In my sixth grade social studies classroom, my teacher hung a poster with a quote from George Santayana that read, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” In every unit, she reiterated that not only knowing history, but truly learning from it was our most powerful tool in protecting ourselves from the tragedies of the past. Like all sixth graders did, I would stare at this poster and ponder its meaning for a minute or two, then my attention would wander back to class or a more compelling distraction.
Also, when I was in sixth grade (and every year until I graduated high school), I attended a Jewish religious school twice a week. By twelve years of age, my classmates and I were deemed mature enough to begin an in-depth and serious discussion about the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism in the world. These things are alive and well, our teacher told us. And to keep another genocide from happening, we must learn from our past. But to a sixth grader, the Holocaust felt unfathomably long ago and anti-Semitism seemed unfathomably far from home. I grew up wearing my Jewish star necklace with pride, and attending my after-school program during the year and Jewish overnight camp in the summers. Though the stories we heard and the pictures we saw were no doubt disturbing and upsetting, we had the luxury of, more or less, putting it out of our minds.
While I was doing my usual scrolling through social media last week, an article from The Kenyon Review popped up, “On Sacred Spaces & Community: Jewish Poets Speak Out.” This article reflected on some recent incidents, such as the JCC bomb threats, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and the White House’s decision to not name individuals on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and allowed several contributors to share their cultural and religious experiences in light of recent anti-Semitism. Erika Meitner notes that this should be nothing new to us: “…This is a story we knew—one as the oldest books we have.” Eduardo Gabrieloff claims that, “When groups are dehumanized, we know what comes next.” Rosebud Ben-Oni begs that we need to, “… come together to resist, to persist, in this era of ‘alternative facts.’” The messages among these poets are clear: only from learning from our past can we affect the present. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge, truth, and unity.
This article is not solely focused on anti-Semitism or the value of our history. It recognizes that there are other populations of people--racial minorities, Muslims, and those who are LGBTQIA+--who are the victims of violence and bigotry. If we consider the Jewish notion of tzedakah, of charity and moral obligation to provide to others, then there is no better time like the present. People are afraid, certain that harm will befall them for the color of their skin, their sexual identity, or their religion. But, as Gabrieloff writes, “If we allow an attack on others, we fail ourselves. Solidarity is survival.” It is simple: if we, as Jewish people, are the victims of oppression, then it is our duty to help other victims of the same systemic process. Shamar Hill finishes his contribution to this article with this, “It will serve us, as we fight against anti-Semitism, to remember hate against any group is hate against us all.”
In the last several years, I have taken it upon myself to do several things: to listen to others, so that I may understand. To understand, so that I may help. And when I help, to do so in a careful and intentional way. It goes beyond race and religion. It is the notion that we are all human, that we must do all that we can to protect one another. It is our history and our unity that equips us to move forward, and in the end, understanding that we are all we have.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Article link and image source:http://www.kenyonreview.org/2017/03/sacred-spaces-community-jewish-poets-speak/
Image: If Not, Not (R. B. Kitaj, 1975-76)