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November 29, 2017 1:39 pm

Thanksgiving and Preserving the Past

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Sheets of a Torah scroll that were returned to Jewish hands from Poland earlier this year. Photo: Fromthedepths.org

Thanksgiving is a festival that records a group of settlers in America surviving a very brutal winter. Some argue that these settlers brought tremendous suffering to the indigenous peoples and therefore this celebration should now be banned. I argue that, even so, Thanksgiving can still offer an important message and should not be scrapped.

Last month, Columbus Day was the occasion for celebrating Columbus and for excoriating him. Some celebrated, others ignored it and a few have been trying to obliterate it. His statues are vandalized all over the country and many communities have now changed Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is seriously considering pulling down a statue of Christopher Columbus and renaming Columbus Circle. By this logic, they should remove his name from cities, rivers and states.

Of course, some things were quite awful in those days. But if we regret the evil past, we should pull down all Catholic churches and cathedrals, because it was the Catholic monarchs, the pope’s instructions and the Jesuit’s mission to destroy native cultures and Christianize the Americas that led to much of the violence. And we should destroy all mosques, for they symbolize the violent conquest of Africa and whole chunks of Europe in Islam’s violent assault on the remnants of the Roman Empire in the eighth century, not to mention their record on slavery and hostage-taking around the Mediterranean and Central Africa.

We should ban the Bible too, for it talks about conquering the Canaanite tribes and demolishing their native cultures. Greece refused women the vote and enslaved whole societies. So too did the Romans and indeed every country until the 20th century.

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The Hindu nationalists are right to demolish mosques in India, because imperialist Muslims conquered huge areas of the subcontinent. Muslim historian Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah (1560-1620) wrote that over 400 million Hindus were slaughtered during the Muslim invasion and occupation of India.

And we should smash Buddhist statues because of what they are doing to the Rohingyas.

We should throw all the statues of bishops off the Charles Bridge in Prague, because the inscriptions praise them for trying to convert pagans and Jews. And we should dismiss all great Muslim philosophers, poets and scientists like Averroes, Avicenna, Ibn Battuta, Omar Khayyam or Rumi, because they subscribed to a religion that claimed that Christians, Jews and pagans were all second-class citizens, and benefited from slavery, which is still going on, as videos that surfaced recently of slave markets in Libya have proved.

Sure British, Dutch, Belgian, French, Spanish and Portuguese colonialists imposed their cultures on nations they conquered, and they exploited them. But so has every empire, every religion, every military leader in human history to some degree or other. That is the sad history of homo sapiens, and we are challenged to try to get better. Meanwhile, it is ideologues on the right and left who are perpetuating imperialist attitudes in trying to impose their orthodoxies on others.

Norms change. Fashions change. But events are recorded. We should be free to choose. To learn to discriminate. To refuse to listen to music, appreciate certain art and literature because we disagree with the opinions and actions of the artists. Indeed to refuse to celebrate days or events we do not identify with. This is our right, even duty, as we see it. But we ought not to impose our views on others. That, after all, is the principal of free speech as enshrined in many constitutions.

In Jewish law, it is the action that matters much more than speech. Even so, we have to avoid speech that offends. That is a religious obligation. One we take very seriously. But here we are talking about civil law, not religious. The law requires of us not to harm others, but it does not require us to think or even talk like everyone else. We should fight bigotry with all the tools of persuasion and all the protections that the law can muster. But the moment you censor ideas and try to pretend the past did not happen, you lose that human variety and creativity that produces as much good as it does bad. It is just what Palestinians do when they pretend there were no Jews, no temples and no kings of Israel. And it is what right-wing settlers do when they pretend that there were no Arabs living in Palestine.

Thank goodness Judaism is no great admirer either of statues or of perfection. Our disdain for idol worship biases us against statues. Statues are a doubtful expression of human success. After all, think of the statues to Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein and all the other mass murderers — many of which still stand.

Old histories give way to new ones. The verdicts of history sort out the bad from the good. We need to focus on our own histories and make sure that they and we will leave a better legacy than a crumbling statue. Remember Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great poem about how statues decay and great men are forgotten:

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In the Torah, we are commanded to remember — both the good and the bad. We remember we were slaves. We record our failures. But we also remember evil and our mistakes. It is the memory of the past, good and bad, that helps us cope with the present and pave the way for the future. Obliteration serves nothing other than human hubris. Meanwhile, looking at the good, the gratitude for what we have — thanksgiving — can only benefit our positive, benevolent human spirit.

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