An article in The Washington Post about an elected official’s painful comments opened wounds that were beginning to heal. It is deeply unfortunate that the Post’s coverage of Councilmember Trayon White’s visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, with his entire staff, did not focus on their sincere effort to learn about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Instead, the article centered on questions asked by White and his staff with the clear intent to shame them for what they didn’t know about the Holocaust before visiting the museum.
Their visit could have been part of an effort to help build understanding of the history of oppression and violence faced by Jews, and to open up Black-Jewish dialogue to help DC’s predominantly white Jewish community better understand the impact of racism on Black DC residents, especially those in White’s Ward 8. Instead, the article is likely to set these relations back.
No one should ever be shamed for trying to learn. Councilmember White closed his office so that his staff could visit the Holocaust Museum, and it is good that they were engaged and asked questions. Publishing those questions in an effort to highlight what they didn’t know before the tour, rather than asking what they learned after the tour, is unfortunate. It’s worth noting, sadly, that a survey released just this month indicated that most millennials know little about the Holocaust. Good for Trayon White for seeking to learn.
It is also worth noting that many white Americans know very little about the history and legacy of genocide and slavery in this country and are rarely judged for their lack of knowledge.
As a Jew who grew up in Iowa and later married a Black woman -- and who now has Black children -- I am aware of ignorance about both Jewish and Black history and culture. My family and I have faced many uninformed questions, often innocent. We know that we would not have accomplished anything by shaming people for their lack of knowledge.
The Post article notes that Councilmember Trayon White left the tour halfway through, without explanation. When I read this, I was very troubled. However, upon further consideration, I think the most likely answer is that he left to avoid an uninvited reporter who was taking notes on what he and his staff were saying at a private and sensitive moment.
White’s comments about the Rothschilds and the weather, while unfortunate, have created an opportunity for dialogue and understanding among Jewish and Black DC residents. The Councilmember has worked to engage with Jewish leaders and learn more, in what I see as a sincere act of contrition and desire to educate himself. That should be supported and encouraged, not mocked.
This moment should also be an opportunity for all DC residents to learn more about systemic racism and how it affects all of us, especially Black and Brown residents. Racism comes in many forms, resulting in massive inequities in criminal justice, education, health, income, and wealth. Our focus as a city should be on how we can combat the twin evils of anti-Semitism and racism. There will be many painful discussions along the way, but if we are to make progress, we should not shame people as they make genuine efforts to grow and learn.
With hate on the rise, led chiefly by the occupant of the White House, it is incredibly important that the entire city work to increase understanding and move forward together, not against one another.
If Black-Jewish dialogue in DC can contribute to better understanding about the long and lingering history of anti-Semitism, as well as to efforts to narrow DC’s racial inequities, that would be an amazing outcome from an unfortunate statement. We should be working to bring DC residents together, not pull them apart.
- Ed Lazere
Update: I look forward to an accounting of Councilmember Trayon White’s donation to the Nation of Islam (NOI), which was made prior to his recent efforts to educate himself on anti-Semitism. The NOI should not receive public funds, given Farrakhan’s history of anti-Semitic & hurtful comments.