central to Ukraine’s fight for independence from Poland as George Washington was to America’s fight for independence from Great Britain. 

Jews are preprogrammed to navigate history, not negate it. We have no choice. Our ancestors often behaved poorly. 

While Sharansky spent most of the 1980s in the Gulag, being persecuted as a Jew and a human rights activist, I  (Troy) spent that decade at Harvard University. While appreciating my good fortune to study there, I knew how deeply Jew-hatred was baked into Harvard’s history. It was anti-Semitism American-style: never violent, often genteel, but ugly nevertheless. We students gossiped about the now-legendary professors whose tenures were blocked until an older wave of anti-Semites retired. We sensed that Harvard still feared becoming known as “the Jewish Ivy.” And while Harvard venerated its 1909-33 president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, his quota system — and aristocratic contempt — barred many Jewish students.  

Yet Lowell also instituted Harvard’s cherished house system to smash the class barriers that kept rich undergraduates living away from their peers. When his portrait peered down at me in the Lowell House dining hall, I’d stare right back, remembering how far we Jews had come and how far Harvard had come —  partially thanks to seeds Lowell and others planted.

So, although we would love to erase parts of the past, we cannot escape them. We learned that the way a society treats history often reveals how it treats its citizens. 

Toppling statues and shuffling about historical reputations was as central to life under Soviet totalitarianism as were long lines and KGB informers. We sang in the Soviet Internationale of knocking down the old world to its base to “build a new world” on the ashes of the destroyed one, its present and its past.

The Soviets kept rewriting history so what the party called “the forces of good” — the oppressed — could crush “the forces of evil” — the oppressor. On impulse, people who were long dead could be removed from the pantheon to advance some new Communist Party line. The regime kept its monopoly on deciding who at any moment was good — and who was evil. 

History was one more tool for Soviet totalitarians to use in their round-the-clock efforts at thought control. Treating history as their property, they reduced it to putty. 

In the free world, history cannot be the exclusive property of the leaders; nor should it be subject to the whims of the crowds and the trends of the day. In democracies, history flows from past to present, not vice versa. We cannot exile every bigot or isolate many of their greatest accomplishments from their worst sins.

The totalitarian cannot tolerate the chaos — and keeps updating history to fit the changing agenda. The democrat accepts messiness, tolerates confusion and copes with facts.

Jews are preprogrammed to navigate history, not negate it. We have no choice. Our ancestors often behaved poorly. The Bible’s colorful lineup of flawed heroes challenges us to replicate their virtues and avoid their sins. While seeking to continue their noble missions and eternal values, we also learn from Isaac’s passivity; Jacob’s craftiness; Joseph’s arrogance toward his brothers; Moses’ anger; Miriam’s gossiping; and King David’s heroism and piety, amid epic sins.

That mixed bag prepares us for modern life. Western civilization is riddled with anti-Semitism, along with racism, sexism and imperialism. But Western civilization also has produced some of the most effective tools reformers have against these scourges. The ironies abound. Democratic political structures that emerged from the European Enlightenment incorporated biblically rooted ideals of equality and liberty, even as by 1939, that enlightenment also spawned Nazism’s deadly anti-Semitism.

Imagine if our enemies were correct and we Jews, “the Elders of Zion,” had the power to dictate history. We could write out of history every Western hero who hated us. But what would Catholic history be without the Crusaders — including Louis IX, an enlightened French king and notorious anti-Semite after whom St. Louis is named? What would Protestantism be without Martin Luther, that pace-setting rebel, reformer — and Jew-hater? And what would Spanish history be without Ferdinand and Isabella, who brought Spain back to Christian Europe, then expelled and persecuted hundreds of thousands of Jews?

More broadly, what would literature be without Shakespeare, the creator of Shylock, or without Dostoyevsky? What would human rights be without Voltaire? What would socialism be without that toxic Jew-hater Karl Marx, the rabbi’s grandson who declared that the real God of Jews is money?

When Sharansky was in prison, Voltaire was his honored friend. This French philosopher who died in 1778 was one of the heroes galloping through the centuries to deliver an essential message: Some values are worth living for — and dying for. Voltaire was ready to defend to the death his opponents’ right to be wrong and still speak. Yet by saying Jews “deserve to be punished” for their “barbarism,” this enlightened liberal helped legitimize “enlightened” liberal anti-Semitism.

In democracies, history flows from past to present, not vice versa. We cannot exile every bigot or isolate many of their greatest accomplishments from their worst sins.

Similarly, Fyodor Dostoyevsky symbolized the Russian intelligentsia’s resistance to autocracy, one of the soaring souls whose example highlighted the Soviet system’s brutality and vulgarity. When KGB interrogators accused Sharansky of betraying Russian culture as “a Zionist agent,” the answer was obvious: “You want to say Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are on your side? They’re on my side.” Yet Dostoyevsky perpetuated deadly Jewish stereotypes, warning that the Jews — the anti-Christ —  were money-hungry hucksters, threatening humanity. 

These bigots were essential architects of the Enlightenment and the emancipation. We don’t forgive our enemies or forget the damage they’ve caused, but we wouldn’t gain from a whitewash. We simultaneously enjoy and attack different parts of their heritage.

History is like a LEGO tower. You cannot keep building more elaborate structures by removing all the bricks at the bottom. As the liberal academic and United Nations Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned in 1975, “The idea of human rights is an idea which appeared at a specific time in the world, and under very special circumstances. …. If we destroy the words that were given to us by past centuries, we will not have words to replace them, for philosophy today has no such words.”

Initially, many Zionists repudiated Jewish history as one endless pogrom. In 1934, Berl Katznelson, a secular Zionist, dissented, keeping the Tisha b’Av fast of lamentations, even as Zionism revived the Jewish people. He compared the “primitive revolutionism” that trashes the past to “the growing child who demonstrates his mastery of things … by breaking his toys.” 

Katznelson endorsed forgetting — and remembering, in proportion. “A renewing and creative generation does not throw the cultural heritage of ages into the dustbin,” he preached. “It examines and scrutinizes, accepts and rejects.” Decades later, Rabbi David Hartman warned about the “moral narcissism that can result from suffering and from viewing oneself as a victim.” Remember Auschwitz; rebuild with Sinai.

Here is the great liberal democratic leap: Rather than lying about some oversimplified past by constantly updating it, you learn about the imperfect real past to keep improving the future.

History is not malleable or one dimensional. History, like humanity, is a package deal; you can’t pick and choose. History remembers complicated, imperfect people — sometimes striving to be perfect; sometimes doing perfectly awful things. Honoring historical characters is like breathing through a face mask: You focus on the good and keep the poisons out — not forgotten.

Rather than lying about some oversimplified past by constantly updating it, you learn about the imperfect real past to keep improving the future.

As important as it is for us as Jews and as human rights activists to preserve the European package, the U.S. narrative is even more essential to those words, these ideas. The attempt to create John Winthrop’s shining “city upon a hill” — a beacon — was a critical experiment at a critical moment in pursuing happiness through liberty and equality. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — who, accepting his identity, never renounced his problematic namesake nor a problematic America — understood this paradox. Like the great orator Frederick Douglass, who appreciated the Constitution as “an anti-slavery instrument,” King didn’t declare the ideals false because they remained unfulfilled. He challenged Americans to fulfill them.

True, the world the Founders created helped millions of American Jews who came here voluntarily find a uniquely welcoming country. At the same time, African Americans first arrived in chains and still face racism today. Yet that same world the Founders created also propelled the African American trajectory from slavery to freedom. Those who read U.S. history as only perpetuating white supremacy cannot explain these gains. They only attack U.S. history without enjoying anything. 

Columbia University’s John H. McWhorter warns that the radicals who dominate debate today don’t represent the mainstream. “The center should be what most Black people around the country feel, which is that racism exists, but it’s not everything,” he insists.

This is why we are stunned when we hear liberals undermine the liberalizing — and cleansing — power of U.S. history and of American values. We are particularly disturbed when Jewish mainstream groups endorse initiatives like The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which by viewing American history strictly through the slavery lens, peddles so many partisan distortions — and brazen lies — that many leading liberal historians have denounced it.

True progress cannot be made by spreading falsities, imposing new orthodoxies or betraying the valuable ideas that caused whatever progress we have made. And we Jews — especially Israelis — know a thing or two about the dangers of false historical comparisons. Teaching America’s sins exclusively risks draining the idealism that fueled the greatest leaps forward minorities have made in U.S. history. 

In St. Louis, we wouldn’t tear down the statue Apotheosis of St. Louis as some Jews now demand, or change the city’s name. Yes, Louis IX was a bigoted Crusader, but he also was a revered French Catholic king in the 1200s, who helped institutionalize the notion that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty —  among other building blocks of Western civilization at its best.

We abhor Christopher Columbus’ brutality toward the natives, but his visionary courage and faith in scientific truth trailblazed the way for America’s European civilization. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder — which is unconscionable — but as his magical phrase “all men are created equal” grew to include all people, it helped end slavery. Woodrow Wilson was a racist, but his Fourteen Points undermined imperialism and launched many national liberation movements seeking self-determination.

Our anguished “tolerance” for yesterday’s “push me, pull you” heroes doesn’t mean we should tolerate anti-Semitism, racism or any bigotry today. Sometimes, when a monument symbolizes an unadulterated evil you’re targeting mid-struggle, you have no choice but to act. We like to think that if we had been in France in 1789, we would have helped storm the Bastille — it symbolized the French monarchy; although today, we wouldn’t knock down it – or other museums such as the Tower of London.

In 1991 when Moscow crowds near KGB headquarters swarmed the 15-ton statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, they were resisting KGB attempts to squelch their fight for freedom. Similarly, removing statues of racist Confederate leaders erected by racist sore losers to perpetuate the South’s racist power dynamics is about fighting evil now, not balancing mixed legacies from then.

Juggling remembering and forgetting, condemning the bad while cherishing the good, is difficult. We don’t deny our past; we don’t sterilize it. Instead, we remain in dialogue with it, in all its complexity.

In 1956, with Jews reeling from the Nazi mass murders, “the Rav,” the great 20th-century philosopher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, taught that memory, destiny, must not be handcuffs but “a royal crown.” That crown empowers us to “take fate into our own hands and shape it into the destiny of a free life, a life full of meaning and saturated with the joy of living, turning isolation into aloneness and disparagement into significance.”

A kindred spirit animated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, when he spoke in that city of monuments, Washington, D.C., in front of the Lincoln Memorial — addressing 250,000 people stretching back to the Washington Monument — honoring that freedom fighter who was a slaveholder. King didn’t offer a nihilistic nightmare but  “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” It began with the notion that “one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”

King understood that our anger against injustice may lead us to try to torch the past. But that only spews toxins. Instead, acting as torchbearers, inheriting the good while learning from failure puts us in creative, constructive dialogue with history, living in the three-dimensional world our predecessors made — blessed and cursed — running with the liberating, often-redeeming, democratic ideals they created or sharpened. 

Historically, that’s long been the American way — and it’s a deeply Jewish approach, too.

Natan Sharansky is a former political prisoner of the Soviet Union and served in four Israeli cabinets. Today he is chairman of ISGAP, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University and the author of 10 books on the U.S.  presidency.

Their book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People” is scheduled for publication in September by PublicAffairs of the Hachette Book Group.

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