Last week, the New York City Council voted to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the Council chamber. The statue had been donated to the city by Uriah Levy, the first Jewish Commodore in the US Navy. Levy was an American military hero who nevertheless endured antisemitism throughout his career. He admired Jefferson, who wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which guaranteed the rights of Jews and others to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. Jefferson’s ringing words in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” inspired generations of fighters for freedom. They provided the ideological basis for the abolitionist and civil rights movements. Martin Luther King quoted them in his memorable “I Have A Dream” speech. Jefferson’s work led Time Magazine to proclaim him the most influential historical figure of the 18th century.
Like many people who accomplished significant things, Jefferson was a complex figure with a mixed legacy. The fact that he owned 600 slaves and likely fathered several children with his enslaved mistress Sally Hemings demonstrates blatant hypocrisy and will forever be a blight on his record. The Council has decided that the fact that Jefferson was a slaveholder outweighs his positive accomplishments, and that the third President deserves to be cancelled.
It is ironic that for many years, the fight to remove the Jefferson statue from City Hall was led by Assemblymember Charles Barron. As a member of the City Council Barron led the effort to name a city park after Sonny Carson, a man known for a poem which included the words, “hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head, you pale faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.”
To me, the most interesting response to the Jefferson statue controversy came from Annette Gordon-Reed, an African American Professor of History at Harvard University. Professor Gordon-Reed won the Pulitzer Prize, America’s most prestigious literary honor, for her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, made a convincing case that Jefferson did father several children with Ms. Hemmings. It is safe to say that Professor Gordon-Reed knows more about the dark side of Thomas Jefferson than any living person and has every right to be offended by Jefferson’s hypocrisy.
Professor Gordon-Reed reacted to the statue controversy by saying: “This represents a lumping together of the Confederates and a member of the founding generation in a way which I think minimizes the crimes and problems with the Confederacy.”
The controversy over pulling down statues of Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee has gone on for years. The Confederacy consisted of 11 states in the South that seceded from the Union and fought a Civil War in which more than 600,000 people were killed in order to protect the institution of slavery. While we may not consider the Confederates the equivalent of the Nazis, we need to understand why African Americans do. By essentially equating Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the City Council trivialized the very real crimes of the Confederacy.
Professor Gordon-Reed’s words should be taken to heart in our community. Some of us have a tendency to proclaim every politician who disagrees with us an antisemite or to brand our opponents as reshaim. We have faced far too many real antisemites - from Haman and Antiochus to Hitler and Arafat. To label every politician who disagrees with us a rasha or an antisemite trivializes the Holocaust, pogroms, blood libels, and other atrocities committed against Jews.
The fact that 9 of the 220 Democrats in the House of Representatives sought to block funding for the Iron Dome does not make the Democratic Party the equivalent of the Nazi Party. Vaccine and mask mandates are not reminiscent of the Holocaust.
There is room for honest difference of opinion about what is best for Israel and the American Jewish community. We may feel passionate about our points of view. The way to win people over to our point of view is through a reasoned discussion of the real issues, not through name-calling. Calling every politician who disagrees with us an antisemite cheapens the term. It undermines our credibility when we call out real antisemitism. It needlessly antagonizes people who might otherwise be our allies on other issues. It is telling our elected officials that they shouldn’t even bother to try to address our concerns because we will oppose them anyway. We have more than enough real enemies. We don’t need to create additional ones.
There are real antisemites and we should call them out in no uncertain terms. There are people who disagree with us on many issues. We should work to defeat them. But let’s save epithets like rasha and antisemite for those who really deserve them.