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Why is the Jewish Forward Publishing Articles Lauding Christopher Columbus?

Marc Daalder
October 10, 2017

by Marc Daalder

EVERY YEAR AROUND THIS TIME we see stronger and more coherent denunciations of Christopher Columbus and the brutal European excesses that followed his arrival in this land. The celebration of Columbus Day is increasingly out of vogue and has in much of the nation been replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day – turning the precepts of colonialism on their head to exalt the native and erase the colonizer.

With the exception of a few outdated boors – like President Trump, whose statement marking today made no mention of Native Americans while glorifying Columbus as a “man of faith” who accomplished a “courageous feat” – Americans of all stripes are coming to see the injustice of celebrating Columbus Day.

So if this is so, why did the Forward repost an article yesterday on social media – originally written in 2014 – that advocates a disturbing notion: If Columbus Day is no longer an American holiday, it should be a Jewish one? Reading the argument that a genocidal colonizer should be celebrated by our community, one cannot help but recall the infamous 2014 “When Genocide is Permissible” article published by the Times of Israel.

Even aside from its offensive nature, the logic of the Columbus piece is thin. Because a small minority of historians have cobbled together a handful of signs and letters that could – if you squint and tilt your head just right – point to Columbus being Jewish, then his crimes are forgiven. Clearly, he was simply a proto-Zionist, setting sail to find new land for the Jews exiled from Spain on the same day he departed.

Of course, this isn’t true. Columbus’ voyage came on the heels of the Reconquista, when the Spanish finally achieved their centuries-long goal of forcing all Muslims out of the Iberian peninsula. Recognizing this, he wrote to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that travel to India would be the next step “after having turned out all the Jews from all your kingdoms and lordships.”

Antisemitism aside, Columbus engaged in truly depraved atrocities upon arriving in the New World. A contemporary, the Franciscan priest Bartolome de las Casas, wrote of the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean with horror. “With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it,” he related.

He continued, “They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’”

This was not the work of an errant few but a bona fide core of the Spanish colonial project. “Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy. [We] thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” In the sixteen years after Columbus reached Hispaniola – now Cuba – historians estimate that some seven million people died of disease, starvation, and Spanish violence.

THESE ACTIONS are what the piece published in the Forward advocates should constitute the basis of a new Jewish holiday. The butchering of tens of thousands of human beings, the further deaths of millions more, all apparently in pursuit of a new Jewish homeland.

It concludes, “So, even though Americans are over Columbus Day — he didn’t really discover America, and his expedition brought nothing but misfortune and suffering to the indigenous Americans — Jews shouldn’t be. After all, if you reframe Columbus to see him not as a brutal colonialist, but as a visionary looking for a safe home for the Jewish people, he’s not all that ideologically different from Herzl and Israel’s founding fathers, is he?”

The author thus argues that the Columbian attitude towards indigenous people underlies the historical Zionist movement. All the stranger then that three years after publishing, the Forward made the decision to post the article once more on social media in pursuit of clicks and, perhaps, controversy.

I was far from the only one disturbed by the reappearance of this piece. Some observers tied the republishing of this article to an alleged history of works that are antithetical to Jewish interest and values.

Commentators specifically noted that the conservative Jewish columnist Bethany Mandel advocated “befriending neo-Nazis” in the Forward’s pages in the aftermath of the Charlottesville terror attack. Others mentioned that the magazine has also hosted figures such as Ben Shapiro, whose publication The Daily Wire shared this despicable video today, and Joshua Seidel, a “proud alt-right Jew” who wrote in the Forward that “Even after Charlottesville, I still don’t know what to think of Richard Spencer” while defending Trump’s “many sides” equivocation.

This isn’t a question of free speech, but rather a question about what sort of platform the Jewish community’s largest media outlet wants to be. Should the Forward play host to nominally-Jewish members of neo-Nazi movements and articles endorsing genocide? Or, on the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Labor Bund, should it make a stand more in line with its Jewish Socialist past and refuse to promote the views of enablers of those who want us – and many others – dead or expelled?

Marc Daalder is a student at Amherst and a journalist who has written on Jewish issues for the Jewish Daily Forward, where he’s a Scribe contributor, New Voices magazine, and In These Times, among others.