Courtesy of Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs addresses the debate over renaming monuments and places and asks Jews to join the debate with a “profound sense of empathy.”

Imagine this scenario: A Jewish American family takes a driving vacation. They take the Herman Goehring Freeway to the Joseph Goebbel bridge, where they enter Rudolf Hess county, pass Lake Himmler, and spend the night at the Rommel Hotel.

Sounds absurd, right? Now let’s replay that by substituting a Black family and change the names of the places they pass:

Imagine a Black family driving over the Jefferson Davis Freeway, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, entering Forest County, passing by Lake Calhoun and and staying overnight at the Robert E. Lee Hotel.

Each of those locations are real places. Most white people, I would think, wouldn’t think twice about those names, not out of racism but out of ignorance. But take a moment to consider the reality of who those people were:

-The Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia is named after the president of the Confederacy. He oversaw the rebellion against the U.S., staked his entire career on preserving slavery and was a fervent and proud racist, stating that Blacks are “inferior” and “fitted expressly for servitude”.

-Edmund Pettus, whose name adorns the famous bridge in Mississippi, was the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan during a time in which Alabama led the nation in lynchings. He was a staunch segregationist who vehemently opposed civil rights for Black Americans.

-Forest County is named after Nathan Bedford Forest, a prominent general in the Confederate army, a fierce racist  and the first Grand Dragon of the national Ku Klux Klan.

-Lake Calhoun is named after John C. Calhoun. He was the South’s principal advocate for slavery and “nullification” of U.S. laws in his time. Calhoun maintained that slavery made blacks more “civilized and improved, not only physically but morally and intellectually” which was “conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race.”

-Robert E. Lee was the pre-eminent Confederate General. Despite his modern day reputation as an honorable warrior, the fact is that he was a fanatical white supremacist whose treatment of Blacks was particularly harsh. Lee’s army would regularly capture free Black Americans and send them to the South to become someone’s property. As a slaveowner, he sometimes chose to beat his slaves himself. One of his slaves, Wesley Norris, once later remarked that Lee’s punishment was especially severe, saying that Lee was “not satisfied to simply lacerating our naked flesh”.

The Confederate States of America existed solely to preserve slavery. It declared war on the United States just to preserve that evil institution, which ultimately resulted in 620,000 deaths, more than every other U.S. war combined.  Its very Constitution explicitly stated that “no law…shall be passed” that would ‘deny or impair’ the “right of property in negro slaves”.

Yet today throughout America, especially in the south, the landscape is littered with tributes to Confederate leaders. America has over 1,500 Confederate statutes, over 200 schools in 18 states, 10 military bases, hundreds of counties, and scores of hotels, diners, lakes and mountains. They are everywhere and up in everyone’s faces, whether people like it or not.

The debate over renaming monuments and places – especially those named after Confederate leaders – has heated up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. It’s a messy, controversial debate that America needs to work out, and in time it will.

But Jews – a people who know persecution far too well – should approach this debate with a unique perspective and profound sense of empathy. Our ancestors in Europe, just a few generations ago, were often surrounded by anti-Semitic symbols. We see those photos and we can instantly feel their pain and outrage. We of all people should be quick to condemn any display or tolerance of such symbols, particularly the honoring of Confederate leaders, a group of people who dedicated their careers to enslaving an entire race of people in America.

American Jews indeed face anti-Semitism today, but we don’t live with (and can’t even imagine) seeing monuments, roads, bridges, schools and counties all around us named after rabid anti-semites. Nor are we subjected to the torment of seeing Nazi flags on cars, trucks and in rallies, which are as offensive to Jews as Confederate flags are to Blacks.

But even though we don’t typically see visual reminders of hatred against us, we should be able to easily grasp how outrageous and demoralizing such symbols are to Black America. We should understand and support our fellow black citizens, more than any other group of people. Our camaraderie on this issue should be powerful and instinctual.

The debate over Confederate monuments and places will continue for Americans for a long time. The moment has arrived and there’s no turning back. People will need to decide where they stand. But it shouldn’t divide the Jewish community. We should be solidly unified behind the removal of all things Confederate. Let them reside in a museum, where they belong. This shouldn’t be a political issue for us; it should be a visceral one. Haven’t we learned by now that hateful symbols against one group are a threat to everyone, especially us?

Black Americans have every right to feel pain and anger by the presence of memorials to people who wished to enslave their ancestors. Jews would be in an uproar if we had to witness daily homages to the leading anti-Semites of the past, and rightly so. It’s time we speak up, loudly and passionately. If we become callous to this injustice, we betray Black Americans, the lessons of our Jewish past and the values we wish to pass onto our children.

Correction: An earlier version of this column used the wrong name to refer to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 
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