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Jewish Journal

Slavery: Conflict or Commonality ?

by James D. Besser

June 28, 2001 | 8:00 pm

An exhibit focusing on the lives of blacks at the National Civil War Museum.

An exhibit focusing on the lives of blacks at the National Civil War Museum.

It's starting with a few tentative steps, but it could eventually become a stampede; lawmakers on Capitol Hill may soon consider pending legislation creating a national museum focusing heavily on the issue of American slavery.

The movement to create a new museum of African American history provides an opportunity to help mend the rift between Jews and blacks, but also presents a potential dilemma: the effort will inevitably lead to comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust.

If Jews react primarily defensively, and if they turn the moral push for recognition of the black community's own catastrophic past into a victimization turf war, they will only widen the gulf between the two communities. And ultimately, they will do the cause of Holocaust remembrance a disservice.

"Why should the Jewish community feel threatened by this?" asks Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. "This is not a competition to see whose grievances are worse; the African American community has suffered terribly in this country."

The National Museum of African American History and Culture Act of 2001, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), is a legislative first step in creating a museum jointly funded by public and private contributions.

Blacks, increasingly, want a museum in Washington that acknowledges their collective pain and teaches all Americans the historic fact that continues to affect American life: slavery.

In this they are consciously emulating the Jewish community, which created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall, that seems to be achieving all of the founders' goals, and then some.

The Holocaust Museum attracts more than 2 million visitors annually, and it has become a catalyst for Holocaust education and scholarship. Millions of non-Jewish visitors leave with a new understanding of the facts of the Holocaust; for many Jews, visiting the Museum has become a way to emotionally connect with a historic event that continues to exert a powerful pull in Jewish life.

And the Museum guarantees that the real lessons of the Holocaust will not be lost with the passage of time.

The black community wants and deserves something similar.

The impact of slavery on countless human lives and on American culture remain mostly a footnote in history classes. Surveys show that most Americans know pitifully little about the subject. That ignorance has provided fertile soil for a kind of revisionism that portrays the Civil War as simply a dispute over states rights.

There is no national center where blacks can go to memorialize the victims of slavery, honor those who fought it and make an emotional connection to the historic traumas that help shape their own lives.

It was amazing and entirely appropriate that the U.S. government, pressed by a well-organized Jewish community, established a national museum about the Holocaust; it is equally fitting that the nation do the same for slavery.

So far, though, there are few signs the organized Jewish community is aware of the push for a black museum.

The lawmakers who have introduced the legislation have not made much noise about their proposal. Nor has a divided African American leadership actively started reaching out to other groups.

Some black leaders dismiss the idea of a museum as a diversion from providing more tangible help for their traumatized community.

Ultimately, black leaders will have to do what Jewish leaders did more than a decade ago -- get together behind a realistic goal, organize a massive fundraising effort in their own community and aggressively lobby government officials.

Once the effort gains momentum, it is likely many Jews will support the effort -- but also that it will touch off ripples of concern.

Inevitably, supporters will argue that the Holocaust Museum precedent obligates the government to act on their request.

The Holocaust was horrific, but it happened in Europe, and the perpetrators were Germans, they will say; slavery occurred in our own country, sanctioned by the U.S. government.

That argument is not meant to diminish the Holocaust, but merely to express the very real moral obligation this country has to acknowledge a tragedy it helped perpetrate. It is fitting that a Holocaust Museum exists on the Mall, and it will be fitting that an African American museum joins it.

A more difficult issue to deal with will be the question of reparations. Already, supporters of slavery reparations are making comparisons to the ongoing economic effort on behalf of Holocaust victims.

But there is a critical difference: Holocaust reparations are going to living survivors, while reparations for slavery would be many generations removed from the crime itself. The comparison is a point of potential friction with the Jewish community.

Still, the drive for a museum of black culture and history "could be very positive, in terms of strengthening black-Jewish relations," said Rabbi Marc Schneier. "A museum dedicated to slavery doesn't take away from Holocaust remembrance; it will only strengthen a general resolve to fight all forms of racism and bigotry."

In other words, a museum of American slavery would do exactly what the Holocaust Museum has done so well since 1993.

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