Thursday, February 1, 2001

How far back should modern day societies go in renouncing the evils in their past? Can our shameful histories become an asset rather than a source of division?

How far back should modern day societies go in renouncing the evils in their past? Can our shameful histories become an asset rather than a source of division? Communities in Britain and the United States are addressing these questions.

At the end of January the English city of Leicester took a step that a few regard as bowing to political correctness but most have welcomed as long overdue. The city condemned the anti-Semitism of its founding charter 800 years ago. Simon de Montfort's charter of circa 1231 stated "No Jew or Jewess in my time, or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world, shall inhabit or remain, or obtain a residence in Leicester."

Within ten years Leicester could be the first city in Britain with a non-white majority population. With Britain last week observing nationally for the first time a Holocaust Memorial Day, Leicester's civic leaders decided unanimously to renounce these anti-Semitic sentiments.

Introducing this civic initiative, Councillor Veejay Patel, a Hindu, said, "It is important to note that the views expressed in the charter were not out of tune with the national thinking of that time. Although recognizing they are not relevant today may appear unnecessary, we have an opportunity for the citizens of Leicester, through their elected representatives, to proudly reaffirm Leicester as a vibrant, integrated and harmonious city that celebrates its rich cultural diversity."

The leader of the 56-person City Council, Councillor Ross Willmot, who is from a Jewish heritage, says, "It's extremely personal for me. I would not be allowed to be leader of this council because I would not be allowed to be in this city." He added that renouncing the charter re-emphasized Leicester's high tolerance of all cultures, particularly in advance of National Holocaust Day. Receiving hate mail as a result of the Council's action, Willmott says, "It demonstrates why it was important to do this. There is still anti-Semitism here."

Rabbi Chain Kanteovitz, of the Leicester Hebrew Association, says, "It's a shame it took so long for the charter to be renounced but we are glad that it finally has been. We look forward to a future of tolerance to all people." Professor Aubrey Newman of Leicester University's Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust Studies, believes that it is important to inform people about past prejudice but he calls the city's action "political correctness run wild" as there has been a significant presence of Jews in Leicester since the early 1840s, with one Jewish Lord Mayor being elected four times.

A year earlier the Liverpool City Council, as the last act of the millennium, made a unanimous apology for the city's complicity in the slave trade on which it grew rich. The Council's action was initiated by Lord Mayor Joseph A. Devaney, who as a young man did voluntary service in West Africa. He had been moved by that experience and made the bringing about of racial understanding a central plank of his service as Lord Mayor. The Bishop of Liverpool, Rt. Rev. James Jones, who repeated the Lord Mayor's remorse on the radio in West Africa, says that the repentance that God requires is "a change in attitude followed by action." The emphasis in the city now, by those who encouraged the apology, is to provide a fairer playing field for the descendants of those slaves who live in the city.

The Bishop had been moved by a visit earlier this year to Richmond, Virginia, where he was shown round parts of the city where the slave trade there had been carried on and "where I found myself weeping under the oppression of the memory." Richmond is one of a number of American cities which, like British cities, is facing up to their pasts. This is being done not as an exercise in guilt or blame but, as Hope in the Cities, points out in Richmond, as a shared "walk through history." Hope in the Cities, a group who advised the White House on racial dialogue, suggests that each city "identify specific historical events that divide your community and plan a healing strategy." Its call for "honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility" is being adopted in a number of cities and communities across the country.

In Oregon, for instance, a group of men and women, now called Oregon Uniting, decided to use the 150th anniversary of legislation excluding blacks from Oregon as a platform to further racial understanding. At a 1999 Day of Acknowledgement in the State capitol building, addressed by the Governor and the State leaders and representatives of different ethnic groups, the past was acknowledged and those who had worked for change over the years were honoured. A commitment made that day to work for racial change has already, according to legislators, affected the racial climate, and the materials from the Day of Acknowledgment, will be part of the curriculum for schools.

Joe Montville, a former US State Department officer who has done as much as anyone to further this idea of acknowledgment, does not recommend specific events where it would be appropriate. But in workshops he tries to create an environment that permits people who have unhealed historic wounds to articulate them and for the perpetrators of the hurts or their descendants to make their own moral judgments on their responsibilities. "Most people, " he says, "do the right thing and acknowledge wrongs, express contrition and in one form or other ask forgiveness."