04 March 2016

History Matters

I had the honor of teaching a noon-time program at City College yesterday in the Jewish Studies Department, a kind of sneak preview of the full semester course I'll be giving on "Jews and Social Justice" next September.  The hour-long preview was an excuse to share some background on the varieties of events that led to Rabbi Joachim Prinz's moving and historic speech that he gave to those attending the March on Washington in 1963.  Of course, it's a speech unknown to many Americans because Rabbi Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany and activist rabbi in his adopted homeland, was sandwiched between the stirring music of Mahalia Jackson and the earth-shattering brilliance of Rev Dr Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  Mere mortals are to be forgiven their forgetfulness.  

Teaching in this esteemed bastion of public education has been a long-held dream and I felt a particular fealty to the role coming from a great public university in the Midwest, my beloved University of Wisconsin-Madison.  After all, it was in Madison where I first really learned, as George Mosse taught us, that "history matters."  And that the facts arrayed in a pattern have the power to tell a story about seeing the contemporary world through the vital refractions of the teachable, knowable past.

So the goal was trace patterns of migration--Central European Jews coming to America in the mid-nineteenth century; Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist movements (are you listening Donald Trump?); the next great wave of immigrants, including more than three millions Jews, between 1880 and 1920 and therefore the first mass encounters between Jews and Blacks; and the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement, including the founding of the NAACP, which during the odious period of lynchings in the United States, would regularly hang the above banner from its 5th Avenue office until 1938 and which one can now see in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Students were fascinated to hear about birth of Jewish rights organizations as well, like the ADL, the American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee, among others, who adopted partnerships with Black organizations in the shared efforts to ensure that America's values would hew true to those embedded in our foundational civic documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

Because "history matters" I shared stories about Julius Rosenwald, whose philanthropy built more than 5000 schools throughout the Black South; about the lynching of Leo Frank; of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and the famous "footnote 11" in Brown v Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court case that threw out "separate but equal," finally undoing Plessy v Ferguson, which had encoded legal segregation in the United States for sixty years.  "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."  Truer words never spoken.

"Footnote 11" allowed me to get personal, because my mentor Naomi Levine, who was a staff attorney at the American Jewish Congress at the time, worked on the legal strategy and the various sociological and psychological research initiatives, made most famous by Dr. Kenneth Clark's, which demonstrated, unequivocally, that segregation was causing social and psychological damage to Black children.  I even called Naomi the night before the talk to rouse her into more anecdotes and let me tell you, at 92 years old she is still firing on all cylinders!

Naomi and her colleague at the Congress, Phil Baum, also helped Rabbi Prinz (who was President of the American Jewish Congress at the time) craft his remarks.  They were titled "The Most Tragic Problem is Silence."

You can see Prinz deliver the speech on film at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis--at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated--and you can listen to it online, here, which we did.  

In stirring, prophetic prose, through eloquent English in a German accent, Prinz argued that the greatest sin he experienced in fleeing Germany was not Nazism but that "the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."  

I let that claim hang there, as it should, before emphasizing for clarity the critical notion that at various stages in history, our silence in the face of oppression is our greatest sin as a nation.  And that especially today, in an election where terrible, threatening, mean-spirited and even violent words are spoken against people from all backgrounds (and often the most vulnerable) we must be vigilant, cognizant, and be willing to take the risks necessary to not remain silent.

To tell one small story of two peoples with a history of suffering and triumph in the face of oppression, finding ways to work together to advance the cause of justice, especially now, is so important.

History matters, indeed.  

And so do our voices--of all races, faiths, nationalities and backgrounds--lifted up together, bending our moral universe and political arena away from hatred and toward a kind and compassionate foundation in justice.

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