Symbolic Gesture or Big Deal?

Posted on April 20th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of JMM Insights is written by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

I wanted to devote this month’s JMM Insights to one of the oldest documents in our collection – a short pamphlet with a very long title: “Sketch of the Proceedings in the Legislature of Maryland, December Session, 1818 on What is Commonly Called The Jew Bill.”

I bring this document to your attention not only because it will soon turn 200 years old, but also because it is so intertwined with the story of our current exhibit, Amending America: The Bill of Rights and the launch last week of the JMM-commissioned book on the history of our community, On Middle Ground: A History of Jewish Baltimore.

Let me begin by explaining what the pamphlet is and what it isn’t. The “Sketch” is a polemic, an argument in favor of the passage of the Jew Bill. The Jew Bill was intended to ameliorate the impact of the provision in the Maryland State Constitution of 1776 requiring a “Christian oath” for anyone holding public office (civil or military).

The Jew Bill failed to pass in 1818, but Thomas Kennedy of Hagerstown and his allies in the House of Delegates were not giving up.

The pamphlet consolidated the case for passage, including newspaper editorials from such diverse places as Natchez, Mississippi and Danville, Virginia condemning “Religious Intolerance” in Maryland, as well as letters of support from such notables as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In the great American political tradition, it also veers into the partisan, taking a shot at the Federalist Party for its nearly uniform opposition to the bill.

While this is a fascinating document, it is NOT the Jew Bill. The Museum does not currently own an original copy of the legislation that receives final passage in 1826 (though some members of our Board are still hunting for the possibility that the document exists and could be put on loan to us).

Dr. Eric Goldstein of Emory University, co-author of our new book, On Middle Ground, will be coming to JMM on May 9th to discuss his research on the Jew Bill in the course of writing the opening chapter of the book.

The program is called “Myth vs. Reality: The Maryland Jew Bill in Historic Context.

Without giving away everything that Eric will say (I do want you to come to the program or at least read the book), I would simply point out that Eric found ample evidence that the claims of disability and exclusion attributed to the “Christian oath” provision have been greatly exaggerated – that the rule was not rigorously enforced and that there were relatively easy work-arounds for those wishing to serve.

So was the passage of the Jew Bill just a symbolic gesture or was it a big deal? 

Working at the National Archives I ran into this sort of question often. After all, King George III had issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be “in rebellion” in August, 1775 and sent armies to North America to suppress the revolution… so how significant was the much belated Declaration of Independence eleven months later? As our current exhibit points out, our vaunted FIRST amendment was actually the third article of amendment when it came out of Congress, and was only promoted to first place when the first two amendments failed to be ratified.  Lincoln put so many restrictive clauses into the Emancipation Proclamation that it fell well short of “freeing the slaves.”. He even went so far as to declare it a “war measure” rather than a charter of freedom. Are all these documents over-rated? Or is there something else at work?

I recently listened again to a 2013 interview with Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lonnie responded to a reporter’s question by saying:

The Emancipation Proclamation is without a doubt the most misunderstood document in American history, that on the one hand the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery was ended when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But what the Emancipation Proclamation does that’s so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end.

I find myself echoing Lonnie’s sentiment with respect to the Jew Bill. Maryland was not an environment of horrendous religious oppression in 1818 (nor was it a paradise of tolerance after the bill’s passage in 1827). In many ways, the Jew Bill was a symbolic gesture, having limited practical impact beyond facilitating the political ambitions of Jewish Baltimoreans Jacob Cohen and Solomon Etting.  But sometimes, symbolic gestures are genuinely a big deal, moving, even if slightly, the long arc of the moral universe.

In conjunction with Amending America, we have developed a very small highlights brochure of the “Sketch.”  Pick it up at the Front Desk on your next visit to the Museum, while supplies last.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




It’s All About Making Connections…

Posted on April 16th, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Learning and Visitor Engagement Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

Sometimes, being the Director of Learning and Visitor Engagement can be very stressful-trying to meet deadlines, meeting school groups, developing education resources.  Many days are harried, many days are just plain FUN, and at the end of the day- our work is about making those meaningful connections.

Let’s go back to last Thursday. The school group from the NAF Academy has arrived at the JMM – their visit includes a tour of the historic synagogues, where the students will learn about the different immigrant groups that used the building and about Jewish rituals and traditions.  The students ask great questions and enjoy learning about Judaism and Baltimore history less than 1 mile from their school.

This group was the first group of students that went through Amending America: The Bill of Rights.  The students were given a gallery guide to help them self-guide through the exhibit.  The students were engaged as the meandered through the gallery.   I looked up and I saw one of the students call out to his buddy, “Hey, get a picture of this!”  I looked up and instantly- a smile came to my face- this student saw himself at the March on Washington D.C in August 1963.

He was connecting to the exhibit, he saw himself as one of the protesters marching for civil rights back in history!  Our hope is that students find personal connections to our exhibits.

Less than 15 minutes after the group left, I hopped in my car and headed to John Carroll High School in Bel Air, Maryland.

John Carroll is a Catholic High School in Harford County and the JMM has a strong relationship with the school.  We were invited to be a part of the #TogetherWeRemember program that honors the millions of victims that were killed during the Holocaust and other genocides that have occurred in our lifetime.  #TogetherWeRemember combines, technology, art, and activism to transform remembrance to of past atrocities into a powerful tool for building peace in the present.  I went up to John Carroll because I volunteered to be a reader of names of victims.

Never would I imagine that reading the list of names would be so incredibly powerful. I was given a list of about 100 names, all who were victims of the Holocaust.

As I began to read the names, I noticed a common thread, the first names were either Moises, Chaim or Chaya.  In fact, these three names were the only names that I read for the 10 minutes.  As I got further in the list, it struck me that I kept repeating my own Jewish name, Chaya.  In fact, I repeated the name 44 times throughout the 10 minutes.

I got off the podium, slightly drained and emotional.  I was thinking about the 44 women who perished during the Holocaust- their families- and if anybody ever says their name and remembers that they once lived during the 20th century.  So powerful.

This Thursday, April 19, 2018, you can be a part of this powerful program too as the JMM is hosting a #TogetherWeRemember program @ 7:00 p.m.

Sign up, bring a group of friends, make your own connections and be a part of this transformative program.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland