I was disturbed this morning by the reporting in my local newspaper of the events this weekend in Boston. They reported that a small group of “conservatives” had to end their demonstration early because of the actions of the “anti-hate activists” who showed up to oppose them. Language matters, and the paper was taking sides here. Substitute “white supremacists” for “conservatives”, and “civil rights groups” for “anti-hate activists”, and you will see what I mean. Technically, the “conservatives” in question were not white supremacists at all. They were not invading the streets of Boston, carrying swastikas and Confederate flags, and they were not armed to the teeth. They were assembling for what was billed as a free speech rally, but there can be no doubt that their interest in “free speech” applied mainly to the hate groups that terrorized Charlottesville VA a week earlier.
There is a sick irony in the fact that we are still talking about this a week later. President Obama had to respond to hate crimes during his time in the White House with appeals for a national conversation on race, but it is the reprehensible reactions of Donald Trump that have kept this conversation alive this time. Donald Trump looks at swastikas and Confederate flags, and hears hateful chants of torch bearing peasants, and he sees “great people” marching to honor “beautiful statues”. Many people have chimed in with all of the reasons Trump is wrong about this, so I am going to keep it simple.
When I see a swastika, I don’t see “great people”. I see a brutally broken family tree. I am a Jew. My immediate family came here long before World War II, so we have no stories of narrow escapes from the Nazis, or of relatives who died in the concentration camps. But I have no doubt that I have distant cousins who have such stories. That I can not find them in my personal experience does not matter. Nor does it matter that I was raised an atheist. We are all one people, and we celebrated that fact every year at Passover when I was growing up. What was done to any of us was done to all of us.
I can speak even less authoritatively of what a black person sees when they view the Confederate flag. I have had many black friends over the years, but this was not something we discussed. But I imagine that they also do not see “great people”. I imagine that they see these symbols, and these “beautiful statues”, and they think, “we were slaves”.
We were slaves. In Hebrew it’s avadim hayinu. In my family, we equated the time of slavery in Egypt with the time of oppression under the Nazis. We celebrated the freedom fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. And we also always included Martin Luther King in our seders. Maybe Jared Kushner’s seders when he was growing up were different. All we know for sure is that Donald Trump does not understand this simple truth about these symbols, and there does not seem to be anyone close to him who can explain it to him.
I could choose a Hebrew or Yiddish song this week, and go into a long explanation of my choice. But I am keeping it simple, so Bob Marley gets the nod: