(A version of this previously ran in the March/April 2020 newsletter for Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism)
As many Macharniks know, before I became a rabbi I was a lawyer — and I probably count as one of those folks who call themselves “recovering lawyers” now. Before any of that, I was a Jewish educator in a lot of different contexts. I taught adult education classes more often than anything else, but taught supplemental school programs, too. (Machar’s JCS program is considered a “supplemental school.”)
I’ve returned to those roots a bit this past school year, after having been asked to teach the seventh grade class at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. As at Machar, the seventh grade class at Temple Isaiah is the B Mitzvah class. Much of this class focuses on the Holocaust, from the beginnings of European antisemitism through to the after effects of the Holocaust itself. Though Temple Isaiah is a Reform synagogue, being a Humanistic rabbi is a positive point: I don’t try to explain the Holocaust as theologically justifiable, or frame Israel as some form of karmic compensation for the suffering of the Holocaust.
This meant that I was able to build a Holocaust curriculum from the ground up. One area that the latent lawyer in me wishes I had been able to delve into with the students — time was lacking, unfortunately — is the way Nazi Germany’s discriminatory policies were modeled on America’s legalized forms of racial discrimination.
The idea that American laws served as a model for Nazi Germany’s own discriminatory regime isn’t a new one, but it is one that hasn’t been taken particularly seriously among many scholars. This isn’t because no one has considered the possibility, but because scholars have been too insistent upon the need for direct connections — nearly identical legal language or direct emulation of American political structures — between American and Nazi policies. But reading the minutes of the meetings of the lawyers and judges who drafted the Nuremberg laws that rendered antisemitic discrimination into German law makes it clear that German lawyers were looking directly at Jim Crow laws, laws related to Native American tribal rights, laws related to the treatment of immigrants, and the historical treatment of Black and Native Americans as models when they developed the Nuremberg laws’ provisions banning marriage between Jews and non-Jews.
Perhaps ironically, it was in late 2016 — in fact, on Election Day — that James Q. Whitman was reviewing the galleys for his book, Hitler’s American Model (Princeton University Press 2017, paperback edition 2018), the first major work of legal scholarship that took German lawyers and judges at their word when they modeled Nazi laws on American ones.
Other than to give Prof. Whitman some well-deserved credit, why mention all this? Because the paperback edition of Whitman’s book opens with the observation that American democracy is in some respects nearly inseparable from its history of white supremacism, and that even early generations of Americans viewed democracy as functioning only because of white supremacism. No less important a figure in the history of American racism than John C. Calhoun claimed that racism and slavery ensured democracy for white Americans. Slavery, Calhoun wrote, is “the best guarantee to equality among whites.” Enslavement of non-white minorities, Calhoun argued, does “not even admit of inequalities, by which one white man could domineer over another.” (Calhoun, of course, became a leading advocate of nullification, the idea that states could simply ignore federal laws that state governments believed violated their political rights.)
Our democracy is tied tightly to its history of racism. It is not who we are or want to be as people, but it is who we have been as the American people. We cannot, no matter how deeply we wish it were so, claim that “this is not who we are” when our government acts consistently with the history of American racism. To disown that history is to deny reality — and our humanistic philosophy demands that we acknowledge reality and face its consequences.
This is, in other words, unavoidably who we are. We have diminished the hold of this piece of us in the past, and we can do that again. But even diminished, this part of us will likely never fully leave us. Dealing with this legacy — one that in the most terrible of twists wrought horror for the Jewish people in Europe while granting freedom to the Jewish people in America — will be our obligation no matter what comes of this year’s elections. And the terrible irony of Jim Crow’s grant of freedom in America and disaster in Europe means that this is a special responsibility for those of us connected to Jewish community.
As we fast approach the Passover season, which has traditionally been called z’man cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom, we must remember that our special responsibility to remedy the harms of American racism is part of what “never again” means — and, having recognized this, commit to action.