When teaching children about racism and genocide, educators often focus on individual biases as the source of systematic racism and anti-Semitism. For example, at my synagogue, teachers often ask their students to put themselves in the shoes of Christian German civilians during the Holocaust and consider whether they, as non-Jews, would have simply shrugged off anti-Semitic slurs and the sight of innocent people in yarmulkes being attacked by policemen. Questions like this spark a discussion of bullying and anti-bullying in American schools today. In the process, “racism” becomes a dysfunctional interpersonal phenomenon, and the Holocaust, as a result, becomes a simple amalgamation of millions of acts by individual racists who allowed their prejudices to get out of hand. By the end of a course on the subject, many students assume that the only way to save Hitler’s victims would have been to speak out against incidental anti-Semitism before it escalated into genocide. As the Anti-Defamation League notes, “challenging belittling jokes” and not “accepting stereotypes” are good ways to prevent a society from escalating into acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and then genocide.
Combatting individual prejudices certainly can help stop mass atrocities, but, in an educational context, this truism is incomplete because it ignores the systematic mobilization of hatred and violence by governmental authority. Even though many German schoolchildren were too reticent in the face of schoolyard anti-Semitism and could have spoken up, we must not overstate the practical impact that several more German dissidents could have had once the genocide was actually underway, nor should we pretend that the world was helpless to stop the Holocaust once Germans’ prejudices had spiraled so murderously out of control.
In our case, American students today must know that our government, even without changing the hearts of individual anti-Semitic Germans, could have saved many more of Hitler’s victims and that fighting prejudice, though immeasurably valuable, would not have been enough to compensate for the Allies’ failure to intervene on the victims’ behalf.
The US government’s shameful policy of proroguing on the Holocaust was underway by December of 1942 when President Roosevelt met with a Jewish delegation imploring him to stop the genocide. Although Roosevelt intimated at the meeting that his administration “shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment,” the proceeding few months panned out much differently.
In February of 1943, the Rumanian government suggested that it would transport 70,000 Jews into Allied territory in exchange for roughly 130 dollars per refugee. Though such a proposal probably would have required further examination and negotiation, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles simply dismissed it out of hand, lambasting it as a hoax of “the German propaganda machine” to “create confusion and doubt within the United Nations.” The Nuremberg trials elucidated, however, that the offer was sincere and that, with only a little bit of extra research, the State Department would have known to capitalize on the offer.
With that in mind, perhaps we should be asking students what their forbears in the United States could have done to pressure their government to act on the Rumanian proposal. When organizations pushing the United States to accept Rumania’s offer were denigrated as inflammatory and overdramatic, how could our forbears have normalized the struggle for genocide victims and defended the efforts of those who were advocating positive action?
It is no exaggeration to say that the Allies’ “efforts” at saving Hitler’s victims were laced with unconcern and faux-outrage at most key turns thereafter. To the world, our leaders were “devastated” by what was happening to European Jewry, but, in private, they were much more insouciant about the matter. In fact, to absolutely no objection, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden once said outright in a 1943 meeting with President Roosevelt that “we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.” When Eden expressed concern that “Hitler might take us up on any such offer” and that the Allied Powers would have to find new homes for Jewish refugees, he was greeted with nonchalance and tacit agreement.
Today, students of the Holocaust or any other systemic atrocity should not ask themselves only how more people could have acted individually to condemn incidental bigotry, as important as that question is; they should ask how thousands upon thousands of people could have acted in tandem to pressure their governments to save thousands upon thousands of victims. We should remember that the Holocaust was not only an exercise of individual prejudice but also an exercise of systemic governmental apathy and an exhibition of societies’ unfortunate tendency to shrug their proverbial shoulders amidst large-scale suffering.
Each year the Coalition for Economic Justice holds a dinner to celebrate the efforts of various groups and individuals. The CEJ is an amalgam of groups who work together on the behalf of workers, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, and the environment. I was pleased to attend along with Michael Mottern, our local leader in Buffalo. Admittedly, it is an easy drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo (a little less than 4 hours). The weather was great. Mid week, mid day travel presented no traffic obstacles except for road construction (thank you PA legislature for finally passing a transportation funding bill that puts people to work). The awards dinner was this past Thursday evening, everything was well organized, and Michael and I had a wonderful time. Not only did we get to promote Social Democrats USA, we refreshed relationships, and were genuinely encouraged by the efforts of so, so many people. We even had time for a couple of beers.
The key note speaker was Barbara Young. It’s easy to remember her name because Barbara comes from Barbados. She came to NYC 20 years ago to be a domestic worker. After working in the business and networking with other domestic workers, she realized that working conditions desperately needed to be improved. But organizing thousands of individual contractors is a lot more complicated than organizing the workers at a single plant with a single employer. Barbara realized that she would need to go beyond traditional organizing. There were three important components to her strategy— lobby state legislature, lobby the employers, and be persistent. Lobby the employers? Yes, indeed. Many of the domestics in NYC work for Jewish families with two working adults. Barbara learned that Jews are generally sympathetic to leftist issues, so she decided to work that angle. She pressed the argument that these domestic workers are taking care of America’s most precious assets: our children and our elderly. These Jews formed Shalom Bayit (peace in the home); an organization that helps organize domestic workers. They promoted it through a network of synagogues. Then together, Domestic Workers United and Shalom Bayit took the matter to Albany, and after 8 diligent years were able to get a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010— the first such legislation in America! Barbara deserves a lot of credit for seeing a problem, devising a solution, and not giving up until she was successful.
I had a few minutes to speak with Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western NY Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. Richard was keynote speaker at our 2012 Convention. We reminisced over that event, which was held at Rust Belt Books. With a big smile he told me what a great time he had, and that if we ever hold the convention in Buffalo again to make sure we invite him. Although Richard is not too far away from retirement, he continues to do great work for organized workers in Western NY. At the CEJ dinner he was honored to give remarks about new efforts to work with people outside the normal constituency of Labor. We recall during the national AFL-CIO convention when we heard Rich Trumka tell us that all of us are under attack and that the 99% can no longer view itself as a multitude of constituencies, but instead must realize that we are all in the same boat. Environmentalists, trade unionists, gay right activists, civil rights activists, immigrant rights activists— we must work as coalition if we are to make any progress. We saw then for the first time non-trade unionists speaking at an AFL-CIO convention. We see now trade unionists supporting gay rights. There is a sense of cooperation that I’ve never seen before. I come from Western Pennsylvania, an area where union members are not liberals. They didn’t support civil rights, they didn’t support immigrant rights, they didn’t support gay rights. But now they realize that if we don’t all work together, we’re pretty much screwed. I think trade unionists are seeing the light, and I am optimistic about the current direction.
We also had opportunity to connect with political leaders in Buffalo. Michael and I sat at the table with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and compared issues in Erie County (Buffalo) and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), including Marcellus shale drilling, welfare administration, parks, and airport authorities. We also got to spend a few moments with Michael LoCurto, City of Buffalo Council member. Michael is a well known progressive and received an award at the dinner for his efforts. We also established a relationship with Betty Jean Grant, Erie County Legislature member (district 2). She was very open to our message of economic rights and jobs for all.
Lastly, I want to mention Beverly Newkirk. She leads an organization called “It Takes a Village”. As a young woman she had the incredible privilege of working with Bayard Rustin (our chair during the 70’s), A Philip Randolph, Ernie Green, and other notables in the civil rights movement. At the time, she was an apprentice in the Recruitment and Training Program. The function of the RTP was to recruit and train minorities for jobs in the construction industry. Randolph was Chair and Rustin was Vice Chair. Their annual conference was an important calendar event for anyone in politics. She says the experiences of those times changed her life and she is eternally grateful.
Looking forward to next year.
The neoconservative camp, always eager to wrestle with imaginary positions of their opponents, is now bravely challenging another belief that no one holds, which is that “all cultures are equal.” George Mason University Professor Walter Williams has jumped aboard the “Western values are superior to all others” bandwagon and asks, “Is forcible female genital mutilation, as practiced in nearly 30 sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern countries, a morally equivalent cultural value?” The neoconservative Clarion Project’s Douglas Murray takes the campaign directly to progressives by asking, “How many young girls’ clitorises had to bemutilated while they busily curated their left-wing credentials?”
This arrogant cultural trope is nothing new. The neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay have promoted the “inequality of cultures” idea throughout the War on Terror to justify militarism, invasion, torture, and systematic violation of international law. Sliding from “culture” to politics to statecraft, their ideological conceit is that “we,” the West, have an enduring tradition of protecting women, while “they,” the Middle Easterners, are so barbaric that they cut the clitorises off of women, and therefore our “culture” should govern their “culture.” But their sudden passion for Middle Eastern women’s rights—indeed, any women’s rights—must be taken with a shaker of salt.
Obviously, not all cultural values are equal in a moral sense. For example, a political culture of militarism and war, the kind that produced hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Iraq War, is inferior to a culture that prefers non-violence, diplomacy and peace, the kind that you might find in, say, Canada. Furthermore, where it occurs, in both Islamic and non-Islamic communities, female genital mutilation is indeed barbaric, savage, and backward and should be condemned as such.
But neoconservative fake-feminists only play the “pro-woman” game when it comes time to bash fanatical Islamists who happen not to be on our side in whatever war the neoconservatives are pushing. Thus, when our side made deals with Afghan tribal warlords who were none-averse to female genital mutilation, the neoconservatives fell silent, for their militarist “realism” always prevails over their rhetorical feminism.
Moreover, the neoconservatives are distinctly anti-woman when it comes time to allow grassroots democracy to flourish in the Mideast. I’ll show you what I mean.
They argue that “they,” the Middle Easterners, mutilate girls’ genitals and that “we,” the Westerners, don’t. What inanity. The West’s insipid, criminal Iraq War mutilated the genitals— not to mention the faces, necks, arms, and legs— of thousands of Iraqi women and girls, all after years of sanctions that killed thousands of Iraqi girls every month. Some may insist that these were necessary means to a righteous, democratic end, but the only meaningful “ends” thus far produced by the Western aggression in Iraq have been unyielding sectarian violence, car bombings and refugee camps. Please forgive me for not jumping up to high-five the feminist “liberators” who created this violent mess.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution, and especially since the induction of pre-Iran War hysteria, neoconservatives have also been fond of bashing Twelver Shiite misogyny as a decidedly backward, anti-Western phenomenon. Yet their beloved CIA, a beacon of Western “democracy building,” helped oust the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and enthrone the Shah, a far-from-enlightened dictator whose secret police force, the SAVAK, “tortured and murdered thousands” of political dissidents. Where were their sympathies for brutalized, displaced, and widowed Iranian women when that was happening?
Oh, and while they do the newly fashionable thing of bashing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s very real chauvinism, it might be worth mentioning that the West has been siding with anti-female Egyptian tyranny ever since 1919 when, amid an anti-colonial struggle which eventually killed 800 Egyptians, Woodrow Wilson backed the British rule in Egypt even as native women “testified that British troops ‘leveled their weapons at us’” and violently suppressed the protests. Fast-forward to less than a decade ago when the United States decided to purchase Egyptian “stability” by propping up Hosni Mubarak’s government during its “systematic arrestand harassment of peaceful political activists” and “lethal” crackdown on both male and female asylum seekers. As we see, the long-standing tradition of Western devotion to democracy and feminism isn’t so pure.
Yes, we should condemn FGM and misogyny whenever it occurs at anyone’s hands in any culture. That’s not the dispute here. The dispute is whether or not the military interventions championed by the neoconservatives have proven more conducive to women’s empowerment than feminist and human rights struggles. Though it may be noise to pseudo-feminist militarists’ ears, the answer, resoundingly, is no.
This week, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran a story about the negative impact many churches are experiencing because of their positions on social issues— particularly gay marriage, contraceptives, and abortion rights. Young people are especially turned off. Of course, young people have been leaving the church for many years; this is not news. Most of young people I know really do not see the point in going to or belonging to a church. But what is news is that a lot of middle aged adults have dropped out of church as well. Like their children, they have come to view church as a pointless exercise; or worse, they view it as a negative influence. That is not to say these folks are not spiritual, but they view the church as more of a political institution than a spiritual one, and they view politics as bad.
Here in Pittsburgh one of the recurring issues has been whether the Catholic Church should have to pay for contraceptives for its employees. As in many cities, the Church here owns businesses such as hospitals and universities. When the ACA required all medical insurance plans to include reproductive health services, Bishop Zubic cried foul, and has continued to do so ever since. He stated plainly that religious organizations should not have to pay for services that violate their ethical code. He went so far as to say that President Obama was waging a war on the Church. Many church lay members have stood with him. The unfair requirement to use Church money for abortion would seem to be a valid complaint, except that it’s NOT the Church’s money! From the very beginning, this argument has been misrepresented and as a consequence the worker comes out on the short end.
When a person accepts employment there is a contract, whether written or implied, that she will give x number of hours of labor in exchange for certain compensation. That compensation is often a mix of salary and benefits. What she does with her compensation is her decision. The employer doesn’t say, “Betty, we agree to pay you $500 per week but you are not allowed to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or movie tickets.” It is generally understood that Betty can spend her pay as she likes because it’s HER money. Likewise, her benefits belong to her. If she gets a 401k, she can pick the investment she wants, because it’s HER money. And lastly, Betty should be able to use her health care benefits the way she chooses, because it’s HER money. She earned those benefits; they belong to her. It is not the Church’s money, it’s Betty’s.
There was a time when the Church was more friendly to the working class, although we note that the Vatican has routinely and continuously expressed support for workers in their struggles with their capitalist masters. So perhaps I should be more specifically pointing to the American Catholic leadership. We recall fondly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Where is today’s Day? Where is today’s Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, co-founder of the Catholic Radical Alliance? Rice was our labor priest here in Pittsburgh. He helped form the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. But today’s Catholic leadership seems more aligned with the likes of Tom Monaghan, billionaire former owner of Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan is politically very conservative and he has a lot of money to give to the right Catholic charities. He even built and owns an entire town in Florida where merchants are prohibited from selling contraceptives. This seems to be the new model of the Church— if we can’t convince our members to follow our ethical code, let’s have the government do it for us. In this regard, the Church is not different from other right wing churches who want government to enforce morality. There are very wealthy right wingers out there who will give buckets of money to churches who will preach the Right gospel. Rather than trying to retain or grow their membership, the Church has opted to look for pots of money. I’m not saying it would be easy to stem the tide of people quitting church. People today don’t seem to want to join any organization, make any commitment. They especially don’t want to join political organizations. But, it would have been easy for Bishop Zubic to have told his parishioners, “Look, we pay our employees benefits. We don’t dictate how they use them.” But that’s not what is happening. Perhaps, as the Church is doing its business analysis it’s seeing that having a few very wealthy members is a better deal than a million poor members. That path will eventually turn the Church into a wealthy think tank with no churches. This is similar to what another Pittsburgh institution did. Mellon Bank decided it didn’t actually need banks, just a big office building. So it closed ALL of its branches! And they are doing very well today, partnering with BNY to serve a small but wealthy group of customers. If that’s where the Church wants to go, so be it. But the working person on the street is struggling today and she could use some old-time Catholic rabble rousing.