In My Own Words: American history

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was in college during the 1970s, a non-Jewish friend worked as an intern for a non-profit organization in Washington, DC. During one of my visits, we decided to do some sightseeing. Since it wasn’t far from where she worked, we went to the offices of B’nai B’rith, which included a small museum about Jewish American history. I thought it was interesting, but my friend was visibly upset by the exhibits. “Why,” she asked, “did they only talk about how American history affected Jews?” I tried to explain that this part of American history hadn’t been mentioned in American history classes I took in public school, so I enjoyed learning about Jewish contributions to our country.

I want to make it clear that my friend was not making antisemitic comments. As a white Protestant, she had just always been part of the American majority: the history she learned in public school was the history of her culture and religion. Before seeing this exhibit, she’d never been forced to look at American history from any other point of view. The American history we were taught in public schools was one-sided: the schools never offered minority perspectives. That included never speaking about the large number of Jews who tried to emigrate to the U.S. before World War II and, after being denied permission to enter the U.S. even though the quotas from their countries were never reached, had died in the Holocaust. No one ever taught her to look from their point of view; no one ever suggested that our country had not always acted in the most humane way possible. 

I start with this because too many people are now expressing discomfort with being forced to view American history through the eyes of American minorities. There are schools that are refusing to allow their teachers to discuss slavery in the Old South or the treatment of Native Americans because it makes students uncomfortable. Before agreeing that students should not be made uncomfortable, please consider this: Do you think German public schools should teach about the Holocaust? Do you think that Holocaust education there and across the world is important in an attempt to understand what occurred and prevent it from happening again? Do you think the effects of the Holocaust have been passed down to the second and third generations of those who suffered and need to be addressed? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you should understand the need to teach the truth about American history – that means teaching our complete history, warts and all.

To be clear: I am proud to be an American. However, what I am proud of is our country’s aspirations and ideals. Our country is not perfect and has not always lived up to those aspirations. Our job as citizens is to help our nation achieve the ideals on which it was founded. The horrors of slavery are part of our history and need to be addressed to help those who still suffer the generational aftereffects. Native American poverty rates are only one of the problems those communities face that can be traced to the way their ancestors were treated over the centuries. The struggle for equal rights and equal access for all Americans continues today.

The important thing that should be stressed when teaching school children about American history is that we realize some American actions did not live up to our ideals, but that we are trying to improve – something that is a continual process and which must be addressed in every generation. Creating equal opportunity for everyone is not easy, especially for those who live in poverty with little access to fresh air, affordable produce, appropriate school supplies and adequate medical care, just to name a few things far too many people live without.

I am most proud of my country when I see it trying to help its citizens. I don’t have to approve of all its actions to still love the United States. Learning about those inhumane actions spurs me to want to do more to create an ideal civilization. I know we will never get there, but, as Jews, we should remember while it’s not our responsibility to complete the task, neither should we cease from trying to attain it.