Blunder or trend?As some Jews defend Va. gov., others see red flag
by Adam Kredo
Les Bergen says he’s politically and ideologically opposed to just about everything Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has ever done.
That is, except for one recent offering that’s garnered quite a bit of negative national attention: McDonnell’s proclamation commemorating April as Confederate History Month.
It’s just about "the only thing I’ve agreed with," said Bergen, an Arlington resident and self-described Southern history buff who labeled as "anti-Southern bigotry" the ongoing uproar over the proclamation.
Though Bergen readily admits that McDonnell "screwed up" when he failed to condemn slavery in the original proclamation ‹ an omission that lit a political firestorm ‹ "the criticism has been grossly overblown."
For other Jews in Northern Virginia, McDonnell’s proclamation, which has been amended to condemn slavery and states that it is "important for all Virginians to … understand the sacrifices of Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens," unmasked a frightening and highly conservative side of the governor.
Paul Friedman, an Alexandria Democrat, called the proclamation "ridiculous on its face," pointing out that the previous two governors ‹ Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats ‹ saw fit to avoid the thorny political issue altogether by ignoring Confederate History Month.
McDonnell, while apologizing profusely for what he termed "a major omission," has defended the edict by explaining that the Civil War is a principal part of Virginia’s history, one that attracts droves of tourists to the state each year.
Friedman agreed that it’s appropriate to honor the commonwealth’s rich history, but derided McDonnell for handling the situation insensitively.
"Had he issued a Civil War proclamation, it would have been certainly less controversial" and avowed the "fullness of what had occurred, as opposed to focusing on the Confederacy to the exclusion of all else," he said.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s executive director, Ron Halber, also chided McDonnell’s initial bumble.
"It’s clear it was a big mistake," Halber said, noting that while some may view government proclamations as innocuous and "ritualistic" offerings, their significance is not to be underestimated.
"The reality is, they do have meaning," said Halber. "Omitting slavery was insensitive, wrong and deeply offended a lot of people."
Yet, in the week or so since, as both liberal and conservative talking heads continue to take McDonnell to task, Halber noted that the governor has "apologized and it’s time to move on."
Observers like Friedman, though, are hesitant to move past McDonnell’s blunder, saying that when placed in its proper political context, the proclamation reveals a disturbing ideological trend.
Coupled with the governor’s recent rollback of discrimination protections for gay and lesbian workers, and another recent proclamation instructing citizens to recognize "the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other" in honor of Christian Heritage Week, which ran March 7-13, McDonnell has revealed his true ideological colors, said Friedman. (Kaine also issued proclamations for Christian Heritage Week.)
Others, however, say the governor’s actions come as no surprise. Given McDonnell’s legislative past, they say, voters should have known what to expect.
"Anybody who only listened to him in the vacuum of the campaign should not have been misled," said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, which chided McDonnell in a blog posting on its Web site.
Added Harris: "When people from all over the ideological map" publicly scold you, "that is a sure sign you’ve made a real judgment error."
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, agreed that the governor made "an error," but said he quickly followed it up with a "strong" apology.
Asked if the proclamation could point to a widening ideological war that’s being waged by the McDonnell administration, Brooks was dubious. "Anybody can hand-select a couple of things … and connect the dots," he said.
However, Rabbi Amy Perlin of Reform Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station said via e-mail that she is "saddened by the lack of sensitivity by the new administration to all groups who deserve respect and support from the gay and lesbian students on our campuses to the African American Virginians."
She hopes "the backlash to the governor’s insensitivity reminds him that many Virginians do not appreciate the growing climate of exclusion that he seems to condone."
Amateur historians such as Bergen ‹ who otherwise emphasized numerous times that McDonnell flatly dropped the ball in neglecting all mention of slavery ‹ want to set the record straight when it comes to Virginia’s tangled Confederate history.
"This is a silly issue to pick on [McDonnell] for," said Bergen, explaining that "the way it’s being presented in the news has been blatantly anti-Southern and blatantly lopsided."
The knee-jerk tendency to link the Civil War solely to slavery is completely erroneous and reveals an innate bias toward the South, he said.
In particular, much of the outcry has glossed over Virginian soldiers’ motivations for fighting, said Bergen and others who point to larger issues of state’s rights and tariffs.
Lewis Regenstein, a Jewish historical writer from Atlanta ‹ who said that almost three dozen of his relatives fought in the Civil War ‹ believes that even if McDonnell had rolled out his proclamation in a more sensitive manner, he still would have caught political heat.
"They still would have attacked him because it’s politically incorrect" merely to mention the Confederacy, he said. "You’re not supposed to honor the bravery" of Confederate soldiers because it too politically thorny ‹ "that’s the party line."
That’s precisely what happened in McDonnell’s case, he said.
Soon after the proclamation was made public, a flurry of African American leaders expressed dismay. One in particular, Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, who publicly supported McDonnell’s election bid, pointedly condemned his omission.
President Barack Obama jumped into the fray when he told ABC News that Americans can’t "understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery."
Jews, said Regenstein, much like African American leaders, are especially sensitive to the Civil War and slavery, despite an estimated 3,000 of them having taken up arms for the Confederacy to protect their homes.
"People say, ‘How can Jews who were slaves fight to protect slavery when they were slaves?’ " Regenstein said, calling it a common misconception that Southern Jews supported slavery. The majority of Jews, according to memoirs, fought to protect their families from an invading enemy ‹ "that’s what my great-grandfather did!"
Most Jews, he added, "have been brought up to believe [the war] was black, white, good and evil," but history paints a disparate story.
After penning several articles in a local Atlanta paper about the Confederacy, Regenstein recalled being publicly called a "defender of slavery" and a "Neo-Nazi."
The accusations, he said with a laugh, led his mother to say, "Would you mind waiting until I die until you do any more articles" on the topic.
Advocacy groups, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (the group reported to be largely responsible for lobbying McDonnell to release a history month proclamation), are composed of mostly "decent people, and have reached out to honor the Confederate Jews," Regenstein added.
Well aware that more than 140 years after the Civil War, the conflict still arouses great emotion, Bergen went to great lengths to make it clear that he is not defending slavery, but rather fact. He noted that several of his relatives perished due to slavery in the 1940s at the hands of both Nazis and Soviet Russia.
Copyright 2010, Washington Jewish Week
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