Over the past some time I've come to realize a growing appreciation for the stories of the Native Americans, their respective cultures and their resilience in the historical face of institutional prejudice and persecution. The Indian identities are focused around the tribe. They each have their sacred, ancestral lands, their respective religious beliefs and their own languages. And their greatest concerns in modern times are how to maintain the traditions of their ancestors in order to perpetuate their tribal identities. If we then understand that the Jew is essentially a tribal creature then it becomes clear that we fit right along that kind of social structure. Not perfectly though, since the vagaries of history have warped our tribal order, but it is still easily recognizable.
In many ways their stories remind me of our stories, as Jews have been likewise persecuted down the ages - and often for similar reasons. Sadly, in the typical American history education, the many injustices against the Indians are glossed over. But they had been repeatedly lied to through treaty violations, exiled far from their homes, been at the mercy of government sponsored massacres and were the objects of forced institutional assimilation. So think outside the box for a moment, doesn't the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk remind you of certain episodes in Jewish history? Were the originally tiny reservations so different from the European ghettos? Are the massacres really no different from a pogrom?
It's a little strange to think about, but from the Cherokee's perspective Andrew Jackson could be their Nebuchadnezzar.
Keep in mind too that I do not intend on equating these events. This is not a contest for who suffered the most, but an attempt to show some mirrors of history which promote a greater understanding and appreciation for the histories of others as well as our own.
A few friends (all modern to right-wing Orthodox) and I visited Phoenix a couple of weeks ago and we went to the apparently world renown Heard Museum which displays Native American culture, art and history. (They didn’t appreciate it as much as I did, but there isn’t much to do in Phoenix anyway.) One of the exhibits presented the story of the Indian Schools which had been first set up in the late nineteenth century as a means to forcibly assimilate the Indians into normative American life.
These children were pulled from their homes and were forbidden to practice their traditional culture, wear their traditional clothing and had to cut their hair. They were forced to give up their Indian names and were given English ones. They could not speak their native languages, even privately, for fear of punishment. They were forced to attend Church services and were expected to convert to Christianity as their native religious practices were prohibited.
Seeing that, I said to my friends, that’s not much different from Antiochus, now is it? One of them mocked the grievance that they had to cut their hair. So I responded that while I didn’t know the specific meaningfulness of their hair (though I found out later that it does hold cultural or spiritual importance to many tribes) try to put it in perspective - what if you were mocking the idea of forcibly cutting off payes?
Some conversation ensued and soon one of them spontaneously remarked that a huge flaw in the typical yeshivah education is the lack of historical perspective that is given to Jewish history. He said that no attempt is made to try and understand the motives or goals of the people involved. Antiochus was simply evil and all of history is black and white. Indeed. I replied saying that he should read through Tanach and see how Shmuel and Melachim are chock full of unapologetic political intrigue.
Jewish history is real history in the normal world of men and you don’t need mystical or supernatural inducement to explain the diachronic plight of the Jewish people as an unpopular minority. If one understands our past as a singularity, bound by different, special rules and incomparable to anything else, then one cannot engage with it to learn from the lessons of the past. To learn from our history requires us to understand that it is history and has reflections in the histories of other peoples.