by Patricia Steckler
In second grade in the 1950s, my teacher taught us that Columbus discovered America. We learned about the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, the three ships captained by Columbus that rode the rough seas from Spain to our land in 1492. The crew battled perilous conditions and scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency that wreaked havoc with their health. Then, these brave men came on land, founded our country and dubbed it the New World.
Too shy to speak up, especially to raise uncomfortable questions, I kept mum, wondering, What about the Indians? Weren’t they here first? Throughout my school years, this same tale of Columbus discovering America was the only one told in our history classes and texts. Over and over, we sang a song with the refrain, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and found a place called America.” Confused and upset but still awkward about speaking up, I stayed mute through high school.
Decades later, this version was replaced by a more accurate one that relied on research, DNA evidence and a mission for truth and reconciliation. Long overdue, Native Americans recaptured their rightful first place in the history of North America as the Indigenous people who’d populated the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years.
And then I learned about the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Indigenous people, beginning in the 1830s. Until then, Native Americans had cultivated and lived on millions of acres in the Southeast for generations. Federal laws confiscated their lands and gave them to European settlers for cotton growing. Our original people were forced to leave for “Indian Territory,” a dry, dusty region beyond the Mississippi. Their journey West was treacherous and cost thousands of lives due to disease, harsh weather, thirst and starvation.
I’ve been confused and horrified many times in my life by forced dislocations of people from their homelands, pushed out of their homes, often violently away from their communities, and sent off with no place to go. This is the history of Black Americans: first enslaved, often separated from their families, always mistreated, never compensated and finally sent off with nothing.
And the Holocaust. And, more recently, Ukraine.
Now, it’s Hamas and Israel at war. A vicious attack by the armed Palestinian group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada and the European Union, killed 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7, leveling their homes and slaughtering them in the streets by using terroristic tactics reminiscent of the Holocaust. Understandably, Israel is retaliating, but with a force that’s destroying north Gaza, driving out thousands of noncombatant Palestinian civilians who have nowhere to go. It’s 75 years after Israeli independence, when Palestinians were first removed from their homes and communities, literally marginalized to the outskirts of what became the state of Israel. Once again, I’m confused and upset.
Perhaps I’m still the second-grader who couldn’t grasp why our native people weren’t acknowledged as the original Americans. Or why they were removed from their rightfully owned lands. Our Earth is enormous, with underpopulated regions and vast waterways. Why can’t we make room for one another and live peaceably together?
I’m not a historian. I’m not a politician. I’m a Jew. My grandparents and great-grandparents fled Belarus, Austria and Germany when antisemitism targeted and displaced them, and the threat of annihilation was rampant. I’m also an American and deeply grateful that my family has found a mostly safe haven here in the United States. (I say “mostly” because antisemitism is on the rise.)
I’m also a 71-year-old woman who believes everyone should be honored, embraced and valued. And I’m deeply grateful that my life is filled with diversity. I’ve been married 44 years to a wonderful Zoroastrian man from India. I live in a community with people of all ages, income levels, languages, religious beliefs, sexual orientations and national origins. (In my Maryland county, one-third of the 1 million population are foreign-born.) That fact makes my heart happy.
Call me naive. Say I’m disloyal to my Jewish roots. Disagree with me. But please, please, please, pause for a moment to ponder the preciousness and majesty of human life. We can live together on this grand planet, can’t we?