In 1971, I was one of those who led a group of some fifty individuals representing the Jewish community of Canarsie, Brooklyn to Washington. Following the then strategy of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry we presented a petition of some 100,000 signatures to members of Congress. It demanded that Radio Free Europe be directed by Congress to broadcast in Yiddish. We each were assigned a number of Congressmen to visit. One of my assignments was Senator Strom Thurmond. I shall never forget that visit.
One of the most powerful members of the United States Senate, Thurmond had a corner office in the Senate office building. Unlike other visits in which the Congressman or Senator was too busy to see me and I was offered a brief audience with one of his advisors or asked to leave some literature, I was told Senator Thurmond would see me in about ten minutes. When the moment arrived I was ushered into his lavish office. Surrounded by aids the Senator sat relaxed at his massive desk. He looked at me and with a broad smile said, "Good mornin', Rabbi. What can I do for you all on this fine day?" I briefly explained the plight of Soviet Jewry and our specific desire that Radio Free Europe broadcast programming in Yiddish to the Jewish community suffering discrimination behind the "Iron Curtain." Listening attentively, his eyes never leaving mine, he waited patiently until I had finished my presentation. Then, with his hands behind his head, leaning back in his chair while staring at the ceiling he mused, "Rabbi, I can't understand why anybody would abide by Communism." And then he looked me square in the face.
Perhaps I was wrong, but I understood his remark as an accusation, not unknown in our society, that Jews were the creators of and supporters of Communism. My response, the best I could come up with at the time was, "Senator, I'm not a communist nor do I know any communists. My family has proudly fought as members of the armed forces of the United States defending our freedoms in every war since the Spanish American War. My family is proud of the fact that my own Grandfather's first cousin, Col. Moshe Yaakov Mendelsohn, served in the United States Cavalry and was a member of Theodore Roosevelt's "Rough Riders." Losing an arm in defense of our nation, he fought in the famed battle of San Juan Hill.
The Senator then thanked me for my visit stating that he would keep my suggestion in mind. Never will I forget his outward "southern hospitality," his obvious charm and at the same time the coldness and pompous self-righteousness with which he looked into my eyes.
I recall this incident in light of the scandal surrounding the remarks of Senator Trent Lott at the recent 100th year birthday party for Senator Thurmond. We all know what he said for Lott's remarks have been broadcast over and over and over again on TV. The question is what do we do about them?
Anyone who is aware of the, thank G‑d, ill-fated run for the Presidency that Thurmond mounted in 1948, knows all too well its purpose. He was the standard bearer for Segregation. No mere philosophical debate, Segregation was responsible for the dehumanization and subjugation of Blacks, untold numbers of murders and hangings orchestrated by bigots, police, yes, and even the courts in many southern States. It is no doubt the most shameful part of American history. Who will ever know the true number of folks whose lives were filled with suffering and pain, the true number of victims of this plague of hate? And it was Thurmond who was so committed to that way of life that he broke with his own political party to take upon himself the arduous task of running for the Presidency of the United States solely to protect the "Old South." That anyone could claim that what Senator Lott stated regarding the 1948 election was simply foolish, or evaluate his remarks as advantageous to one's political position, the main discourse of the political pundits today, is abhorrent.
The other night while watching a news program once again discussing Lott's "misspeak" I changed the channel only to catch the beginning of that wonderful movie "The Nurenberg Trials" staring Spencer Tracey and Burt Lancaster. The theme of the film is the trial of a number of jurists who served during the Nazi regime and handed down verdicts in accord with the Nazi policies of race. Lancaster plays a jurist renowned for his legal acumen and his commitment to democracy and individual freedoms; a major player in the creation of the Weimar Republic who served as head of the Ministry of Justice under Hitler. Tracey, the Chief Judge of the Court, is transfixed by the specter of this legal genius, this defender of freedom and equality, who nevertheless played an active role in Hitler's diabolical madness.
What was this world renowned jurist's defense? Hitler was a necessary evil. Germany needed Hitler to bring it back to its own dignity and glory after the degradation it had suffered after the first World War. He was sure that Hitler was a mere passing phase in German history. How could one compare the sacrifice of some Jews, Gypsies and Communists, none of them Germans, to the need to revitalize the spirit of the German people? Unlike Thurmond who was THE advocate of Segregation, a way of life which he believed was appropriate and virtuous committing his entire political career to serve as its champion, the German jurist saw the Nazis for what they were but tragically took the pragmatic view that Hitler was a necessary evil.
What was the sentence imposed by the Court? Life imprisonment. The film ends with a meeting between Tracey, the American Judge and Lancaster, the German jurist, in which Lancaster tells Tracey that his ruling was just.
A caller to a talk radio program last week asked a question that shook me to my very soul. He said "What if Thurmond had, in his run for the Presidency, advocated a platform, the main plank of which was purging the United States from the evils of Jewish control? Would anyone dare to compliment him on his reaching 100 by stating that had he been elected we would not face the many problems we face today?"
I know what would have happened and you know as well. The Jewish community would be up in arms marching on Washington using every influence at its disposal to remove Lott from the Senate. Those horrible films recounting the hell that was the Concentration camps would be shown everywhere. Do you remember when Eichmann was on trial? I do. The Jewish community in the United States was quick to point out that the old frail "Jewish looking" man sitting in the dock in a Court in Jerusalem was a monster; a monster who had to stand trial for his crimes. And, as we all know, his sentence was death.
All Americans should demand the resignation of Trent Lott and Jews should lead the cry. We of all people know and understand the specter of Segregation and hatred. One cannot simply "misspeak" regarding such an odious activity without receiving significant rejection in a free society! Senator Trent Lott should tender his resignation and we, the Jewish community, should be at the forefront demanding that he do no less.