Years ago, I covered a Baltimore Jewish Council meeting at the headquarters of The Associated back when the BJC’s offices were located there. The meeting featured a South African-born Jewish attorney and activist who’d relocated to Baltimore. He spoke about the international Jewish response to apartheid and the ongoing struggles in his homeland.
I’ll never forget chatting with this speaker in a hallway after the meeting about the abomination of apartheid and referring to it — in my youthful zeal and naiveté — as South Africa’s version of the Holocaust.
One of the attendees happened to be eavesdropping, an older woman named Chiae Herzig. She came up after my conversation with the gentleman ended and pulled me aside.
In a very gentle, respectful way, she said, “You should know that what’s going on in South Africa is absolutely horrible and wrong. But you should never compare anything to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a singular event in world history that is beyond comparison and comprehension, and you should always remember that.”
I thought of Chiae’s words recently when noticing a Facebook friend’s re-posting of a meme featuring a photo of the foreboding main building at Auschwitz from the vantage point of those wretched train tracks that carried Jews and others to their deaths.
Under the picture, the meme read, “Over 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz and it still stands 72 years later. Why? Because Jews who survived wanted it preserved, as it is a reminder to never let the evil that was Nazism ever happen again! Never tear down memorials!”
Beneath the meme itself, my Facebook friend — who happens to be Jewish and is unabashedly conservative — showcased the following message written by the individual who originated the post: “Exactly why Democrats want all their memorials torn down, to erase their evil history and why Republicans fight to let them stand, to remind us of who Democrats actually are.”
Of course, my initial impulse was to get on my soapbox and write a sharply worded response. But I stopped myself. I’ve seen too many people fall down that rabbit hole, only to get mired in a war of words with someone (and others) whose views and attitudes they’ll never change.
Social media sometimes seems like the virtual equivalent of giving someone the finger from the safe confines of your moving vehicle. People often say to each other on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram what they would never say in person, for fear of seeing someone’s hurt facial expression or, worse yet, getting punched in the nose.
But the meme did force me to think about all of the confusion and anger in recent weeks over the monuments and statues being taken down around the country connected to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and other shameful chapters in our history.
As we speak, statues of Teddy Roosevelt are being removed, Georgia’s Stone Mountain might be the recipient of a good sandblasting, Maryland’s state song might finally bite the dust, and Ohio’s capital of Columbus is considering a name change (Flavortown? Really?).
On a personal level, I’ve finally — finally — started calling my favorite nearby park, Lake Roland, by its official name since 2015 instead of its former nomenclature, Robert E. Lee Memorial Park.
Sorry, old habits die hard.
It goes without saying that these changes happening in our society to address the sins and horrors of the past are important and long overdue. After all, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
In the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy last month and so many other cases of police brutality and racial injustice, America needs to own up to its horrific history.
The question is, where is the line drawn? After all, our nation’s Founding Fathers were largely slave owners and white supremacists, to varying degrees. Does D.C. need a name change? Should Monticello be turned into a strip mall with a Target and Petco? We need to always place everything in an historical context. Even “Mein Kampf” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” require historical context.
The larger issue is, if advocates for toppling and removing all of the monuments and statues go too far — and let’s face it, there’s no shortage of bigoted and myopic players in American history — does it marshal the forces on the other side and trivialize this important issue? Already, you have Alan Dershowitz comparing those pesky liberals advocating the removal of Confederate monuments to good ol’ Uncle Joe Stalin.
I remember a few years ago, when I worked for the post newspaper at Fort Meade, I interviewed the wife of a soldier serving overseas. She mentioned that she was originally from Richmond, Va.
I asked her about Richmond’s famed (or infamous) Monument Avenue, featuring statues memorializing such Confederate leaders as Lee, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson. The woman, who was African-American, merely shrugged.
“I’m not sure what taking down those monuments really accomplishes,” she said. “What matters is the change in attitudes out there, not the statues.”
I respectfully agree and disagree with her. We need to do both — change attitudes while removing the painful symbols of our disgraceful past.
At the same time, we need to not let such tragedies and historical injustices as genocide, slavery and systemic racism become fodder for those whose objective is to politicize these matters and make them partisan issues that divide us. Slavery, racism, and white supremacy and privilege are not the “evil history” and domain of Democrats (or Republicans), as that Facebook meme contends. That history belongs to all of us.
Like Chiae Herzig counseled me years ago, some things are simply sacrosanct and need to be exempt from comparisons, one-upmanship or political grandstanding.
Even from the safe, comfortable perch of social media.