Thanksgiving Redux

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I recently learned a lot about the origins of Columbus Day from

Including that the first documented observance of Columbus Day took place in New York City in 1792, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere but it wasn’t until 1934 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12 the first national observance, later to be moved to the second Monday of October. I also learned this: Columbus Day originated as an annual celebration of Italian–American heritage in San Francisco in 1869.

And I relearned that “Generations of Native people, however, throughout the Western Hemisphere have protested Columbus Day. In the forefront of their minds is the fact the colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors.”

The article continues: “In 1977 participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America.  And it urges Americans to rethink history.” As of this year, 18 states and the District of Columbia now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

If we move closer to home, specifically to the Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park we learn that Mayor Peduto recommended it be removed after the Art Commission voted 3-0 in favor of removing it. The move follows heated debates between Native American groups that say the statue represents genocide and slavery and Italian Americans who say it represents their contributions to the city. (Oct 12, 2020 KDKA)

Now there are protests. What both sides have in common, of course, is that neither holds the whole truth.

Think of how we rebel when groups say that Jews either were never connected to the land of Israel, or left and came back 2000 years later.  Neither is true. And hopefully we are as upset when Israeli history teaches that no one inhabited the land in the late 1800’s when the first modern waves of Jewish immigrants came to live. Neither narrative serves us well because neither narrative is the truth.

Is there a right answer? Yes. There is. Though Judaism and statues don’t mix, this is about far more than statues. It is about how we record and remember history.

Should the Columbus statue come down? Personally, I do not have much energy around that question but I do around this: Whether it comes down or not, what will tell the fuller story? Imagine Italian Americans and Native Americans sitting down to discuss it at a new kind of feast. That in itself would be worth celebrating…and just think of what food would be served!


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