Fighting for our Sacred Center

Yesterday, around the world, we Jews observed Tisha B’Av, a day of grieving the historical destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, our archetypal and historical sacred center.

Two weeks earlier, Washington’s National Cathedral, “a house of prayer for all people,” became the focus of media attention when the dean called for the removal of two stained glass panels – installed 62 years ago – which depict the Confederate flag.

According a recent CNN Poll – in marked contrast to white opinion, to many people of color, the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism. But racial violence is not merely found in the ancestral trauma this symbol triggers. At the same time the Confederate flag represents our nation’s long history of race-based violence, people of color remain its daily targets.

The Confederate flag has always been a symbol of white supremacy. Removing this symbol now is only a superficial gesture toward racial reconciliation, and will not lead to the abolition of racial injustice in this country.

America’s deep-rooted culture of white supremacy targets Jews, and Jewish sacred spaces. But when we fasted on Tisha B’av, we did not just fast for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and the string of Jewish historical tragedies this day marks – we also mourned for the burning of black churches.

We felt heartbroken about the contrast between the sudden flurry of activity at the National Cathedral verses the relative lack of national response to the shooting of nine black people at Emanuel AME in Charleston.

If the situation were different – if a 21-year-old black man entered a primarily white space of worship and opened fire on people, some argue, it would be labeled “an act of terrorism.”

Instead, we, as a nation, said the white shooter, Dylann Roof, was “troubled.” We were not supposed to see the white shooter’s role in sustaining the legacy of white supremacy in this country. As Ajamu Barak pointedly states, “instead of focusing on the domestic security threat posed by violent, racist right-wing extremists groups in the country, the old trope of gun control – along with a new twist, removing the Confederate flag – became the new focus!”

This rechanneling of our energies toward gun control and the removal of the Confederate flag prevents us from responding directly to ongoing violence against blacks in our country. It slows our realization that Roof’s actions as part of daily, widespread racially-motivated violence (like the circumstances leading up to Sandra Bland’s death in jail last week, after she was pulled over by police for a small traffic violation).

The message implicit in the public removal of the Confederate flag from the National Cathedral, and from South Carolina’s statehouse is, “Now that the Confederate flag in Charleston is down, racial reconciliation will finally happen!” Or, “If only we took down the panels depicting this flag in the National Cathedral, our nation would be a just place for all people!”

But between the shooting, and the flag’s very public removal from Charleston, we watched flames devour six black churches. The Washington Post states that, between 1995 and 2000, an average of 14 black churches burned every month. The headline calls this “good news” – meaning this is merely a continuation of the rash of black church burnings that have been going on for decades.

Setting aside the flames caused by lightening or faulty wiring, the “bad news” is that we are only beginning to pay attention to the forces of white supremacy that fuel much of this activity. And white America is only beginning to be troubled by the Confederate flag, and other symbols that support this culture of violence. (Not surprisingly, it’s easy to find photos of Roof holding the “stars and bars”.)

So, should the National Cathedral take this symbol of white supremacy, the Confederate flag, down?


But when it does come down, we should not breath a sigh of relief. This will not put the issue of racial injustice in this country to rest: the fight against racial injustice in this country is far from over. The fight to save our sacred center is just beginning.

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