Can the US learn from Israel about honoring its heroes?

The objective of remembering America’s heroes should be an honest assessment of their contributions, both positive and negative.

The statue of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt outside the Natural History Museum in New York City. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons.
The statue of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt outside the Natural History Museum in New York City. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

We are witnessing an unprecedented phenomenon: statues of American heroes ripped down by mobs or taken down by local and state governments with seemingly little deliberation. Additionally, long-standing institutions are being renamed almost overnight.

No doubt some of the statues represent individuals who defended slavery or perpetrated crimes against members of minority communities and should be considered for removal. Yet others are being ripped down over one or two statements or missteps the person made over a lifetime; their significant contributions are being unceremoniously discarded.

This phenomenon is dizzying to witness. It feels like America is losing its moorings.

Underlying this trend is unfortunately an ignorance of what many of these heroes have contributed to America’s success. From a Jewish perspective, many of America’s heroes were also heroes for the Jewish people and supported Torah values, even with their flaws.

Interestingly though, Israel, due to the biblical prohibition on carving human images, has few statues. Nevertheless, most Israelis know about the country’s heroes and what they contributed, without statues needed as reminders. One shining and very public example illustrating the importance Israel places on its heroes and foundational documents is the country’s Bible contest. Its finale is overseen by both the prime minister and the president and is the annual closing highlight of Israel’s Independence Day festivities. Imagine if the U.S. president (Democrat or Republican) were to preside over a similar contest, testing students on their knowledge of America’s heroes and America’s foundational documents in a live broadcast on July 4.

Israel’s military has educational requirements. First of all, army or national service is compulsory, and part of the training is an understanding of ancient and recent history. Imagine if America had such an armed forces or national service requirement. Imagine if it also had a similar accompanying educational program where Americans at that age had the opportunity to visit battlegrounds and foundational historic sites, including the less than savory aspects.

Israel recognizes that all of her heroes have flaws. Whether we are speaking about modern-day heroes or biblical heroes, all are ultimately human. The single-minded focus of David Ben-Gurion was arguably the driving force for the miraculous rebirth of the State of Israel, yet his policy for the absorption and treatment of Yemenite immigrants was a black spot on his reputation. Even Moses, the greatest of them all, who led us out of Egypt to the Promised Land and brought us the Torah from God, lost his temper and was punished for it. Israelis study it all; contributions and flaws.

Which brings us back to some of the recent statue-tossing in America.

Christopher Columbus’s statue in Baltimore was recently toppled by a mob and unceremoniously tossed into the Inner Harbor. Columbus changed the world. Some historians say he may have been Jewish. Most historians believe that much of his crew were Jewish as they were escaping the unimaginable horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

Imagine if those seeking relief from tyranny, starvation or religious persecution around the world had had no outlet. Imagine if there had been no escape from the pogroms of eastern Europe or the Irish famine. At the same time, we can appreciate the deleterious impact his arrival had on the native population both in terms of disease and ultimately appropriation of land.

In Potomac, Md., there is a move afoot to rename Churchill High School. Arguably, Winston Churchill was the single driving force leading England, America and her allies in the fight against the Nazi empire. Can you imagine if the allies had lost World War II? Churchill spearheaded the defeat of arguably the most evil force in all of human history. Our fathers and grandfathers fought and died for the great cause he championed. Yet others are understandably concerned about remarks he made about the Indian people, as well as policies that had truly unfortunate impacts in British colonial Africa.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York and the city’s mayor have decided to take down the Teddy Roosevelt statue in front of the museum. Roosevelt founded America’s National Forests and National Parks. The National Forests comprise 10 percent of the continental U.S. land base, and the U.S. Forest Service is the role model for forest conservation and wildfire fighting for the world. The National Parks are America’s national scenic jewels.

Further, as Joseph Frager noted in a recent article in Israel National News, Roosevelt was the first president to invite a black leader to dine with him at the White House. He was the first president to appoint a Jew to a Cabinet post. He made Oscar Solomon Strauss the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor. He opposed labeling Jews as a separate race on their passports. He said, “I should no more have a man entered on a passport as a Hebrew than as an Episcopalian, or a Baptist or a Roman Catholic.”

In 1903, he issued a strong rebuke to the Russian czar after the murder of 49 Jews in the Kishinev Pogrom. He publicly supported the Balfour Declaration and a Jewish state surrounding Jerusalem.

Yet the statue shows Roosevelt on a horse flanked by a black and native American in subservient positions, and over his career, he made statements that were hurtful to minorities.

In Wisconsin, the statue of Hans Christian Heg was torn down. Heg was actually a key leader in advocating for the abolition of slavery. Nevertheless, protesters tore it down to “call attention to Wisconsin’s racially unjust history.” Their motivation is baffling.

The objective of remembering America’s heroes should be an honest assessment of their contributions and their impacts, both positive and negative. Many of America’s heroes are members of the minority community and need to be better highlighted. The objective should be to increase understanding and appreciation of these people and what they accomplished.

There is a Jewish concept called hakarat hatov. It literally means “recognizing the good.” Practically speaking, it means appreciating those who helped us to where we are today, both as individuals and as a nation. “If not for what they did for me, I would not be here or we would not be here.”

Some of those to whom we owe such appreciation are still with us today, but many are not. As America’s monuments are being attacked by mobs and its institutions renamed, Americans should not lose their appreciation for her heroes and what they helped create. America should not lose its hakarat hatov. If America can increase its appreciation for what its heroes accomplished, recognizing their flaws, and pass that on to the next generation, God willing, it will ultimately reclaim its moorings.

Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based natural resource consultant connecting Israel and the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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