November 19, 2019

Columbus Day Lives

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

My wife and I met for the first time 52 years ago at a Columbus Day party on an October evening. We will celebrate again this year, but not with a Columbus Day dinner. Thanks to the Los Angeles City Council’s action two years ago, our dinner will be on Indigenous Peoples Day.

The rationale for that alteration is that Christopher Columbus and the generations of people who came to the Americas after the Italian explorer set foot in the New World were responsible for many evils, from the conquest and displacement of the Native Americans, to slavery and colonialism, to the projection of American power and interests around the world. As one advocate put it, “We did not want to be the center of a national celebration of imperialism and colonialism and genocide.”

Columbus, in short, was the first cause of our many evils, and the indigenous peoples the first victims of what would be America’s success. It is because theirs is a dark side of the American story that, even though the indigenous population became American citizens some 100 years ago, it is not Indigenous Americans Day. And it is why this new holiday cannot be on some other date. Instead, it must replace — eradicate —  Columbus Day.

The goal to be a “city upon a hill” has never been abandoned.

Like every other nation and culture, ours is not without grievous faults. The indigenous peoples, after all, brutally enslaved, tortured and murdered one another. We honor them, therefore, with this new holiday, not to celebrate their virtue but to condemn our faults. The lesson being taught by this substitution is that those faults outweigh the good, that the American adventure that followed Columbus’ discovery has brought more evil than benefit, that our shame should outweigh our pride. 

This same thesis can be seen in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that recently was  considered — and rejected — by the California State Board of Education. That proposed curriculum described capitalism as a “form of power and oppression” equivalent to white supremacy and racism, ignored or rejected as bigoted or selfish America’s assimilationist ethos, and critiqued American foreign policy as responsible for the rise of Islamist radicalism. Many evils; little or no good.

The thesis that America’s history and endeavors are more blameworthy than praiseworthy should give pause to liberals and conservatives. Both are witness to America’s efforts, though sometimes flawed, to better the lives of its own people and people around the world through ideology and action, whether implementing constitutional democracy, protecting the free exercise of religion, permitting unpopular speech, encouraging diversity, welcoming millions of immigrants over the years (including the more than 47 million who presently call America home), fighting a terrible war to free its slaves, expanding economic opportunity, prevailing in the fights against Nazism and Communism, resisting terrorist ideologies and much more. Certainly not always perfect, but the goal to be a “city upon a hill” has never been abandoned. Those who take pride in America’s overwhelming accomplishments should be concerned that, with the replacement of Columbus Day by Indigenous Peoples Day, America’s failures are becoming the dominant narrative.

This is no small matter. A nation’s sense of self-worth is vital to its well-being and, ultimately, to its health. If we ignore our historic accomplishments while being overwhelmed by self-doubt and shame, we will lose the energy to pursue our national goals — liberty, equality, inclusiveness, justice under law — framed by our founders and nurtured over the years by American toil and blood. 

There is, for Jews, a further cause for concern. Israel’s enemies often describe Palestinians as a people who have been brutally expelled from their homes while being the victims of genocide. It takes little imagination on their part to equate Palestinians to indigenous Americans, arguing that the eradication of Columbus Day is a model for the dishonoring of Israel. Just as Americans must reemphasize their pride as Americans, the answer for Jews is to take pride in the accomplishments of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and to make clear — to ourselves and to others — that these accomplishments outweigh any faults. 

So I’ll continue to call the day I met my wife “Columbus Day,” as we do in much of America, honoring the achievements that flowed from Columbus’ discovery, believing firmly that they outweigh the harms, and thankful that we are able to enjoy their fruits.


Gregory R. Smith is a retired appellate attorney living in Los Angeles.