I live in Hollywood, Florida.
Just driving in my city is a lesson in American history. Many of the east-west streets are named for American presidents (yes, there is only one Adams Street, and one Harrison Street, and one Roosevelt Street).
And then, when they ran out of presidents, they started naming streets after generals -- among them, Civil War generals.
My synagogue is on Sheridan Street -- named for General Philip Sheridan, of the Union Army.
But, here's the big question that everyone in town is talking about:
What about the Confederate generals?
Because we have streets named for:
- Lee Street, named for General Robert E. Lee who led the Confederate Army.
- Hood Street, named for General John B. Hood, a division commander at the Battle of Antietam.
- Forrest Street, named for General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general who is reputed to be the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
If you were to drive along Forrest Street, Lee Street, and Hood Street, you would notice that they run through a particular neighborhood.
That would be the Liberia community.
Which is African American.
Imagine. You are a Liberia resident. You are African American. You are the descendant of slaves.
And, every day, you drive on a street named for General Forrest -- a man who helped create an organization that is best known for lynching black people.
So, Hollywood joins the club -- of southern locales that must now cope with the bleakest elements of the Southern past.
Places like Charleston, where, after the 2015 church massacre, the rebel flag was removed from the state capitol.
Like Georgia and Virginia, which ordered an end to specialty license plates that featured the Confederate flag.
And, places like Mississippi, Baltimore, and Louisville, and New Orleans, where there have been battles over Confederate monuments.
Not everyone is in favor of changing the names of those Confederate general streets in Hollywood.
Some say that it would be a nuisance to suddenly wind up with a different street address, that they would never get their mail. I sympathize.
But, others say that those names represent precious history – specifically, Confederate history.
One protester said: “We are not racists. We are not white supremacists. We are defenders of Confederate heritage. We’re not about hate. We are about heritage.”
But, it got worse. Some protesters at a recent Hollywood City Council meeting chanted white supremacist slogans.
Some waved Confederate symbols and white nationalist flags.
Some of them called a black state legislator, Representative Shevrin Jones, the “n word.” Some called him a monkey. Some told him: “Go back where you came from.”
Those protesters do not represent my city. If anything, Hollywood is a model for cultural diversity. When I go to a local restaurant, I eat my meal in a post-Babel of English, Spanish, Hebrew, and French.
The defenders of Lee, Hood, and Forrest say that they are merely arguing in favor of historical memory.
Well, two can play that game.
Except, my memory is of the path that blacks and Jews have walked together in this country.
- The memory of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, murdered by Southern racists in 1964, and buried in a shallow grave in Mississippi. James Chaney was a black man. Schwerner and Goodman were New York Jews.
- The memory of Southern synagogues that were bombed in the 1950s and 1960s, because their rabbis were preaching about the need for integration.
- The memory of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, one of the greatest rabbis of Germany in the 1930s. In the late 1930s, Rabbi Prinz came to America, and he became the rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey, formerly in Newark.
Rabbi Prinz was the “opening act” for Martin Luther King at the March on Washington.
This is what he said:
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, the most important thing that I learned was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
It is not our task to erase Southern history.
But it is our human task to understand the pain that this history causes in our neighbors.
Two rabbis are talking. One says to the other: "I love you – you know that, don’t you?"
The other one responds: "But, do you know what causes me pain? If you don’t know what causes me pain, how can you say that you love me?"
That is the central commandment of the Torah: love your neighbor as yourself – which actually doesn’t mean loving the people who live near you, on your street – but it certainly includes them.
To love our neighbors -- wherever we live -- is to know what gives them pain.