I was disappointed, shocked, and angered to find an article written in the Forward that attempted to glorify and Judaize Christopher Columbus. Theories do exist that Columbus was Jewish, but there has been no conclusive evidence, and it is one among many theories of the explorer’s origins. In his article “The ‘Mystery’ of Christopher Columbus,” Ralph De Toledano provides some evidence of Columbus interacting with Jewish themes and members of the Jewish and converso community, though is quick to say that there is no definitive evidence supporting Columbus being Jewish. Any historical theory is simply a theory, and to announce with pride that Columbus was Jewish and to formulate a theory as historical truth is dangerous and revisionist. Further, to jump to claim Columbus as a Jew considering his history of racism and dreams of wealth and colonization does nothing to support the Jewish people or what Judaism stands for.
In addition, the use of the word “Marrano” is one that is harmful to any Jewish person with converso ancestry. Translated literally to mean “swine,” it is a term seeped in racism and anti-Semitism and should be avoided when describing a crypto-Jewish community forced to conceal their religious roots for fear of persecution. As recently as 2015, Jewish writers such as Michael Freund state in their articles that use of Marrano is a derogatory term used to describe forced converts. The meaning of this term is not new, and yet it is still used casually to describe conversos and Bnai Anusim, and this practice must end.
Columbus Day is a day that represents genocide, cultural hardship, and colonialism. In fact, indigenous communities across the United States have started to celebrate “Indigenous People’s Day” in lieu of Columbus Day, as they refuse to recognize a man who “discovered” a country that was full of a people who had been living there for millennia. As recent as this month, debates and protests surround removing statues of Columbus for the pain and genocide he represents to Native communities.
Why would Jewish communities want to claim this holiday as their own? Jewish holidays celebrate a freedom from oppression, not a cultural embracement of it. Passover is the celebration of the escape from the shackles of slavery in Egypt, while Hanukkah celebrates the freedom from the yoke of Hellenistic oppression. Judaism has always celebrated a freedom from oppressive systems, and to celebrate Columbus Day as a Jewish holiday counteracts those aims of freedom and practicing one’s religion freely.
On his journal entry from Thursday October 11, Columbus stated the following about a native people he came upon: “They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl … their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse’s tail … Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance … It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language.”
Do such words represent a desire to find a land for the Jewish people? Rather, Columbus, as an arm of the Spanish government, behaves as a colonist, not a Jewish saviour. He views a native people as savage and animalistic, as a people to be domesticated, and as a people who should become Christian. He suggests taking some prisoner, to bring home as prizes for his King and Queen. The Jewish people have fought against becoming Christian for two thousand years, and have been compared to beasts for just as long. We as a community cannot allow this man to represent us when he so clearly advocated for the pain and enslavement of other peoples.
As Jews, and especially as Jews living in North America where First Nations communities are fighting for their own clean water and land, we cannot support Columbus, and we cannot idly allow members of our community to embrace Columbus Day. The glorification of a man who discovered nothing, and encouraged the enslavement and forced conversion of an unsuspecting people is a smear upon the history of what Jewish people should be fighting for: freedom, justice, and to uplift marginalized peoples. To support Columbus and reframe Columbus Day is to support injustice and is about as anti-Jewish as one can get.
Mitchel Gould, Student of History