In My Own Words: History, winners and the Confederate cause

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

It was a song that made me start thinking and an article given to me by a member of The Reporter Editorial Committee that caused me to explore the idea further. The song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was written by Robbie Robertson of The Band, but the version I was listening to was performed by Joan Baez. The narrator of the song is a member of the Confederacy and talks about how the horrors of war affected his family. When I first heard Baez sing it, I liked it, partly because I was a fan and loved her voice. I can’t say that I really paid too much attention to the lyrics, except to note they expressed my sentiments about the damage war causes.
The article I read was about White Nationalism and the movement’s supporters who are part of the Trump administration. One paragraph mentioned a member of the administration who was concerned that Confederate merchandise was being removed from e-commerce websites after a White Nationalist attack on a black church in 2015. This took place during the recent debate about the removal of statues and flags connected to the Confederacy. The concern expressed was that doing so erased an important part of American history. 
American history: That is an interesting concept because your thoughts on our history depend on which side of that history you fall. For example, Native Americans have a very different view of American history than most Americans who came here as immigrants (from the Jamestown settlement to current new Americans). When I was very young, Indians (as everyone called Native Americans at the time) were the bad guys and the cowboys were the good guys. Studying all of American history – the good things and the bad – has changed my point of view. While I still love and appreciate the United States, I also recognize that its policies did not benefit Native Americans, nor were they always treated well, which is really an understatement of the atrocities done to them. In this case, the winner determined the history I originally learned in school and the movies, although some historians now acknowledge the harm done.
This means I can appreciate that some Southerners feel the Confederacy is an important part of their history. I can understand the sorrow and loss the narrator in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” feels. However, that song now also makes me uncomfortable. Why? Because for me, it’s impossible to separate the Confederacy from slavery. Forget the semantics of saying the Civil War was about state’s rights: the issue that caused the debate on state’s rights was the right to own slaves. I imagine that African Americans feel the same way about the celebration of the Confederacy the same way that Native Americans feel about our celebrations of the United States. To give a Jewish example, how would I feel if, when walking into a state or federal building or courthouse, there was a statue of a Nazi or Nazi collaborator? What if I were told that person was an important part of our history? So I understand the feelings of those who oppose the government flying a Confederate flag or government statues celebrating those who supported slavery.
The White Nationalist movement – the people claiming that the white race is in danger – is not one we Jews should support. Many members of that movement classify us as the enemy, as seen by the deadly attacks on synagogues by members connected to the movement. We should also beware of being thought their allies. I’m reminded of the Martin Niemöller quote, which is featured at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” We must speak out when anyone – any minority – is attacked. I don’t care if that’s done for unselfish reasons or to protect the Jewish community. Doing so speaks to our Jewish values –values that recognize we are all created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God – and those values should guide our lives.