Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Confederate Jews

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?


Karen said...

I would hope that you would stay true to your moral compass if ever asked to dedicate a Jewish confederate memorial and decline the offer. As you stated, "Let's admit it, not celebrate it."

It takes commitment to stay at the citizen 4.0 and 5.0 levels. Wouldn't something like this be at the 1.0 or 2.0 level? Even if this plummet was temporary, the climb back up the citizenship levels would involve more "baggage."

Rabbi Rami said...

I would hope so, too, Karen. But the pressure to please congregants and keep your job might be too strong to resist. I can imagine myself rationalizing away the lack of integrity in order to keep food on the table. I know too many good clergy who are forced to do this all the time to pretend that I would be able to resist. Honesty requires this admission.

Raksha said...

Re "If we are going to honor Jews who died fighting in the South, I would focus on Goodman and Schwerner."

I agree...they were true heroes.

Jim Wells, MD said...

Having been born in NC and lived most of my life in NC, I have been acutely aware from a young age that the Civil War was not and is not over for a lot of people. From my perspective, the most intense opposition to the policies of President Obama is coming from residual Civil War attitudes passed down to the current generation of southern Republicans.

As for honoring Jewish Confederate war dead in Mississippi, I concur with letting the dead bury the dead and doing our best not to give any semblance of honor to those who fought to preserve an evil system of human exploitation.

I have to admit, though, that when I was 19 and selling dictionaries door to door in Alabama in the summer of 1967, there were situations in which I disguised myself as one of the locals by adopting a much more southern accent than usual for me. I also actually bought and put on my car one of those terrible license tags that said, "Put your heart in Dixie or get your ass out." I was in Alabama with a mission that did not include being beaten up, jailed, or murdered but did include selling a lot of dictionaries. I didn't make any waves that summer while Detroit was burning. I guess I was sort of scared, and I was one of those folks in the "bystander" category. Though I hope I would have stood up during that time to an overt example of prejudice or cruelty, I mostly wanted to accomplish my sales goals and avoid being labeled "an outside agitator from NORTH Carolina."

By the following spring, however,I was co-leading with Bob Perez a civil rights march in Winston-Salem and having my picture taken by FBI agents in a van that slowly passed us as we walked from the campus of Wake Forest to City Hall. Two years after that, I was putting anti-war cartoons on the medical bulletin board of the USS Sampson, the guided missile destroyer I was aboard while in the US Navy and writing letters to the Navy and the Raleigh News and Observer stating my opposition to the war in Vietnam. In response to that I received letters of encouragement and condemnation, including one that said I should be ashamed and should turn in my Eagle Scout award. I've been a social activist to one degree or another ever since.

Why the change from an effort to assimilate while in Alabama to taking a stand and letting the chips fall where they may in Winston-Salem and the Navy? I'm not really sure. As I think about it now, I certainly believe it is important to speak out when we think something is wrong; and yet in a given situation our choices might not coincide so much with our highest ideals and aspirations but rather with our instincts for survival.

There is a book I like on the Holocaust entitled "Perpetrators, Victims, and Bystanders," by Raul Hilberg. A description can be found here: