Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
These poignant and inspirational words from 22-year-old African American poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” read before a live audience of nearly 34 million people at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, has become one of the latest targets of controversy and banning by the political right.
Gorman’s book of poems, which includes “The Hill We Climb,” is no longer available at a Florida elementary school in Miami-Dade County. Gorman said she was “gutted” at the news.
LGBTQ Nation spoke with PEN America about the parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now.
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“Robbing children of the chance to find their voices in literature is a violation of their right to free thought and free speech,” she said.
She is indeed correct that this is a violation, but this denial of free thought and speech is precisely the purpose of autocrats and tyrants.
As stated by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1839 play, Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This adage holds that the written word is a powerful tool in the transmission of ideas. Why else would oppressive regimes and other ruthless upholders of the status quo engage in censorship and book burning?
Heinrich Heine, one of Germany’s greatest poets who was of Jewish origin warned, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”
How the seeds of hate are planted
Since ancient times, the Jewish people have been known as “the people of the Book.”
The term originated within Islam, where characterizing the Jews as such meant they possessed a prior revelation from God that they wrote down. These transcripts cemented an intimate connection between the Jews and the Torah – the Hebrew Bible (Tanach) – and the many books allied with it, such as the Talmud, commentaries, and codes of Jewish law.
Jewish tradition has established a deep reverence for the written word of the Torah scrolls, which are meticulously written on parchment paper and placed in a sacred space in the synagogue, the Arc. This is a cabinet located at the head of the synagogue’s chapel, which usually faces east toward Jerusalem. Finely embroidered curtains cover the Torah scrolls and the ark.
The printed Talmud contains the text of the Torah with additional rabbinic explanations of the Jewish Bible. This long-standing reverence for the written word has extended to the quest for intellectual knowledge and discussion among many Jewish people in religious and also in secular topics and endeavors.
Ancient Rome persecuted Jews for retaining their cultural and religious traditions. Rome denied most rights of citizenship to Jews. They levied a special tax on Jews, confiscated their property, and enacted laws against proselytizing and conversions.
Greco-Roman writers labeled Jews who adhered to their religious beliefs as “bigots fighting in defense of circumcision and a pigless diet.”
A Dominican scholar and early proponent of “natural law,” in which morality is based on constraints of human nature, was Thomas Aquinas, who believed that usury (the lending of money for profit) was unjust and therefore forbidden to Christians. , This idea was later echoed in the High Middle Ages.
Pope Gregory IX in 1239, in his quest to maintain the Catholic Church’s economic and ideological stranglehold, ordered all copies of the Talmud confiscated, and one of his successors, Pope John XXI, commanded that the Talmud be burned on the eve of the Jewish Passover in 1322.
In France, the Dominicans and Franciscans carried out Pope Gregory IX’s order on the first Christian Sabbath of Lent by raiding synagogues and removing all Jewish books.
Jews were among the first to take advantage of the printing press developed around the mid-1500s so that the Hebrew Torah, Talmud, and prayer book (siddur) could become accessible to greater numbers of people.
The “Word” became the constant connective tissue linking a diverse people across enormous planetary expanses. But this same connection posed challenges to tyrants who wished to subdue a people who did not and could not abide by religious, cultural, and social traditions that went against their beliefs and values.
Throughout the ages, autocrats and tyrants attempted to cut out this connective tissue with the goal of figuratively and often literally killing the Jewish mind and body.
Pope Julius III ordered all copies of the Talmud taken and burned as an auto da fé in 1553. Pope Paul IV ordered copies of the Talmud burned in 559. Pope Pius IV ordered the remaining 20,000 copies of the Talmud taken and burned in 1559, and he banished all Jews from his territory in 1569.
The Christian “reformer,” Martin Luther, wrote a 1526 treatise called On the Jews and Their Lies, which foregrounded the Holocaust to come.
He argued: “First, their synagogues should be set on fire.” Jewish prayer books should be destroyed, he said, and rabbis forbidden to preach. The homes of Jews should likewise be “smashed and destroyed” and their residents “put under one roof or in a stable like gypsies, to teach them they are not master in our land.”
He continued, “These poisonous envenomed worms should be drafted into forced labor. The young and strong Jews and Jewesses should be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and the spindle and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses.”
As Luther’s dire pronouncement makes perfectly clear, what begins as the torching of books and other property eventually results in the denial of civil liberties, torture, and ultimately, the murder of people scapegoated by dominant social groups and by their religious and governmental leaders.
The power of propaganda
Though Jews were allowed very little control over the conditions surrounding their lives in many European countries, the stereotype of Jews as powerful with an interest in world domination persisted into the current era. The Rothschild, family as depicted in an 1898 French caricature, was the symbol of the supposed Jewish passion for world domination.
More recently, the invocation of billionaire George Soros has become the antisemites’ poster boy for world domination of politicians, governments, and world economic systems, as well as for the “replacement” of white people by immigrants and people of color.
Beginning in 1920, the automobile manufacturer, Henry Ford, chronicled what he considered the “Jewish menace” in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.
Every week for the next 91 issues, Ford exposed in the paper some kind of Jewish “evil.” The most popular and virulent of his articles he then chose to reprint into four volumes called The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.
Frederick Nietzsche, a leading European philosopher, published his The Genealogy of Morals, in which he wrote: “It was the Jew who, with frightening consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equations good/noble/powerful/beautiful/happy/favored-of-the-gods and maintained that only the poor, the powerless, are good; only the suffering, sick, and ugly, truly blessed. “
To Nietzsche, Jews were a disease corrupting the nations.
German composer, Richard Wagner, was an early exponent of the theory of Jewish racialization. He published his essay Das Judentum in der Musik (The Jews in Music) in 1850. He attacked the Jewish influence on German culture in general, and on music in particular.
On the cover of one of his pamphlets, Wagner defends “Germanic” art and music against attacks by three horseflies symbolizing Jewish composers: Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, and Offenbach in Leipzig, 1869.
Wrote Wagner in 1850: “Of decisive importance is the nature of the influence of the Jew’s pronunciation upon us; particularly, this is the essential point of departure in a study of the Jewish influence on music. Particularly repulsive to us is the purely sensual manifestation of the Jewish language…in the matter of the Semitic mode of pronunciation…”
“Our ear feels the absolutely foreign and unpleasant sound of a certain hissing, strident, lisping, and choking pronunciation in the Jewish speech,” continued Wagner, “a distortion and peculiar rearrangement of the words and of phrase constructions [which] imparts to this pronunciation the character of a confused babbling…[and a] repulsive manner of the Jewish speech….”
In the U.S. South and Midwest, there was a rise in activity by the ultra-racist and anti-Jewish Ku Klux Klan and by other white supremacist groups bent on preserving the so-called “white race” from what they considered the non-Nordic/non-Aryan “race polluters.”
Father Charles E. Coughlin, an anti-Jewish and anti-Communist Irish-Catholic priest, used his radio broadcasts in the U.S. to warn that the Jews were out to destroy the U.S. economy. He defended Hitler’s treatment of the Jews as warranted in the fight against Communism.
Germany had been defeated in WWI. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles following the war, the country had to pay heavy penalties. In Germany, many were out of work. The country was ripe for extremists.
The back of many German currency denominations were left blank. On the back of some particular bills, someone had placed an ink stamp blaming Jews.
Translation of the rhymed lines:
Like the fungus
and the lichens
on the oak’s trunk
The Jew thrives
on mankind’s trunk
Where Jews live in comfort
The majority remains
in poverty’s grip
In his book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler wrote: “Today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Hitler asserted that he had been influenced by the theology of Paul in the Christian Bible, and by the works of Martin Luther, as well as many Christian theologians of his time regarding the evilness and inferiority of the Jews.
Hans Frank, Hitler’s friend and a lawyer for the Nazi Party, wrote that Hitler told him in 1938: “In the gospels, the Jews cried out to Pilate, when he refused to have Jesus crucified ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’ Maybe I have to fulfill this curse.”
The Catholic Church hierarchy did very little to stand up on behalf of the Jews during WWII, though some individual Catholic priests and parishioners sometimes risked their lives in support of justice.
Pope Pius XII maintained a position of neutrality, and he never publicly challenged Adolph Hitler’s brutal treatment and murder of the Jews and others.
Foreseeing the claim that Judaism is only a religion, Hitler condemned “this first and greatest lie, that the Jews are not a race but a religion. The Jew has always been a people with a definite racial characteristic and never a religion.”
In addition to their so-called “religious justifications” for the persecution of Jews, Hitler and the Nazi party hierarchy used “racial arguments” as a cornerstone of their philosophy for the persecution of Jews (as well as most people of color and people with disabilities).
They considered Jews and others as descendants of inferior “racial” beings.
Nazis propagandized that Germany lost WWI because of its internal enemies: the Jews.
The Nazi campaign of “moral, racial, and sexual purity” led to an intense and violent campaign against Jews and other minoritized groups.
The Nazis asserted that Jews polluted the “Aryan race.” They forced Jews to wear the yellow Star of David patches, a sign of “race pollution.”
A Nazi propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, depicted Jews as race polluters, vermin, and destroyers of Germany. The film falsely charges: 47% of robberies conducted by Jews; 98% of prostitutes are Jewish.
“The Jews are only 1 percent of the population, but they know how to terrorize a great, tolerant nation by controlling finance, the arts, education, and the media,” the film said.
When words become actions
On April 8, 1933, the German Students’ Association (Deutsche Studentenschaft) drafted its twelve “theses”—a clear recall of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: declarations enumerating the fundamentals of a “pure” national language and culture. The students publicized this with placards by attacking “Jewish intellectualism,” by asserting the need to “purify” the German language and literature, and by demanding that universities serve as centers of German nationalism.
On May 10, 1933, groups of university students in over thirty German towns and cities confiscated and torched over 25,000 books in great pyres while giving the Nazi straight-arm salute. Books they categorized as “un-German” included Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, and Christians like Bertolt Brecht and Erich Maria Remarque in addition to U.S. writers they blacklisted, such as Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller.
German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, gave a speech in front of over 40,000 people in Berlin’s Opera Square declaring: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end… The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you… And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.”
Thus began the Nazi war on truth and speech, on “un-German” individual expression.
Helen Keller resisted German students in an open letter: “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”
Many other writers quickly spoke out about the conflagrations throughout Germany. Following the bonfires, approximately 100,000 took to marching the streets of New York City in protest of Nazi policies. Other cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis joined the protests.
Newsweek magazine termed Germany’s actions as “a holocaust of books,” while Time referred to it as a “bibliocaust.”
New York Herald Tribune columnist Walter Lippmann, warned: “These acts symbolize the moral and intellectual character of the Nazi regime,” he wrote. “For these bonfires are not the work of schoolboys or mobs but of the present German Government… The ominous symbolism of [this act and] these bonfires is that there is a government in Germany which means to teach its people that their salvation lies in violence.”
Following the book burnings, the Nazi regime stormed bookstores, public and school libraries, and publishers’ warehouses to commandeer materials it deemed dangerous or “un-German.”
Two weeks prior, the German Student Association declared a national “Action against the Un-German Spirit.” Nazi stormtroopers invaded, ransacked, and closed The Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin, founded by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish homosexual sexuality researcher. The Institute conducted early sexuality research and was the precursor of the Indiana-based Kinsey Institute in the United States.
Stormtroopers carried away and torched over 10,000 volumes of books and research documents calling the Institute “an international center of the white-slave trade” and “an unparalleled breading ground of dirt and filth.”
The Nazi effort to impose its standards in arts and culture that reflected its goals and outcomes became the norm. They not only banned and torched books, but their reach extended to other forms of art such as architectural styles, music, sculpture, paintings, movies, and plays. The government would not tolerate any sign, difference or diversion from its hegemonic outlines. All else was purged and labeled as “un-German” and “degenerate.”
Heinrich Heine’s warning of “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people” came to pass.
Under the guise of “freedom” to determine their children’s “education,” we are seeing parents, legislators, governors, and school administrators attempting to place severe limits on the teaching of our nation’s past and the legacies of this history upon the lives of people and institutions today.
Republican legislators throughout the U.S. have enacted new laws and policies intended to define the narrow parameters of what and how students will discuss our country’s past and our present.
As Santayana reminds us: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
We now have an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past by speaking out against the racism and cultural genocide that surrounds us.