On Sept. 25 The New York Times published an op-ed of significance to Jews everywhere, including Jews throughout Puget Sound and Washington State.
Titled “The Sin of Sowing Hatred of Islam,” by the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, it criticized the anti-Islam hate ads now placed around greater New York transit sites. In the ads, Muslims are called “savages” and Israel (and Jews) are presented as superior.
Equally important yet unaddressed by rabbi Jacobs in his criticism of the currently fashionable hate campaigns targeting Muslims at large is the impact of these hate ads on American school children of all ages and of all faith, race, national and ethnic backgrounds, including Jewish school children and teens.
As directed by Pamela Geller, a Jewish New Yorker, the ads tell our students it’s acceptable in America today to paint whole groups of people as “savage.”
While many of my professional Holocaust-education and educator peers like to decry what they call “moral equivalency” between Holocaust victims with the victims of other genocides past and present, it is just that moral equivalency that is urgently, even desperately needed.
While the Holocaust was indeed a singularly unique historical event, pain and suffering are not relative. And for the victims of other hate crimes and genocides, their pain and suffering are no less than ours. For what do we bother to teach about the moral and ethical lessons of the Shoah if not to make it relate to ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity that continue to cause so much human suffering?
During the first ten years I guest taught moral and ethical lessons of the Holocaust in schools, using art as a universally understood medium of instruction, I showed the cover of a book published in New York in 1905: “Two Little Savages; Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned.” I offered the image as an example of racial and ethnic stereotyping of the past.
Have we learned so little here in the America of religious freedom that 107 years after “Two Little Savages” was published we now teach our children that whole groups of people can safely, with the blessing of federal courts, be described as savages?
Let us not forget, too, Hollywood’s long history of depicting “savage,” “scalping” and “bloodthirsty” American Indians, and black Africans, too. Out of curiosity and as a life-long movie fan, a few years ago I checked out a 1940’s “Tarzan” movie from the library.
After having taught and immersed myself in the Shoah as an artist and educator for many years, I don’t shock easily anymore, but a “Tarzan” scene where a white colonialist picks up his rifle and shoots a black porter to death for having gotten tired on the jungle trail set me back in its casual presentation of “normalcy.”
Of moral equivalency, then and now: Pamela Geller and supporters around the U.S. say Muslims are bloodthirsty, violence-prone and beyond redemption. In the 1930s in Nazi Germany and Austria, Jews were portrayed in signs, graffiti, posters, beer coasters, educational primary school primers, newspapers, movies and cartoons as “race defilers” preying on “Aryan girls and women.” How savage is that?
Overweight Jewish men were portrayed as poisonous mushrooms with big noses. Some hold a whip in one hand and coins in the other: They’re money-grubbing and money-obsessed brutal taskmasters.
A pre-World War II Polish postcard portrays a Jew as a poisonous spider devouring Polish towns and cities; a comparable Jewish spider can be seen in a late 19th century Viennese poster. These stereotypes continue today by professional Jew haters and Holocaust deniers.
While courts say Geller’s racist hate ads are “free speech,” I hope the outcry against them will be loud and noisy. If not, we will have come no further than our segregationist past which allowed “whites only” bathrooms and drinking fountains, and restricted the number of Jews who could attend college, patronize certain businesses and work at certain firms (if at all), and rent or buy homes where they wanted to.
Not only can we do better, we must do better. The real and most vulnerable victims of the Islam-hate campaigns are all our children.