Anywhere but Here: Examining the Crimes of Thee, but Not of Me

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 11/08/03

Imagine that in Germany, public officials and teachers decided to develop a school curriculum about the horrors of racism and intolerance. Now imagine that this curriculum never mentioned the Holocaust of European Jewry, or Germany’s persecution of homosexuals, Romany, persons with disabilities, or any of the other groups singled out by the Nazi regime. While avoiding these topics, so obviously pertinent to their national experience, let us instead imagine that this curriculum focused on racism and oppression in the United States: slavery, Indian removal, Asian exclusion and Jim Crow laws, all of it presented in clear and convincing detail, but nary a mention of anything even remotely similar done by the German republic itself.

I suspect most would recognize the absurdity of such a thing. Yet apparently studying racism elsewhere, while resisting any mention of the same at home, is appropriate when the teachers and students are Americans. Then, it is acceptable to teach of the European Holocaust (and it alone) as evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. At least this appears to be the case in Tennessee, where officials have developed new curricula for those seeking their high school equivalency degree, so as to foster an “appreciation for diversity,” and which takes as its sole example of the opposite of such appreciation, what else but the European Holocaust?

Please don’t misunderstand. As a Jew, I can viscerally appreciate the importance of studying the European Holocaust, and I have no doubt about its ability to teach certain universal lessons about how simple prejudice can develop over time into persecution and even genocide. But these lessons can likewise be taught by discussing this nation’s own crimes, all of which go unmentioned in the new course. So far as Tennessee is concerned (and other states which are apparently looking to copy the model), there is nothing to be learned from chattel slavery; nothing to be learned from the Trail of Tears, which began on the very land where the Holocaust will now be taught as if it were unique in human history. Indeed, the author of Indian removal, Andrew Jackson, made his home just a few minutes drive from the offices of Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which supports the new curriculum because it will, in their words, “foster an appreciation for diversity, as more and more immigrants and refugees move to Tennessee.”

Which begs the obvious, if yet unasked, question: namely, how can learning about the mistreatment of Jews and other European sub-groups have any effect on the attitudes that people in Tennessee have towards those new immigrants, almost none of whom are European, but who are mostly Latino or Asian? After all, despite ongoing prejudice occasionally flung our way by hate groups, Jews are, for all intent and purposes (at least in the U.S.) seen as whites, accepted as part of the grand schema of European civilization; viewed as intelligent, hard-working and successful, unlike people of color who are still typified as lazy, unintelligent, prone to crime and all manner of social pathology. Getting students to acknowledge the humanity of a group of white people — however much this group may differ from most of them in terms of religion and certain cultural traditions — is a far cry from convincing them of the equal value of non-white immigrants, who don’t look like them, who might not speak the same language, and who are routinely viewed as taking white jobs and soaking up welfare dollars.

Put simply, inter-ethnic discrimination and oppression is different than racism. In the former, a common or similar skin tone allows all within that group to become convinced, if they were not already, of their common bond with others of that skin tone. But racism, by prioritizing certain outward characteristics as paramount to categorization, makes such recognition infinitely more difficult.

Indeed, what else but a fundamental racism against people of color, but which now exempts Jews, could explain the very different reaction to Holocaust studies, as opposed to attempts to teach about racism in the U.S.? When, after all, have mainstream conservatives derided learning about the Holocaust, which is actually quite common in schools, as “political correctness?” When have they suggested that teaching of the consequences of Hitlerism renders Jews as permanent victims, or encourages anger and bitterness on our parts? The answer is that such things are never said, though they are common when the discussion is about the oppression of people of color. There, any in-depth conversation about slavery or Indian genocide is viewed as inciting blacks or indigenous persons to hate white people, and to adopt a victim mentality that borders on paranoia.

Some victims, it appears, are more worthy than others, and are able to learn about the depths of their oppression without resorting to negative and self-defeating cultural traits. Others can’t be trusted with the knowledge of what has happened to their ancestors, because they are presumed irrational, quick to anger, and God forbid, payback.

As for the emerging Tennessee program, it is especially ironic to note that the students being subjected to this highly selective curriculum include a large number of immigrants learning English for the first time, and poor women coming off of welfare. After all, those students could themselves teach a class on intolerance and discrimination, having been subjected to English-only legislation, anti-immigrant crackdowns, and welfare cuts thanks to widespread stereotypes and a steady drumbeat of rhetoric against the so-called underclass.

Those teaching the course say they want their students to think about how people could have stopped the Holocaust instead of passively collaborating with it through silent inaction. As one instructor explained, it was especially tragic that in the midst of the Holocaust, “less than half a percent of the population of Europe helped others” escape persecution.

Apparently, however, she doesn’t find it equally tragic, or worthy of mention, that so few whites in this country (including most likely her own ancestors) ever raised a voice against slavery, lynching, the slaughter of American Indians, or segregation. In fact, if confronted with such unpleasant subject matter, she would probably say something akin to, “all that was in the past and has nothing to do with me,” a rhetorical dodge quite commonly heard I suspect, though in a different language, in the streets of Berlin, and which is equally grotesque in both instances.

Though it is too soon to determine whether or not this course will usher in a new era of tolerance among the good people of Tennessee, early evidence suggests the program is serving what is likely the real interest of its designers: namely to reinforce the notion of American exceptionalism. As one graduate of the program recently explained, the class had made her more grateful than ever to “live in the land of the free.”

A land which — and I’m guessing they skipped this part in Holocaust class — refused to provide refuge to Jews during Hitler’s reign so as to save them from destruction and even turned boats away, filled with Jewish refugees from Europe. A land whose corporate giants actually collaborated with the Nazi regime, and whose intelligence agencies helped over 5,000 Nazi scientists and doctors find refuge in the U.S. after the war, including many who had been directly involved in atrocities. A land whose programs to sterilize “mental defectives” actually served as the blueprint for the Nazis own eugenic programs in the 1930s, and which programs existed both before and after the fall of the Third Reich.

A land whose students are now left to ponder how truly awful some of this planet’s other inhabitants can behave. They are shocked, simply shocked, to learn of such a thing.

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