In My Own Words: Symbols by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When the U.S. Veterans Affairs first received complaints about gravestones with swastikas and references to Hitler in U.S. military cemeteries, it originally refused to remove the inscriptions, which are on the gravestones of German prisoners of war. Only after it received more complaints and pressure from Congress did it agree to remove them, noting that it is distressing for families whose relatives died fighting the Nazis to see those symbols when visiting their deceased loved ones. There was no mention of the Jewish community being distressed by this, but it’s easy to imagine the protests that might have occurred.

I read about this only a few weeks before I heard the news that Quaker Oats is replacing the Aunt Jemima brand and that the owners of Uncle Ben’s Rice are considering doing the same. There has been some outrage and distress from those who think the changes are terrible. However, changing those brands is similar to the removal of swastikas from a military cemetery: seeing those symbols causes pain. Yes, Aunt Jemina has been updated several times to no longer look like the happy slave she did when the brand first appeared, but I don’t think that makes a difference to those folks who recognize that the image is based on a racial stereotype. I don’t feel the same pain, but I understand it. Hook-nosed evil Jews and happy contented slaves: both images should be offensive to everyone. 
Why are people objecting to the change? It’s not like the food line is being discontinued and no one will be able to buy their favorite syrup or brand of rice. Would there be the same kind of complaints if Kellogg’s axed Tony the Tiger or Pillsbury retired Poppin’ Fresh, AKA the Pillsbury Doughboy? While some people might be unhappy, there would not be the same kind of backlash because the real reason for the complaints – whether people recognize it or not – is the change comes because of the Black Lives Matter movement. They wonder why that movement should be allowed to make cultural decisions affecting white America.

Once again, I can only compare this to what people say about “thin-skinned Jews” who don’t want Amazon to sell Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” or souvenirs featuring the Nazi version of a swastika or the lightening bolt of the SS. These symbols are considered offensive to the Jewish community, although other people see them as harmless or even embrace them. Shouldn’t I then give the same consideration to those who find other symbols offensive? How can I say I want a symbol removed if I don’t give others the same right? 

Again, I am not trying to speak for Black Americans; I am trying to listen and understand what they are saying. And if they say Aunt Jemima reminds them of slavery, who I am say that it shouldn’t? Who am I to say that they should forget that pain? How would we feel if someone told the Jewish community to forget the Holocaust, that it was years ago, and they are tired of hearing about it and about how everything affects the Jews. At least some Jews received reparation from Germany after the Holocaust. The U.S. has never offered any to the freed slaves and their descendants. Even a conversation about reparations has been off limits. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that.

If we Jews want our voices to be heard about antisemitism, then we have to listen to the voices condemning systemic racism. If we want our feelings to be taken into consideration, then we need to listen to the feelings of other minorities. A swastika and Aunt Jemima: they may not seem to have much in common at first, but they are both reminders of past sins that should never be forgotten.