Whenever I travel to visit a place of historical significance, be it as near as James Madison’s Orange County home, Montpelier, or as far as a museum in the Holy Land, I buy postcards. Some I’ll mail to family or friends, but I keep one special postcard for myself. It goes into a file called, “instant memories.”
While in London, I purchased such a card at the Jewish Museum after viewing an exhibit entitled, “Blood: Uniting and Dividing.” The postcard was a facsimile of a giant World War II billboard, a scene set in the South Pacific. Four U.S. soldiers are surrounded by dense foliage. One is severely injured, and three of his mates bend over his shirtless body as they administer a blood plasma transfusion. Across the top of the billboard, it reads “WHOSE BLOOD Will Save Him?” Along the bottom, in bold letters, are the words “PROTESTANT – CATHOLIC – JEW … It’s all AMERICAN Blood!”
It was a powerful statement for the time. Protestants, Catholics and Jews rarely ran in the same social circles, but when they swore their Oath of Service and went off to war, they became that “Band of Brothers” who fought and died together.
Even before the United States entered the war, she provided blood to shore up the United Kingdom’s dwindling supply for soldiers and civilians. Dr. Charles Drew, an African-American physician, invented a way to store and ship blood. He created the Blood for Britain program. Americans, 14,556 of them, lined up and opened their veins, enabling the U.S to send over 5,000 liters of plasma.
As essential as blood plasma was to the American war effort, only white people could donate. Ironically, Dr. Drew was prohibited from donating to the very program he created. Eventually, the Red Cross gave African-Americans the go-ahead to give, but their blood was banked separately from that of white donors. Even military blood banks banked “Negro blood” separate from “white blood,” despite scientific findings that ALL blood was indistinguishable by race.
The war was in full swing when a group of students in a segregated New York public school science class studied the findings for themselves. Angry at the lack of public awareness, they took it upon themselves to create and distribute a poster to protest this unscientific, racist practice.
The poster shows a severely wounded shite soldier in the distance. From the side of the drawing, we see two arms reaching toward him clutching identical vials of bright, red blood. One of the reaching arms is black and one, white. The slogan on the poster reads, “It’s all the same to him!” and at the bottom “And to Science too. In chemical, physical and microscopic tests it has been proven that White and Negro blood are IDENTICAL!”
WWII ended 76 years ago, and I wish I could say that we are no longer judged by race or ethnicity. Instead, I have to acknowledge that extreme racial religious and ethnic prejudices are once again straining at the bit.
Charlottesville’s Unite the Right Rally, held on Aug. 11-12, 2017, brought together protesters who were members of hate groups: the Ku Klux Klan, neo-fascists, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, self-identified members of the alt-right, and right-wing militias. Most chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans while carrying semi-automatic rifles and Nazi symbols.
If you saw the protesters’ march on television, you might have heard their shouts of “Blood and Soil,” a slogan adopted by alt-right neo-Nazis as a part of their racist propaganda. It is a translation of Nazi Germany’s most fervent chant, “Blut und Boden!”
So here we are, 2019, 74 years from the end of World War II. Since then, we’ve lived through periods of bigotry, prejudice, chauvinism and discriminatory policies. We’ve also worked hard, by way of legislation and changing social norms, to unite us—even for a brief moment in time.
But now, we seem to be slipping backward as unbridled xenophobia overtakes many in America. Vitriolic rhetoric is no longer contained, and in some cases, the perpetrators resort to violence. This kind of hatred requires constant fuel. And we are—wittingly or unwittingly—fanning flames that, once ignited, will be difficult to quell.
I would like to leave you with two thoughts. The first is a quote from Dr. Abraham Heschel, a rabbi who walked shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He stated that we have an obligation to America and her values. “In a free society, only some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
It is time for each of us to personally take responsibility.
The second thought is from the Book of Leviticus, 19:16: “Do not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”