Since the holiday’s founding, we’ve re-cast our opinions of Christopher Columbus the man. We understand now that even by the standards of his own time, he was a cruel and racist man, a slave owner and killer. But then, the holiday of Columbus Day was never really about the man in the first place.
While Columbus was not the first European to visit the Americas, nor was his conduct here laudable, it is inarguable that his voyage had a profound impact on the people living on all shores of the Atlantic. And so, even though he lived centuries before its founding, his status as a pillar of the United States was second only to the Founding Fathers. The District of Columbia, Columbia College, the anthem “Hail Columbia,” the Knights of Columbus, the capitals of South Carolina and Ohio – all are early examples of the United States’ veneration of Columbus, making the man larger than life. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893, Senator Chauncey M. Depew of Kansas was not shy in his praise:
All hail, Columbus, discoverer, dreamer, hero, and apostle … The voice of gratitude and praise for all the blessings which have been showered upon mankind by his adventure is limited to no language, but is uttered in every tongue. Neither marble nor brass can fitly form his statue. Continents are his monument, and unnumbered millions, present and to come, who enjoy in their liberties and happiness the fruits of his faith, will reverently guard and preserve, from century to century, his name and fame.
However much Columbus was celebrated at that World Fair, the holiday Columbus Day did not become a United States federal holiday until forty years later, in 1934. It was at the behest of Italian-Americans that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress made the day official. Throughout the 19th century, Italian, Irish, Portuguese and other Catholic immigration to America swelled, to the ire of the “Nativists” already living in the US. The new arrivals looked different, talked different, and worshipped different. This immigration sparked a national debate which is depressingly timeless: who is allowed to be American?
And so, the Catholic community, and the Italian-Americans in particular, championed Christopher Columbus. In Columbus, they found a pre-existing American saint who shared their ethnicity and religion. As alien as it sounds now, creating the holiday of Columbus Day was originally about a very Jewish value: welcoming in the stranger.
That was nearly a century ago.
Since then, American culture has changed. In 1971, the state of Hawaii opted to instead begin celebrating “Discoverer’s Day,” honoring “all discoverers, including Pacific and Polynesian navigators.” Then, South Dakota opted to wholesale replace Columbus Day with “Native American Day.” In the 1990s, Berkeley renamed the holiday to “Indigenous People’s Day.” And in the years since, hundreds of towns, cities, counties, and several states have joined the move away from Columbus Day.
Here in San Jose, we are beginning to acknowledge that our lives are built on land stolen from the Muwekma tribe – one of the South Bay’s Ohlone peoples. The colonization kicked off by Columbus resulted in displacement and genocide of the Ohlone and other Native American peoples, and the individuals who have endured continue to live at or below poverty levels.
As a campaign for inclusiveness, Columbus Day was successful. Italians and other Catholic European immigrants are now unquestionably American.
So what should we do with Columbus Day? As Jews, among the highest mitzvot are the pursuit of justice and righteousness. We must atone for our misdeeds. And this now means working to gain a broader understanding of our land and its inhabitants’ true history, one where Columbus’ “discovery” did not bring liberty and happiness to all participants.
The original spirit of Columbus day – inclusion – should remain, but the name and those honored must be made just. This October 11th, let us as Bay Area Jews recognize and celebrate the Native Americans whose land we inhabit.