History Behind the Cross

Once again, Jews are embroiled in a controversy about a cross. A Los Angeles Times article (June 9), about a demonstration in favor of keeping the cross on the L.A. County seal, noted a Jewish presence there and quoted a Jewish demonstrator as saying, "The cross … reminds us, even as Jews (sic), that religion is free here."

It’s not my intention here to try to figure out what the gentleman meant to say with that "even," but to offer reasons for why the Jews of Los Angeles might not want to take that particular side in this particular fight.

It’s not so much about the seal itself, although the American Civil Liberties Union argument makes sense — putting a religious symbol on a government seal really does appear to favor one religion over all the others (and yes, so does the representation of the goddess Pomona). I wouldn’t miss that cross if it goes; although a sober discussion about the cost of removing it while the county’s health-care budget starves is certainly in order.

The question that nags me is: Why would a group of Jews identify this particular cross, a signifier of the California mission project, with, specifically, religious freedom? Dennis Prager, the Jewish conservative talk show host who led the demonstration, was quoted as saying, "Totalitarianism is not possible unless you erase the past."

Indeed. And what, other than erase their past, does anyone imagine the missions were supposed to do to the indigenous people living in what would become California? This is old, old news and, in some ecumenical contexts, maybe not a constructive thing to bring up. But we’ve been admonished not to forget the past. If we’re going to talk about it, let’s do a thorough job.

As a beginning: The California missions were linked, militarily and economically to the Spanish conquest of the "New World." That conquest was first set in motion when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile financed the voyage of Columbus in 1492, the same year in which they expelled all practicing Jews from their realm.

By the time the California missions were established in the 1700s, there were no identifiable Jews left in Spain. The Inquisition had already turned its attention toward Protestants, Francisco Goya and other suspected heretics, having killed or dispossessed all the crypto-Jews it could find.

Most "neophytes" (Native American converts) were not forced into the missions. However, if they ever accepted baptism, whether they’d been told the implications or not, they were not allowed to leave. They were fed, they were housed, they were clothed and they were taught to work in trades that eventually made the missions — for their stewards — highly profitable enterprises. As the European troops and colonists disrupted their traditional lives and economies, these gifts became, for many people, pretty compelling.

The neophytes were kept under lock and key, forcibly separated from their families and culture and, when insufficiently grateful, beaten bloody — the whip being, according to an early 20th century version of the Catholic Encyclopedia (one now being popularized, without editorial comment, by the New Advent movement), "the only correction, besides fasting, which affected the lower-class natives of the Pacific Coast." We are also assured that the friars were considered by Spanish law to stand in loco parentis to their adult Indian "charges." Religious freedom? Not so much.

The friars really believed that they were saving Native Americans from eternal torment — just as the Spanish monarchs did when they gave our people the choice of conversion, expulsion or death.

Odd, that Jews today would identify with the one side over the other.

After all, Native American peoples of California had, and continue to have, religions of their own — their own cosmologies, creation stories and understandings of holiness. They are not and were not "idolaters" as Jews have traditionally understood the term — not that their conquest would have been justified if they had been — nor is it useful or respectful to label their religions with the dismissive term "animism." Our own tradition forbids coerced conversion and teaches that the righteous of all peoples have a place in the world to come.

This is painful stuff to consider these days. It is — in any way one wants to use the word — awesome, the way that Jews and Christians of all denominations have come together in ecumenical dialogue following the release of the Mel Gibson offering that threatened to tear us apart. One would not want to disrupt that exchange.

Furthermore, the face of Catholicism, Franciscan or otherwise, especially in California, has changed. The Catholic church has become a key institution in Los Angeles, particularly in Latino communities where, very often, the voices of Catholic clergy are among those who speak most consistently for the under-represented and poor.

Nevertheless, when a group of Jews becomes vehemently protective of an Inquisition-era institution’s reputation, the rest of us ought to ask why. What’s at stake here?

The June 11 Forward reports that, "the Bush re-election team [is] launching a nationwide program to recruit religious congregations." Perhaps part of what’s at stake is the attempted realignment, touted so often in these pages as a done deal, of Jews with the Republican Party. Of which the extreme right wing of evangelical Christianity, a powerful ally of the extreme Israeli right, is a key constituency. Much of that constituency would like to revision the United States as a "Christian country." Religious freedom, even for Jews?

What’s at stake is a vision of the United States as a country in which all religions are respected and none are promoted by the government. This is not the vision that drove the first colonial projects in the Americas, Spanish or English, but it is the vision that shaped our Constitution. Much of our country’s treatment of Native Americans does little credit to that principle. But its persistence reflects the hope for true religious freedom that has drawn Jews to America since, some say, 1492.

Robin Podolsky is a writer who works in Los Angeles.