As we observed Tisha B’Av we were reminded that, for most of our existence, the Jewish people have been dispersed among the nations of the world. We lost our homeland twice. In 586 BCE, we were carried off into captivity by the Babylonians. The uprisings against Rome in the first and second centuries CE concluded with the destruction of the second Temple and the end of the second Jewish commonwealth. Until 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, we were a landless people. On the ninth of Av, we remember the savagery that has been perpetrated upon us. The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the pogroms, the genocides – all of this is part of our collective memory. We cannot and should not forget this terrible history.
A recent visit to Washington, D.C. reminded me that we are not alone. We are not the only people whose history is a chronicle of dislocation, exile, slavery and genocide.
Among the museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institution are two dedicated to specific peoples: The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is not part of the Smithsonian network but is nearby, adjacent to the National Mall.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened its doors on September 24, 2016, is the newest Smithsonian museum. It traces the history of African Americans from the 15th century and the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade to the election of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States.
A visit to this museum is a powerful and emotional journey through history. We are exposed to the full horror of the “middle passage” across the Atlantic, in which hundreds of human beings were chained together below the decks of slave ships. It is hard not to think of the cattle car, on display just a few blocks away in the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, which was used to transport Jews to extermination camps.
The brutality of the plantation system is a stark reminder of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan that greeted Jews as they arrived at Auschwitz. The similarities between the Nazi slave-labour camps and the plantations of the antebellum South resonate in the soul.
The exhibits documenting the Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South and segregation and discrimination in the North echo the prevailing anti-Semitism that excluded so many North American Jews from medical schools, law schools, and many elite universities – or even neighbourhoods that barred them with “covenants and gentleman’s agreements.”
While the parallels between our two peoples’ horrific histories are self-evident, there is one major difference between a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As a Jew walking through the exhibits at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, I look at my “fellow” visitors and wonder if they comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust for my people and its impact and on my life. I look at older visitors and wonder what they were doing while six million of my people were refused refuge in the United States and in Canada and six million of my people were being murdered in the camps and killing fields of the Nazis and their collaborators.
For a Jew, it is challenging to wander the halls of a museum devoted to preserving the memory of the murdered and not hold others accountable for their deaths. It is so easy to become self-righteous as we walk the corridors of any museum devoted to the events of the Shoah.
So imagine how African Americans must feel in the museum that is devoted to their collective memory. There, all white people are the descendants of the perpetrators of cultural genocide. European society and commerce expanded by virtue of slave labour and the destruction of the black family structure. The wealth of Europe and the New World was made possible by the complicity of white people in these horrors. In one place, I am the victim. In the other, I am the descendant of the overseer. In one hallway, I am the oppressed, in another I am the oppressor. In one building, my story is told to shake the others out of their complacent acceptance of racism. Across the street, another story is told to shake my complacent world.
More museums will be built to document the inhumane treatment of that we inflict upon each other. When they are, where will our people find themselves? As liberators? As heroes? Or as oppressors?