“Do not follow the majority to do evil” (Exodus 23:2).
When I went to yeshiva day schools, America was celebrated. America was regarded, in the description of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) – the most influential rabbi of the 20th century – as a “medina shel chesed” (a country of kindness).
He knew, as all American Jews knew, that there were many anti-Semites in America, that America should have done more for the Jews of Europe, that universities like Harvard limited the number of Jewish students, that prestigious law firms and country clubs barred Jews, etc.
So why then did he describe America as a country of kindness? Why did my yeshiva in Brooklyn put on plays honoring George Washington? Why did my Orthodox Jewish day school utilize texts not only celebrating America but affirming America as a “melting pot”? Why did a Jew, Irving Berlin, write “G-d Bless America”?
The primary reason was that these Jews knew what the rest of the world was like. They had the wisdom to compare America with other countries – not, as the foolish, nihilistic left does, to utopia. Compared with the rest of the world, America was – and remains – a medina shel chesed.
Was it such a country for every one of its citizens? Of course not. At the time Rabbi Schneerson described America as a “country of kindness,” the southern half of America enforced immoral and degrading Jim Crow laws, and racism was common in the North as well. And I noted above the anti-Semitism in American life at the time.
But the Torah teaches us that we should not compare the past with the present. That’s why Noah – the man G-d saves from the Flood – is described in Genesis as righteous “in his generations.” If Noah were compared with people in later generations, he would be found wanting, according to one view among the Jewish sages.
Abraham, the man chosen by G-d to be the father of His people, had a concubine and lied about his wife to save his own life. But only fools – like all those who want to tear down monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – would dismiss Abraham’s greatness. Jacob, the man G-d renamed “Israel,” owned slaves. Should Jews cease calling themselves the “children of Israel”? Should the State of Israel change its name?
Jewish – and all religious – schools should make these points when discussing Washington or Jefferson owning slaves. If we are to dismiss the greatness of two of the founders of the freest country in human history – not to mention the best non-Jewish country Jews have ever lived in – then we should do likewise to the Jewish patriarchs.
But really we should do what the Torah does. The Torah doesn’t ignore the flaws of giants, but it tells us why they were giants.
Jewish and Christian schools do not generally teach their students that every society in world history – including African, Native American and Arab societies – practiced slavery. But why not? Isn’t it morally and factually dishonest to teach only about slavery in America?
The uniqueness of America and the Western world does not lie in its history of slavery. Slavery was universal. Therefore, the morally serious person asks who abolished slavery, not who practiced it. But the left – as opposed to liberals and conservatives – is not now, nor ever has been, morally serious.
When you ask the only morally significant question – “Who abolished slavery?” – the answer is America and some other Western countries. And then you should teach the reason: because of Western values rooted in the Bible.
One would think that this fact would be central to the curriculum of every Jewish and Christian school that takes its religion seriously. But much of contemporary Christianity and Judaism – as well as the Jewish and Christian school system – has been influenced more by the left than by Christianity or Judaism.
If your school cares about truth, it should try to teach all the facts while acknowledging the history of racism in this country, including the history of police racism. But one such fact is that in August 2019, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there is “no significant evidence of anti-black disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police.”
A Jewish school might also wish to note that, according to a 2016 Anti-Defamation League survey, “‘anti-Semitic views’ among black respondents were materially more common than among whites.” The Washington Post reported two years earlier that “‘entrenched anti-Semitic views’ are far more common among African Americans and Latinos than among others.”
In 1991, black attacks on Jews in Crown Heights, New York City, were so violent that former Mayor Ed Koch, New York Times’ executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, and others called it a “pogrom.” Brandeis University historian Edward S. Shapiro wrote it was “the most serious anti-Semitic incident in American history.” Why should Jewish schools smear American society as “systemically” racist while making believe blacks are the only victims?
What Jewish schools should teach is that “all whites are racist” is as vile a charge as “all blacks are anti-Semitic.”
What Jewish and Christian schools should teach is that Adam had no race. As the Jewish sages put it: “Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that…no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, ‘Our father was born first.'” In other words, the Bible’s demand is that we be color-blind.
“There are only two races,” Viktor Frankl wrote, “the race of the decent and the race of the indecent.”
No Jewish or Christian parent should send their child to a Jewish or Christian school that teaches otherwise.