By Abby Fisher ‘19
On the first day of school, Head of High School Rabbi Noam referred to the horrific August 12th Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as shocking and antithetical to American principles of liberty and equality. He also assured the student body that although the event took place before the school year, the Heschel community would address it, as the implications of an event like Charlottesville should not be undervalued.
Rabbi Noam’s powerful statement pushed me to consider our country’s moral values. Though it’s true that our country was founded on the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” our forebears were white men, most of whom owned slaves. In the minds of our American predecessors, these rights were only “unalienable” if you were a white man. The United States wasn’t founded on the utopian ideal of equality, but rather on the far less admirable ideal of conditional or selective equality. Therefore, though similarly appalled, I wasn’t quite as shocked as some other members of my community by August’s rally.
In the wake of Charlottesville, many politicians began thinking and discussing the place of Confederate history and monuments in America. While some advocate a complete removal of these statues that they believe preserve and even idolize slavery and its shameful legacy, others feel it important to protect them in order to honor American national history. In defense of the latter stance, President Trump raised an interesting question, albeit accidentally.
He asked, “…is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Trump’s central point was that as Americans, we respect and admire so many historical figures who took part in the unjustifiable practice of owning slaves, and if we begin to uproot monuments paying tribute to others who partook in the same system of oppression, where do we draw the line? Obviously it would be ridiculous to remove statues of American “heroes” like Washington and Jefferson, so we should award Confederate history the same respect, as it too is complicated by the sin of slavery.
The president took for granted, however, that to some his proposition was not so apparently preposterous. Would it truly be crazy and wrong to stop idolizing these men who engaged in, and in many cases perpetuated, the inhumane treatment of black people?
It’s true that some things can be justified because it simply was a different time with standards that now seem antiquated. For example, many, if not most, prominent historical male figures did not treat women with dignity, but this was true of most countries and cultures. Slavery in its particularly gruesome form was uniquely American. Certainly, sexism and violence against women continue to be pressing issues that must be addressed, but these problems are not solely American, nor are they values intrinsic to living in the United States.
For me, Trump’s retort made clear that our problem is not with Charlottesville or the Trump Administration, but rather with America’s very foundation. That is why racism and White Nationalism continue to resurface, as they did at another rally in the very same location on October 7th.
Charlottesville was not just another tragedy like the recent events in Puerto Rico or Houston. Unlike with a natural disaster, as Americans who normalize the role of slavery in its building of the American nation we know today, we are complicit in the calamity.
I’m profoundly grateful to be part of a community that was able to raise funds for the victims of flooding and hurricanes so quickly. I’d hoped to see a comparably energized response to Charlottesville, though the damage it caused runs much deeper. We can’t simply organize drives or collect donations to repair systemic flaws in our country. It’s on us to keep discussing and speaking out against Charlottesville and other reminders of the legacy of slavery, because until we reconcile with our troubled history, similarly devastating acts of hatred will continue.