Carole Levine April 25, 2022
I find myself somewhat lost in thoughts of family and family life at this time of year. Perhaps it is the yearning for spring and warmth that seems to be so elusive here in the Midwest where at the moment, mid to late-April it is a balmy, sunny 36 to 50 degrees! Perhaps it is the confluence of spring holidays – Easter, Ramadan and for me, Passover, all of which have their family traditions and celebrations. Passover has limited synagogue or temple observances. It is a holiday that is focused on ceremony and traditions that are celebrated in the home. I have always loved that about Passover and as my family developed its own (fairly liberal, somewhat outside-the-box) traditions for this holiday, it became even more meaningful and special. As I see my friends of other faiths looking to their families and friends at this time of year, I wonder if there is some connection beyond our various faiths that is nudging us toward our families and, perhaps toward each other.
But then, sadly, I also see things that are pushing us apart.
Our divides, it seems, have never been greater. When the simple act of naming a federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida after the first Black State Supreme Court Justice in the state was derailed when a Congressman found a 23-year-old news article that in his opinion made Judge Hatchett undeserving of such an honor. What was this heinous offense? In 1999, in an appeals court decision he ruled against a public school policy that allowed student-approved prayers at graduation ceremonies in Florida, saying it violated constitutional protections of freedom of religion. His ruling was based on the Supreme Court’s in 1992decision, Lee v. Weisman, regarding student prayer in public schools. But that was enough for even Republicans who had previously, glowingly supported this naming effort. The bill failed on a vote of 238 to 187, falling short of the two-thirds needed to pass and with all of the 187 votes coming from Republicans. How sad that we cannot stand together to honor the memory of someone who achieved so much for his state, his community and his people and all people, because of what was drummed up, last minute, and demonstrated partisan hatred.
This is a time of year when we elect leaders who will represent us and our views and our needs when they take their positions in our local, state, and federal government. But more and more, we are seeing efforts to eliminate any possibility of electing leaders who actually reflect the views and perspectives of all of those they represent. State legislatures ride roughshod over minority parties (usually Democrats) in their states to ensure electoral maps that will gerrymander them into secure power and majorities at least until the next census. There have even been threats to impeach those justices who sit on state Supreme Courts who do not support and uphold these practices by state legislatures. Laws become meaningless when there is nothing to back them up. In many states, the entire state legal system seems to be beholding to the gerrymandered state government. This is not the system of government that I was taught in my high school civics class so many years ago.
Writing in her Letters from an American column on April 18, 2022, historian Heather Cox Richardson stated, “Democracy is a moral position. Defending the right of human beings to control their own lives is a moral position. Treating everyone equally before the law is a moral position. Insisting that everyone has a right to have a say in their government is a moral position. This moral position is hardly some newfangled radicalism. It is profoundly conservative. It is the fundamental principle on which our country has been based for almost 250 years.” Based on what I see happening today, I am wondering if we are losing our Democracy and in doing so, losing our moral core.
Rallying people to ignore the reality of their history so that they can continue to oppress others who do not look like them, or do not practice the same religion as they do or speak different languages than they do does not fit that moral, conservative definition of democracy. But it could, for me, fit a definition of autocracy. And that is a frightening thought.
There is a ray of hope from our young people. High school students in Iowa have been walking out of school in protest of restrictive laws that are impacting their classrooms and teachers. The students are upset and are acting on their anger. They are pointing to House File 2577 that requires teachers to post every single piece of classroom material online, and Senate File 2369, a bill that allows vouchers for private schools and includes a parents bill of rights. Neither of these bills has yet passed both chambers of the Iowa legislature. Students are also angry about House File 802, a law that prohibits so-called “divisive concepts” being taught in school. This law passed last year. It targets things such as systemic or institutionalized racism and sexism and how these things have shaped the way this nation was built and now functions. Iowa students say they can see a change already in how this law impacts their classrooms. While these walkouts may not change the hearts and minds of legislators, they might impact some parents. And these students are quick to remind legislators that many of them will be voting within a year!
So, in some ways, this brings me back to my first thoughts of family and friends at this time of year. I see so many who seem weary of the arguments and stress that our political divisiveness has foisted on this country. I am ready to listen to our younger generation who seem to be seeking a broader range of perspectives and the ability to ask questions. Our Passover Seder talks about four children and the kinds of questions they might ask and how to answer them. We have “adjusted” those questions and the kinds of children who ask to read as follows:
At Passover each year, we read the story of our ancestors’ pursuit of liberation from oppression. When confronting this history, how do we answer our children when they ask us how to pursue justice in our time?
What does the activist child ask?
“The Torah tells me, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,’ but how can I pursue justice?”
What does the skeptical child ask?
“How can I solve problems of such enormity?”
What does the indifferent child say?
“It’s not my responsibility.”
And the uninformed child who does not know how to ask …
As we are confronted, today, with the enormity of many questions and many who do not want answers or do not know how to ask, I would contend that it is our responsibility to respond. And that it is our responsibility to respond with as much openness and detail as possible. To do less, would not move us toward filling that growing gap that divides us.