Flawed Friends: Whom Do We Praise?
By Frank Goldsmith
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations.
– The Wisdom of Yehoshua ben Sirach (“Ecclesiasticus”) 44:1.
We are in the month of Elul, the month of teshuvah, of taking stock of our moral account, of repentance, of seeking forgiveness, of returning to the path of righteousness.
We admit the many ways in which we have sinned, beating our hand against our chest with each phrase.
Al ḥet sheḥatanu l’fanekha . . .
“For the sin we have committed before you . . .”
But the acrostic enumeration in the machzor, though extensive, is finite; can any list truly encompass the range of human failings?
Al ḥet sheḥatanu l’fanekha b’yod’im uv’lo yod’im.
“For the sin we have committed before you knowingly and unknowingly.”
How can we commit a sin unknowingly? By remaining cloaked in ignorance, when some inquiry would cast a new light.
Such is the risk when we honor someone by erecting a monument. Zebulon Vance, who was memorialized with a 75’ monument in downtown Asheville in 1897, was a complicated man whose life included, as do all lives, a mixture of the praiseworthy and the abominable.
Some Jews praise Vance, the Representative, Senator, and Governor, not for his political leadership but for a speech, “The Scattered Nation,” in which he extolled the Jewish people. The desire of some within our Jewish community to honor him has been constant throughout the years, with the laying of wreaths and plaques, words of tribute, and most recently, raising funds, in partnership with the 26th North Carolina Regiment society, for the restoration of the monument.
And yet, are Jews not obligated to acknowledge Vance’s explicit and persistent racism and reassess their praise of this famous man?
Vance was not only a Representative, Senator, and Governor; he was a slaveholder, white supremacist, and Confederate colonel who fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Addressing Congress in 1860, Vance decried emancipation as a threat to the purity of the white race:
Amalgamation is so odious that even the mind of a fanatic recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick and jealous blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.
. . .
Plainly and unequivocally, common sense says keep the slave where he is now – in servitude. The interest of the slave himself imperatively demands it. . . . [A]bove all, keep him a slave and in strict subordination; for that is his normal condition . . ..
After the Civil War, Vance remained unapologetically racist. He believed racial strife would be the result of civil rights for freed Blacks. “No race, sir, in the world has been able to stand before the pure Caucasian. An antagonism of races will not be good for the colored man.”
Even in “The Scattered Nation,” Vance reveals his racism. He classifies Jews in a hierarchy of worthiness according to their geographic origins. Not surprisingly, white, Ashkenazi European Jews rank highest. He promotes the stereotype of “Jewish money-kings.” Presaging Nazi racial doctrine, he catalogues Jews’ supposed distinguishing physical features. He compares white Jews favorably to “the African negro, the descendants of barbarian tribes who for 4,000 years have contributed nothing . . . .”
So should white Jews praise this famous man because he served white Jewish interests? Are those interests to be centered above those of our Black community and above the interests of Jews of color? Or should our confessional include an acknowledgment of how whiteness benefits all who are white, regardless of religion?
In his speech to the first National Conference on Religion and Race in 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel issued a call for societal teshuvah—for widespread repentance and change. It reads as would an al ḥet on Yom Kippur:
We have failed to use the avenues open to us to educate the hearts and minds of men, to identify ourselves with those who are underprivileged. But repentance is more than contrition and remorse for sins, for harms done. Repentance means a new insight, a new spirit. It also means a course of action.
This Yom Kippur, let us engage in our own communal and individual teshuvah, acknowledging the privileges from which we have profited, whether knowingly or unknowingly, and acting to bring about an anti-racist society.
Frank Goldsmith is a member of Congregation Beth Israel and serves on the Steering Committee of Carolina Jews for Justice/West.