In examining history, one of the great challenges is compartmentalizing the ideas and actions of the inspiring, yet decidedly imperfect. We just marked the 244th anniversary of America’s founding, and remembered the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. There is no questioning these founding documents as seminal writings on the virtues of equality. However, the country they spawned possesses glaring defects, and this unpleasant truth cannot be blithely overlooked.
These defects included slavery in a country whose founding documents declared “all men are created equal,” and, ultimately, a Civil War 90 years after the country’s founding. Since then, they have given rise to continuous discourse and discord. While incremental improvements have been made, for every two steps forward, another has been taken back. The injustices and inequality that have been widespread in America include: prejudice against Black people, Irish, Jews, Catholics, women, LGBTQ just to name a few; as well as discriminatory practices against immigrants; university quotas; redlining; and limitations on social and professional advancement.
So, the question of how to look at America is challenging. On the country’s birthday, did we remember to reflect on the grand vision laid out upon its establishment or the deficiencies of many of us and our founders?
Yet, even as we struggle with this question, we must work pragmatically to recognize and address the plight of our fellow citizens. Although we are thankful for the progress that has been made, it is clear that we cannot fully cure the inequalities that still exist utilizing the legislative and justice systems alone.
As a society, we are charged with ensuring that the prejudices embedded in our public and private institutions – and ourselves – are removed. But that isn’t enough.
We must better educate children and adults about our unvarnished history. Many aspects of American and global history are difficult to reckon with. And, the imprint these experiences have left on the vulnerable are even more painful to realistically consider. But building a true personal relationship involves learning about another party in a deep and profound way; building a true communal relationship requires nothing less.
And while this directive is incumbent upon everyone, it is truly essential for members of minority communities.
The Jewish and African American communities each lay claim to leaders who fought for the rights of one another — heroes each of us should emulate. Two such individuals were Dr. Leon Bass and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. An African American soldier serving in a segregated army, Dr. Bass witnessed the Buchenwald concentration camp upon its liberation in 1945. In a personal recollection now displayed publicly at the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Philadelphia, Dr. Bass noted that when he saw the “walking dead” in Buchenwald, he “began to realize that human suffering [was] not delegated just to [the African American community].” Moved by what he observed, Dr. Bass became a Holocaust educator, teaching generations the importance of broad tolerance and communal fraternity.
Rabbi Heschel was a Polish native living in Germany who was arrested by the Nazis in 1938 and deported to Poland. While he ultimately fled to America, his mother and sisters were murdered by the Nazis. In the U.S., Heschel became a fierce proponent of civil rights who famously marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965.
Yet, as we embrace our heroes, we also have to reckon with the imperfect nature of our inter-community bonds. While Bass and Heschel are far from the only positive examples, the fraternal bond between our communities still has ample room to grow.
When we remember our founding documents and their noble messages, we must not forget the work we have to do to ensure that these ideals apply to everyone. And as we join in solidarity with other groups, we must deal honestly with our past as we champion the heroes who demonstrated true fraternity. Only by grappling with these unpleasant truths and channeling them to create a more just society can we truly celebrate.
Eszter Kutas is executive director of Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which oversees the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza and provides related educational programming.