The photograph hit me like a hard right to the gut: Rabbis Wisnia and Appel, standing with two Jews dressed up as Confederate soldiers at the dedication of a memorial for Jewish Confederate war dead in Mississippi. The four of them are smiling for the camera as if they were breaking ground for a new Jewish preschool. But they weren’t. They were there to honor those Jews who died defending the Confederacy.
Sure, I know that there were Jewish slave owners. I know there were Jews who helped finance the Confederacy. I know there were Jews who fought for the South. And I know that here in the South where I live fighting for the Confederacy is a badge of honor. We have a statue to fallen Confederate soldiers outside the courthouse of my town. But I am not proud of this. I don’t have my picture taken in front of it.
Full disclosure: I am a Yankee. I am from Massachusetts and take great pride in that. Sure we burned witches and hung Quakers, but we were on the right side in the Civil War— watch the movie Glory. It would never occur to most Yankees to fly the Confederate flag, and those to whom this does occur also fly the Nazi flag, because both are about oppressing the Other, be they blacks or Jews.
But do we Jews have to celebrate our support of slavery? Sure, you can say the War of Northern Aggression was fought to defend the agrarian economy of the South, but that economy would have collapsed had slavery been abolished. No matter what else may have been involved, no matter how equivocal Lincoln may have been on the issue of slavery, the issue was slavery. And Jewish Confederate soldiers fought to uphold slavery. History is history. Let’s admit it, but not celebrate it.
“Stop smiling!” I yell at the rabbis in the photo. “At least look a bit troubled over the morality of what you’re doing!”
Honestly, I don’t know what I would do if, as the rabbi of a Confederate congregation, I was asked to dedicate a Jewish Confederate memorial. Maybe politics trumps morality here. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe I would have done my best at the dedication, and then quietly send a donation to the United Negro College Fund. Maybe I would have smiled for the camera, and hoped that no one notices.
But this photo is published in The Chronicle, a magazine of the Reform Movement. The section in which it appears is called “Alumni Changing the World.” Honoring those who died in defense of oppression is “changing the world?” And how ironic that this memorial is in Mississippi where Jewish Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner along with their African American co-worker James Chaney were murdered 1964. If we are going to honor Jews who died fighting in the South, I would focus on Goodman and Schwerner.
This isn’t an attack on rabbis Wisnia and Appel (neither of whom I know, and both of whom are probably fine and good people), nor on the editor who choose to run the photo (also unknown to me and most like a nice person). It isn’t an attack at all. Just a cry: isn’t anyone ashamed of anything any more?