Shortchanging History and Marginalizing Students
“In case anybody wonders… whether or not this is racist… it’s not hard to understand what the Confederacy fought for. I know, states rights, very nice. But everybody understands what the symbolism of that flag is… The flag is a statement of racism… and in this context there’s nothing else it can be interpreted as.” – Rabbi Jeremy Wieder
“We believe he is mistaken that the Confederate flag can be divorced from the hateful ideology and racism of its past, but we also believe that… [his] personal background, atypical of our institution, caused him to make this error.” – Rabbi Kenneth Brander
On Tuesday May 3rd, 1859, a brave young man stepped off the USS Portland to begin a new life. The 23 year-old journeyed across the ocean in the ship’s grimy steerage quarters from Havre, Germany to America in search of new opportunities and freedom. He presumably fled his hometown of Hessen because of persecution, religious restrictions, and economic hardships. Solomon Kahn, a Jewish cabinet maker and my great-great-great-grandfather, emigrated as part of the Ashkenazi wave of German immigrants in the mid to late 19th Century.
After disembarking, Kahn, like many in the sizable Jewish immigrant community, looked towards the Midwest, West, and South and, shortly after, settled in Montgomery, Alabama. Kahn had very few possessions although his trade was undoubtedly valuable (later he would own a mine) and, like the great majority of Southerners, owned no slaves.
Less than two years after Kahn arrived in America, Fort Sumter was fired upon and the country drawn into conflict. The new immigrant who left his family and everything behind in Germany had little choice but to join the ranks (with more than 130 members of his Jewish community). Kahn enlisted in the 3rd Alabama Infantry in defense of the Confederate States of America. As described in “The Best Southern Patriots” by Patricia Hoskins, over the next four years, Kahn and his fellow soldiers in the regiment participated in many of the bloodiest battles of the war, suffered devastating losses at Gettysburg, and eventually were held prisoners of war by the North until the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. After the War, Kahn eventually settled in Dallas, Texas, where he and his wife had two sons, including my great-great-grandfather, Eugene.
My family’s history might be rare for the YU community at large but thousands of Jews fought for the South: Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana served as Jefferson Davis’s secretary of war and then as secretary of the treasury and Rabbi M.J. Michelbacher authored one of the most widely circulated War sermons, titled “A Prayer for the Confederacy.” In fact, the North’s General Ulysses S. Grant conducted one of the most notorious anti-Semitic acts in American history during the 19th century: General Orders No. 11 expelled “Jews as a class” from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi on suspicion of illegal barter run "mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders." The antebellum South had thriving Jewish communities, but is often overlooked. Cities had multiple shuls, mikvahs, butchers, and cemeteries and, like all Southerners, these Jews were proud of their culture.
Many forget the past and others obscure it. My ancestor was called to arms by his countrymen and brothers. It is oversimplifying to assume that individual reasons men fight are the same as the reasons governments wage war. Kahn’s home and culture were under attack, a culture that admittedly and shamefully prospered under slavery. But, that didn't mean he fought for slavery (perhaps patriotism, propaganda, or fear). The South was beleaguered by the North’s criticism, abolitionist societies were formed, Northern publications declared their dichotomous half as deplorables, and politicians belittled their counterparts, condemning them to the fullest- and many times rightly so. Of course, I am not proud that Kahn fought for the side of slavery, but nonetheless I cherish my heritage.
Over the past few centuries, the South has developed its own culture, a “Southern way of life.” We have certain ideals and values that were--and still are--different than our counterparts. People practically worship college football, fry everything, and say y’all at every opportunity. We wear cowboy boots, love pie, and don’t honk the second a streetlight turns green. We generally talk and move slowly, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, drive pickup trucks, and hospitality runs in our blood. High schools go on field trips to the rodeo and Texas History is mandatory for all 5th graders in the state. Visitors profess our differences and, living in New York for the past three years, I can confidently say that Southern culture and values are not the same.
Ask yourself, why isn’t the cross (the crucifix) a symbol of hatred and intolerance? After all, during the Crusades hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered. Christian zealots ransacked Jewish communities throughout Europe and our people were burned at the stake, burned alive pegged to a cross. The very simple answer is that the cross is no longer a symbol of hate or religious superiority. Representation is unique to each culture and varies by society and era.
The Confederate flag, likewise, has different meanings to different people. Growing up and still when I go home, I occasionally see Confederate flags flying on neighborhood homes, Confederate flag bumper stickers on trucks along the highway, and Confederate flag t-shirts on adults and children. Each time I see these, I don’t do a double take. The flag doesn’t represent implicit slavery or racism where I come from; it represents Southern pride and a part of our past. I was at the election watch party and when I saw the YU student don the flag, racism and slavery did not cross my mind once, not once.
I don’t expect others to understand because it’s not your way of life, but shouting and threatening an ignorant individual is immoral and wrong. Much of the YU student body was raised in the New York area and I accept that I go to a commuters’ school. Wearing the Confederate flag at a YU event was wrong and I would never have made that mistake. The oblivious student should have known that it would offend many because, just as the flag has meaning to us, it has meaning to y’all and that meaning evokes racism and hate. But be open, understanding, and tolerant of people's ideas and cultures rather than quick to criticize them.
Rabbi Brander, as a student of the university you represent and as a proud Southerner, I felt that your e-mail to the entire student body seemed inappropriate, misguided, and uncalled for. Whether you asked the student’s permission or not, whether you were under pressure because of negative media publicity, or whether you were just succumbing to the will of the loud and choleric few, your email publicly shamed a YU student. He will, for the rest of his time at your university, be bullied and threatened. You legitimized the calls for his expulsion and drew remarkably untrue historical comparisons and halachic equivalents. The personally opinionated message failed in its job to foster a welcoming student body by igniting tensions and naively shunning all of us out-of-towners who, as you so pointedly put it, are “atypical to our institution” and have different “personal backgrounds.”
Rabbi Wieder, truly with all due respect, releasing a shiur to the world, personally (but perhaps indirectly) attacking a student without ever meeting or speaking to him, is not right. You presume to know his intentions and even introduce your plea against racism by stating that you don’t care about the details. It is understandable that you thought someone did “proudly bear a symbol which is nothing but the embodiment of racism” having lived your whole life in New York. But I think differently and jumping to the conclusion about others, using your rhetoric, that “to me, is absolutely astounding.”
We learn in Bava Metzia 58b that he who embarrasses his fellow is as if he killed him (and further in Pirkei Avot 3:11). Just because a mistake was made, albeit a gross lapse of judgment, as a community, we should not forget who we are and that, while we may disagree, public shaming, embarrassment, and wearing a scarlet letter is never the best solution.
We learn in Pirkei Avot 1:6 not to jump to conclusions about others; judge everyone as meritorious. I hope that when passing judgment on students without evidence or a desire to understand our faculty and administrators take this teaching to heart.
We are the future, and how we learn from each other will help ensure a brighter tomorrow. I hope that this holiday season all of us strive to celebrate what makes us different and our "atypical" personal backgrounds because none of us are the same.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”