“Aussie, did you kill that finch?“

“It was on the ground eating your birdseed.”

“Oh Auss, this is the time when the finches turn into a beautiful yellow.”

“Too bad, it didn’t know its place.”

In May I will participate in the Zen Peacemakers’ retreat bearing witness to racism, which will take place in Alabama. We will spend time in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma (you can read more about it here). In preparation, I read the book entitled 1619 Project, 500 pages long, that was based on the spread in the New York Times Magazine in August 2019. I also read one or two rebuttals to get a sense of how other historians saw this.

I hadn’t realized the enormous wealth that enslaving people brought to Southern states and their families. The book documents how the cultivation of sugar and, more importantly, cotton required enormous amount of land, and equal amount of cheap labor. To get the land, poorer white folks were cleared off as well as the Native American tribes that lived in those states (the Trail of Tears). To get the cheap labor, Africans and children of Africans were enslaved. The value of those enslaved people was astronomical, making the American South almost the wealthiest place in the world.

I won’t deny it, I’d go upstairs at night to do my reading, which I usually look forward to at the end of the workday, see the book by my bed and hear a voice exclaiming: No, no, no! No more! But once I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down.

Greed is one of the three main poisons in Buddhism. Documenting the greed of these families and states, and how they pushed with all their might to protect that wealth through manipulations of the Constitution and the cynical passage of laws and political measures, including making it illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write, makes our current billionaires, who protect their own wealth gap between rich and poor, charitable and munificent in comparison. Reading about the price paid by enslaved men, women, and children sold downriver to maintain that wealth, was harrowing.

There are various allegations by historians of how accurate the book is, with The New York Times  standing firmly behind it. The biggest theme of the book, and the one which attracted the most criticism, was that the 1619 Project puts slavery smack in the center of the story of the United States, that in fact enslavement is the most basic characteristic of this country. It considered 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought by ship to Virginia, as the date of the founding of this country; it claimed that the Revolutionary War was basically fought to protect slavery, and that our system of capitalism arose out of that system.

As far as I’m concerned, if only 50% of the events documented in the book are accurate, it’s harrowing enough to make any American take a good look at what we learn in school about this country and ourselves. But the basic question is whether slavery and its aftermath make up the central and most significant element of this country. There, more than anywhere, is where the questions lie. I would also add that some of the pushback against the book carries a strong tone of condescension.

My Jewish family includes religious and nonreligious members, as well as some who are ultra-orthodox. As a family member, every once in a long while I get a scholarly email from that world. A year ago, I received such a family email in which someone quoted an old teaching from some 200 years ago which was hostile and demeaning to goyim, non-Jews. I waited politely for some 24 hours and then did a “Reply All” in which I wrote that I find such statements abhorrent. Since then, I haven’t gotten another email and, for all I know, my name may have been removed from the list.

I thought of that after doing my readings for the retreat. If you were to ask that portion of my family what they think of Christianity, they would immediately tell you that Christianity is all about anti-Semitism, that it fomented anti-Semitism from its very founding, and that hatred of Jews is its most basic feature.

My uncle, one of the first orthodox Jewish clinical psychologists and a professor, told me long ago that when he grew up it was an unspoken rule to spit if you passed a church (discreetly) because of what churches did to the Jews. He would never say the names Jesus or Christ (though, of course, anti-Semitism only arose after his crucifixion), nor would he say Christmas, instead saying Xmas.

From where he and others like him stood, Christianity meant anti-Semitism and nothing else. Not for him the teachings of St. Augustine, St. Francis, love, or liberation theology. The Christian religion had been responsible for massacres, pogroms, and expulsions, culminating with the Holocaust where one-third of the world’s Jews had been exterminated. That, for this part of my family, was and continues to be Christianity.

Needless to say, there are lots of other opinions, all of which are formed by our history, our upbringing, our values, and other things. We tend to see life through the prism of what’s important to us, form our opinions, and call them the Truth.

Regardless of whether the 1619 Project is right in declaring that enslavement was the central feature of this country, or wrong as its detractors insist, you can’t ignore its many dimensions as they wind their way to now, 2022. You can’t not be affected, you can’t not reflect on what it continues to mean for all of us living here now. But when I read the back-and-forth between historians, arguing vociferously against this side or that, I was reminded of that email castigating all goyim, and then thought of Bernie’s dictum: It’s just your opinion, man.

Yes, that opinion was born of tremendous suffering endured by Jews for over 2 millennia. I remembered the hundreds of times I heard my mother’s stories of what our family went through in World War II. And yes, even if it’s about “historical events,” even if it’s about immeasurable pain and anguish, about destruction and genocide that we bear witness to via going to Alabama, Auschwitz, Srebrenica, or the Black Hills in South Dakota, even if thousands of volumes back up this position or that, for all the pain and sorrow–it’s still just your opinion, man.

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