IN NUMBERS 11: 1-29, a recent Torah portion read in Jewish communities, the Israelites are wandering the desert complaining about the lack of food and water.
They long for the fish they were given in Egypt, forgetting that they received this “free” food as a result of their slave labor.
Selective memory of the past is a common human trait.
For example, Americans often refer to the decades in the mid 20th century as the “good old days.”
But if you were a person of color, belonged to a minority religion, were a single parent, divorced, lived in a dangerous neighborhood or in any other way didn’t fit the “correct” profile, things were far from idyllic.
Black and Hispanic laborers were expected to be out of white neighborhoods at dusk after their day’s work.
Jews were not allowed in many universities or private clubs.
There was rampant discrimination against all racial and religious minorities in jobs and housing, and women were marginalized, finding it difficult to be financially independent.
But all these facts make us uncomfortable, and we’d rather glorify those years as a time when America was great.
Unless we remember the darker side of our past, we risk repeating our mistakes, and going back to a time when people were treated with disdain or even violence if they were seen as “the other.”
Jews are especially aware of what can happen when people forget the past.
The Holocaust is always in the back of our minds when we see children ripped from their mothers’ arms and put in cages, neo-Nazis referred to as “ very fine people” and immigrants portrayed as rapists, murderers and animals, and therefore less than human.
Nazi Germany repeatedly referred to Jews as vermin that should be exterminated, dehumanizing them in the eyes of the population.
The Nuremberg Laws brilliantly stripped every vestige of humanness from the Jews, step by step.
Then when they were rounded up, taken to camps and murdered by the millions, the rest of the populace barely noticed.
This occurred in a democratic, civilized country of church-going, cultured citizens.
But when they were bombarded with repeated propaganda from a state media, hate was normalized.
The results of a recent study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany are sobering.
It showed that “41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials said they don’t know about the Auschwitz death camp where more than a million Jews and others, including Poles, Roma people and gays were executed.
“Forty-one percent of millennials believe 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
“It was 6 million (including 1 million children).
“And 22 percent of millennials say they haven’t even heard of the Holocaust.”
We say “Never forget” but how can we forget what we have never learned?
At risk of a repeat
This lack of knowledge puts us at risk of repeating history.
We have seen a surge in hate crimes against every minority and the highest number of white nationalist, Holocaust-denying candidates are running for office.
They are knocking on doors, spreading racist propaganda, preying on people’s fears of minorities and ridiculing the very idea of the Holocaust.
Being a democracy does not protect us from repeating our past mistakes.
Our memories, like those of the Israelites, are short, and we often forget past injustices.
When divisive, hateful lies are repeated day after day, we run the risk of losing our moral compass.
But wisdom from the past can bring us hope for the future.
Remember RFK’s words
Though Robert F. Kennedy, whose vision of unity and hope lifted the spirits of Americans of all races and creeds, was tragically assassinated 50 years ago, his words still inspire us.
“What we need is not division; what we need is not hatred, but love and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who suffer within our community, whatever their color or faith. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Remember the final words of our pledge do not say, “liberty and justice for all, except …”
Justice is meant for everyone without exceptions.
When we remember our past truthfully, we can bring about the repairing of our world.
Then the words of Amos 5:34 will ring true: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Kein yehi ratzon … let it be God’s will.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected] olympus.net.