In My Own Words: Whitewashing American history

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

How ironic to be reading a book about a country that passed a law making it illegal to mention that its population helped exterminate Jews at the conclusion of World War II and then read a newspaper article showing something similar happening in our country. However, rather than prohibiting discussion of the past treatment of its Jewish population, Florida’s attempt at whitewashing is done to forget and/or excuse America’s treatment of its Black population during slavery and the centuries after that servitude was banned.

Before you say this is old history that should be forgotten because it makes people uncomfortable, remember that Jews not only dedicate a day to memorialize those lost in the Holocaust, but hold a day of mourning for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, events that took place thousands of years ago. We are also told each Passover that it’s a religious obligation to feel as if we, too, had been slaves in Egypt. That’s why the new education rules in Florida are so distressing: they go against the Jewish way of viewing and understanding history. 

According to an article in the USA Today newspaper, “Florida’s state Board of Education has approved new, separate standards for how African American history must be taught to millions of students.” The article also notes that “opponents say the curriculum leaves out Florida’s role in slavery, the oppression of African Americans, places some blame on Black communities and uses outdated language. A group of 11 organizations, including the NAACP and the Florida Education Association, criticized the state for omitting or rewriting ‘key historical facts about the Black experience.’”

The treatment of America’s Black population is a blot on U.S. history. Yes, it is distressing to read about, but that doesn’t change the fact that this history must be noted and taught in our classrooms. This is no different from the need Jews feel to educate their children about the pogroms that took place across Europe, the Russian czars’ attempts to rid Russia of Jews, the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe and Stalin’s anti-Jewish policies. Does a discussion of these make some people uncomfortable? Yes, it does, but most Jews don’t care because it’s impossible to move forward if we don’t understand the past.

The treatment of slaves in the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere was horrific. Please don’t talk about slaves who loved their masters or try to tell me how well those slaves were treated, that is unless you’d be willing to be whipped or beaten if someone thinks you haven’t done their bidding quickly enough, or have your parents, spouse or children taken from you and sold to another master. The leaders of our country once declared “all men are created equal,” even if they didn’t always live up to that motto. It’s up to us to enshrine that motto across our land.

We now know it’s immoral to enslave someone, although, unfortunately, forms of slavery still exist across the world. And the results of slavery in the U.S. still affect the Black population today, just as the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have been physically affected by what occurred to their ancestors.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because I love the ideals that the United States stands for and it pains me that our country has not always lived up to them. I so want everyone in our country to benefit from the blessings this country has given my family. To admit that our nation has never been perfect is to just confirm reality: no country is perfect. What matters is that we strive to improve our country and the only way to do that is to accept our past: slavery, the lynching of Black Americans, the massacres of Black citizens and the refusal to accept them as equal.

Shame on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who believes Americans are so weak that we can’t face our own history. Shame on Florida’s Board of Education for whitewashing that state’s history. Shame on anyone in Florida who isn’t protesting this. And shame on us if we don’t say loudly and clearly that this is not acceptable.