Could the Americans have learned from the Jewish heritage?
(Author’s personal observation)
By Craig Snoyman
While South Africans were celebrating the heart-warming hoax of decuplets, the so-called “Tembisa 10”, the United States of America was midwifing its own birth. With little advance notice, and starting labour on Tuesday 15 June, pushing through the birthing canals of the House and the Senate at great speed, the new-born was announced to the world on 17 June 2021. President Biden, who confirmed the signs of life, signed it into law and held the birth-certificate up high for everybody to see. Although officially, its date of birth was declared as 19 June it was officially named “Juneteenth National Independence Day” and proudly touted to the nation. Joining a group of ten other siblings, it became America’s eleventh annual federal holiday. Named in honour of an event which happened on June 19, 1865 – or “Juneteenth” – it recalls an incident where General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas and announced that President Lincoln had freed the slaves almost three years earlier.
Usually, the creation of a national holiday is no easy task. Only four federal holidays had been added to the American calendar in the last one hundred years before this one. There had previously been several attempts to introduce a “Native American Day”, all of them unsuccessful. As a kind of substitute, a cultural “Native American Week” was introduced. Proposals for the introduction of new holidays is all about politics – the politics of identity, the politics of voting, the politics of affiliation, the politics of ethnicity, the politics of patriotism, even the politics of sport. Yet somewhere amongst all of this congested political melee, Juneteenth National Independence Day – the fastest tracked Federal holiday ever- became law. If you were outside the USA, you might have missed it. While it was happening, it didn’t gather too much attention in the States either.
Juneteenth was initially only a specifically Texan celebration. There were other Emancipation Day celebrations commemorating the freedom from slavery. African Americans in South Carolina and Georgia had also been holding their own Emancipation Day programs but chose the date of January 1. Both groups memorialised the struggles of their people and sought to inspire upliftment in honouring those emancipated slaves. Why did the Carolinians and Georgians celebrate on 1 January? Simple, they followed historical fact. It was on 1 January 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all persons held as slaves were immediately free. The Texans were only apparently officially informed of the Emancipation when Granger finally reached Texas on 19 June 1865. Ironically, notwithstanding the announcement, most of the slaves were only freed after the cotton harvest was completed, some months later. The event of the announcement was thereafter commemorated annually mostly by the former slave, who combined the words “June 19th” into “Juneteenth”. As the Civil War became more distant, Juneteenth and Emancipation Day celebrations became less prominent, almost fading into obscurity until there was a cultural revival of Juneteenth, starting in Texas, in the 1970’s.
Jews also have also created their own holidays or “chags”. When looking at the origins of these festivals, one can see the historic events which gave rise to the festivals. Each one of these Jewish holidays has a unified meaning for its followers. The aim of each holiday is to commemorate and remember the national, religious and world view identity of the Jews. The ideological connection between the Jewish holidays and with their national and cultural values is apparent. Jewish holidays, while established thousands of years ago, and grounded in the Torah, have not lost their relevance today. While the holidays may have been modified, they still continue to be celebrated with the same joy, unity, and cohesion as in ancient times.
It is not difficult to see how these Jewish holidays were created. It is, however, difficult to imagine that the crossing of the Red Sea could have been celebrated on the day when Jethro announced to Moses that he and his kinsmen has heard about the event and not on the date that the Children of Israel actually walked through the water on dry land. Similarly, that the “international day of independence” could fall on the day that Moses brought down the second set of tablets, rather than when Mount Sinai smoked and thundered and a Divine covenant was created, would seem absurd. Equally preposterous would have been for all the Children of Israel to be ordered to observe a second Pesach simply because some of them were impure for the first celebration and they could not participate.
But this is what has happened with Juneteenth!
It celebrates an announcement made to the slaves of Texas, telling them that they should have been freed about three years before they heard the announcement. However, the real problem is not the timing or to whom it was said, it’s that the nature of Juneteenth doesn’t support the ideals expected of a holiday. It doesn’t support unity or nationalism or patriotism. There is also an existing division amongst the ethnic groups celebrating the liberation of the slaves about the date as to when emancipation should be commemorated. It is a very sectarian holiday. On the face of it, it should be a cultural event celebrated by Texans and enjoyed by anyone who wants to participate, much like Native American Week. Both the name and its significance had lost their relevance until its re-introduction about one hundred years after it had faded into virtual insignificance. Even then, it was re-introduced as a cultural event and not a political event! Historically, American slaves were emancipated when Lincoln’s Proclamation was issued, not when the slaves heard about it, or even when they were physically liberated. Emancipation took place on 1 January 1863, in the midst of a civil war. It was Winston Churchill who said that a nation that forgets its history has no future. Can the rewriting of a nation’s past lead to different future?
Maybe this is all hair-splitting. After all, 48 states recognised Juneteenth as a state holiday before it became a federal holiday. But they recognised “Juneteenth”; they did not recognise “Juneteenth National Independence Day”. This federal holiday embodies neither Nation nor Independence. A re-announcement of emancipation that has already been throughout the rest of the country to a territorial group of people who believed that they are slaves when they are not really slaves, is not a national event. By legislating that Juneteenth is an Independence Day when it was not and when there is already a nationally celebrated Independence Day on 4 July is divisive and confusing. When an event commemorates an occasion affecting a small ethnic group is made a national occasion it is can only serve to encourage fragmentation and factionalism instead of nationalism and patriotism. This application of a mixed ideological agenda at this time in America’s history does not advance its national aims. In the politically dismembering climate that exists today one must ask whether this was not just a short-term advancement of the non-inclusive political agenda of “Black Lives Matter”.
Another Federal holiday, Christopher Columbus Day, may be the harbinger of the trouble that Juneteenth National Independence Day may bring. Christopher Columbus Day was recognised by 45 states before it became a federal holiday in 1968. Congress said that the nation was honouring the courage and determination which enabled generations of immigrants from many nations to find freedom and opportunity in America. South Dakota then objected to this view. It has called that holiday “Native American Day” since 1990. In 2014 , the Seattle City Council followed South Dakota’s lead and unanimously voted to rename Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day”.
Will the issues about Juneteenth National Independence Day be more pervasive and more damaging? There are already certain groups which have stated that they will not recognise it. Other militant groups will no doubt ensure the holiday receives its due recognition (or notoriety). Recognising the holiday as a National Independence Day brings with it the underlying inference of the currently trending “existing systemic racism” and all the baggage attached to it. Is it unrealistic to expect the “colonial Independence” of 4 July comes under further attack, bearing in mind the inroads into education of the 1619 project? Will one see the Juneteenth flag waving, contests pride of place with the Stars and Stripes? It also becomes quite feasible that other existing federal holidays will now be subjected to attack due to their historical, but colonial origins. There is already a struggle to claim the foundations of American democracy, this holiday is only going to add to that struggle. And by calling it a National Independence Day, it opens the door for claims of for reparations for slavery. With the stoke of a pen, has the nation unwittingly placed itself back into a civil-war, even if this is not yet visible?
Perhaps, in the same way that there is precedent as to how the Sanhedrin interpreted Zechariah’s word to eliminate certain fast days, the US government will not feel constricted to re-examine certain Federal holidays and their names. While one must always remember and celebrate the abolition of slavery (were we not once slaves as well?), one wonders if a holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day is the appropriate step in advancing an agenda of national patriotism and common identity.
So while some South Africans celebrated hoax-babies on Saturday 19 June 2021, and some Americans celebrated Saturday 19 June 2021 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, some of us also celebrated Saturday 19 June 2021 as ….. Shabbat.
About the writer:
Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.
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