Jews and the Charleston massacre: Two views on race and society

For Robert N. Rosen, the murder of black churchgoers in Charleston is a shocking departure from the city of tolerance and community that he knows and loves.
Adam D. Mendolsohn considers this perspective naive, and calls on Jews to remember their participation in the “troublesome” history of a city that was defined by its slave trade.

What do you think? Your comments on race, American history and Jewish legacy are welcome in our comments section.


This is not the Charleston I know

The unspeakable murder of nine accomplished, beloved and respected African American Charlestonians of faith in their own church on June 17 has hit our city like an earthquake.

These murders occurred in my neighborhood, across the street from Buist Academy, the public magnet school my daughter and son attended with their white, black and Hispanic classmates.

This is not our Charleston.

Charlestonians do not believe in hate, lawlessness, racism or violence. “The Holy City,” as Charlestonians like to call their home, from its birth in 1670 has had the greatest respect for all religions and all places of worship. These killings have outraged each and every one of us.

Here stands one of the oldest Jewish congregations in America, my temple, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1749 across the street from the oldest Catholic church in the South, St. Mary’s.

This is the city of our internationally respected mayor, Joseph P. Riley, who beginning 40 years ago named black Charlestonians to every top position in city government. Chief of Police Reuben Greenberg, a nationally renowned black and Jewish police officer, was a member of Synagogue Emanuel, our Conservative congregation.

This is the city of the only black United States senator, Tim Scott, formerly a Republican member of the Charleston County Council.

This is the city that recently built a memorial to Denmark Vesey, a leader of a slave revolt in 1822 and a member of the same church where the murders took place: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church south of Baltimore.

This is a city where African American judges preside over trials, black doctors teach at Medical University of South Carolina and outstanding black professors teach in our colleges. This is a city that revels in its African American history, cuisine, literature, sweetgrass baskets, ironwork, architecture, music, crafts and art. This is a city that sponsors an annual arts festival, MOJA (Swahili for “one”), celebrating African American and other minority cultures.

A heinous murder by an evil person who was not from our city cannot change that.

The Jewish community of Charleston will stand shoulder to shoulder with the black community, as it has for years. Our rabbis have urged us to attend prayer vigils and other community outpourings of grief and solidarity.

An interfaith candlelight vigil was held on June 21 in Brooklyn, New York, in solidarity with Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. photo/getty images-kena betancur

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney — a state senator, minister and one of the victims of the shooting on June 17 — spoke from the bimah of our synagogue at one of the communitywide Martin Luther King Day commemorations hosted at Beth Elohim. He then invited our rabbi, Stephanie Alexander, to speak at his church.

“No matter the setting,” Alexander wrote this week in an email, “his message was always inspirational, and the eloquence and beauty of his voice was nothing less than an instrument of peace itself. In every interaction I was privileged to share, Rev. Pinckney was graceful and sincere.”

I knew Sen. Pinckney. He was a leader respected throughout our community, a moderate, a man who brought people together, a senator popular with all members of the South Carolina Senate, which will be in deep and sincere mourning.

Another victim was Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who coached the girls’ track team at Goose Creek High School and was also a minister at Emanuel.

Another was Cynthia Hurd, a librarian at the College of Charleston. The chairman of our County Council has already said the library she managed will be named for her. All public libraries in Charleston County were closed in her honor last week.

This is the Charleston I know.

I am sure in the days ahead we will hear all about Charleston’s bloodstained history. It is true that Charleston was the city that imported more slaves from Africa than any other in America. It was the place where secession began and where the Civil War started. It was the very heart of the Confederacy.

These facts and tragedies cannot be denied, but they do not define us in 2015. Charlestonians have lived together in peace for 150 years since the Civil War. Charleston was no Birmingham or Selma. The city desegregated peacefully in the 1960s. Charleston was the first place in South Carolina where public facilities and schools were integrated.

We have our issues, as all cities in America do, but all Charlestonians love their city and detest this crime. Every true Charlestonian is grieving now.

Somehow, knowing my city and its people as I do, something positive will come of this tragedy.

Robert N. Rosen is a third-generation Charlestonian. He is a lawyer, a former assistant city attorney and the author of several books, including “A Short History of Charleston,” “Confederate Charleston” and “The Jewish Confederates.” This essay was distributed by JTA.


Don’t whitewash troubled history

Robert N. Rosen writes an inspiring response to the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church that points to the best traditions of life in the city: tolerance, an attentiveness to history, and a powerful sense of place and community.

But Rosen has also whitewashed the city’s history. His account lacks critical context when it comes to Charleston’s Jews and is rose-tinted when it comes to race. The city has changed dramatically in recent decades, but it all too often remains willfully ignorant of the long reach of the past into the present.

Yes, Charlestonians are outraged by this terrible event. But by pointing only to the best traditions of the city, and claiming that these alone represent its values, Rosen deludes himself about both the past and the present.

Charleston’s troublesome history did not end abruptly with the Civil War or the civil rights era. Charlestonians have not “lived together in peace for 150 years since the Civil War,” as Rosen suggests. Has he forgotten the terrorism that sank Reconstruction? The indignities and injustices of Jim Crow? The inequalities of the present? Or even the killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot by a white policeman in April of this year?

Nor is the fact that Charleston avoided the bloody showdowns of Birmingham or Selma in Alabama necessarily a mark of success. Insidious alternatives to formal segregation allowed South Carolina to effectively keep key elements of the system in place while appearing to follow the law. The legacy of those measures, which speaks today most clearly through the number of private schools in the city and the weaknesses of the public education system, has ensured that inequality and separation outlasted the civil rights era. In the long run, Charleston might have done better with more confrontation, not less.

The city’s record when it comes to addressing its past is spotty. Public memorials to slavery are hard to find, while statues glorifying the Confederacy and the opulent mansions of the antebellum era are conspicuous and celebrated. The city continues to honor John C. Calhoun, the intellectual and political heavyweight responsible for giving new ideological life to the slave system before the Civil War. Calhoun’s statue anchors Marion Square, which sits close to the Emanuel AME Church and serves as the crossroads of the city.

In the early 2000s, the owners of Marion Square beat back a proposal to erect a monument to Denmark Vesey, who was accused of plotting a slave uprising in 1822 and was one of 35 men hanged. His church was Emanuel AME, and the building was burned down in retribution. The monument was ultimately built in a park far from the center of town.

Today, Marion Square has no monument to those who were enslaved, but it is home to a large public memorial to the Holocaust that sits near the massive Calhoun statue. When the sun is high in the late afternoon, the statue casts its shadow toward the memorial. This grand irony bespeaks the strange history of Jews and race in the city.

Jews were welcome at the founding of the colony, but Catholics were not. Before the Civil War, Jews were accepted into white society in large measure because the enslaved population outnumbered a paranoid white populace that wanted strength in numbers.

Jews in Charleston today remember the unusual extent of their integration in the city, but not the other half of the equation. The present-day economic and social success of Charleston’s Jews is inextricably linked with this past exclusion of others.

If Rosen’s essay is representative, local Jews also have misremembered their mixed record when it came to civil rights. Burton Padoll, who served as rabbi of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in the 1960s, resigned under pressure from prominent members of his congregation in large part because of his activism on behalf of African American equality.

This is not to say that the history of Charleston’s Jews is unremittingly negative on matters of race — far from it. But the role of race in forging the city and shaping the experience of its Jews cannot be wished away. Sure, we should celebrate that Charleston is so attentive to memorializing the Holocaust, but we should also think carefully about why the city is comfortable mourning a cataclysm that occurred in Europe but not a sordid history closer to home.

Only by recognizing our troublesome past, and our place in it, can we think clearly about real change in the present. We in Charleston should all aspire to create the kind of society Rosen imagines for us. But if we shear our city from its past, we’re never going to get there.

Adam D. Mendelsohn
is the former director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston and the author of “The Rag Race,” winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies. This essay was distributed by JTA.