Take a Deep Breath

Americans have come very far on issues of race. One need not read anything other than Charleston murderer Dylann Roof’s manifesto, in which he tries to justify his depraved actions. In between his diatribe against “Blacks” and “Jews,” he wrote that he felt he needed to take action because “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

It was him, but it wasn’t bravery. Feeling isolated and alone on his island of hate, in no small part due to the progress this country has made vis-à-vis racism, he committed his heinous act.

For some reason, media began to focus on the Confederate flag, which is flown on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds. Most Americans, especially those who aren’t children of the South, are not very knowledgeable about why it is still flown and often show their ignorance by not allowing it to be anything but a racist symbol.

To be clear, even after the reading I’ve done about this, I don’t think there is a need, in 2015, for official flying of the Confederate flag by a government. States have flags, and those should be all a state flies. The old arguments of how much the flying of the flag is a part of the history and tradition of the South are less tenable today, when a good portion of those who want it flown have co-opted it as a symbol of racism. That is more or less the point made by Governor Nikki Haley, when she announced she would seek to have the flag cease to be flown on the statehouse grounds.

“For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry … a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during a time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism. At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past … this is a moment in which we can say that that flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state. The murderer now locked up in Charleston said he hoped his actions would start a race war. We have an opportunity to show that not only was he wrong, but that just the opposite is happening.”

The people of South Carolina wanted it flown before; they do not want it flown any longer. And so it comes down.

That is precisely how this sort of change ought to happen.

But I am kind of troubled by the idea that public sentiment, and the idea that something is construed to be something it may not necessarily be, could lead to a move as drastic as removing the Confederate flag, which is part of the fabric of the South, from any and all official displays. I am specifically perturbed by the idea that we must kowtow to public opinion to ban things which are seen by some (usually those most vocal) as offensive, even if there might be another way to understand what they really are. As other states followed South Carolina’s example, and retailers such as Walmart, Amazon and eBay announced they wouldn’t sell merchandise with the flag on it (while continuing to sell other, far more offensive items), it really started to bother me. This is an idea, if it gains broader acceptance as being normative, that could have real consequences for frum Jews.

Last week, the deputy legal director of the ACLU wrote a chilling column in The Washington Post arguing that religious freedom in this country needs to be more limited. “Yes,” she wrote, “religious freedom needs protection. But religious liberty doesn’t mean the right to discriminate or to impose one’s views on others.”

In an excellent post for The Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein pointed out that many religious practices can be considered discriminatory by others. The examples he gave were all instances where halachah mandates that we recognize (or not recognize) something that  other people may not understand, such as “won’t recognize someone as Jewish unless they are Jewish according to halachah.”

Things like that, Bernstein writes, “are ‘discrimination,’ and some of them are, or plausibly could be in the future, illegal.” Most Americans, especially those with no familiarity with frum Jews, would not be able to understand why a business insists on only hiring frum Jews to be shochtim. Or rebbeim. Or why a Rav wouldn’t agree to officiate at an intermarriage. These are things the average American would see as discriminatory, and would want them — much like the Confederate flag — banned. There are undoubtedly others who would engage in discriminatory behavior of this sort and blame it on religion, so it is disturbing to suggest it therefore should be subject to an across-the-board ban — which would include us, who only seek to practice our religion.

Is that the kind of future we want? Or should we speak out strongly against racism, while urging that innocents are not punished for an evil they had nothing to do with, and allow for a display such as that of the Confederate flag? Is there a third way which is possible?