History has a way of repeating itself

The Hebrew Charitable Burial Grounds in Malden. Photo by Jennifer McClain

If it hadn’t been for Pokemon Go, I would have walked past the Burial Ground on Lebanon Street. Instead, I explored the Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground, which I soon found out is the second oldest Jewish cemetery established in Massachusetts and the only cemetery in Massachusetts with predominately children buried in it. (http://www.jcam.org/Pages/HCBG/).

My curiosity was sparked, and I began to research the history of the cemetery. And here I found some parallels to today’s events. I found that a recent controversy over a Muslim cemetery in Dudley, Mass., mirrored the same prejudices in Malden in the 19th Century. It was evident in the language found in both situations. In Dudley, David Boeri of NPR noted “the raw language of some of the small town’s residents brought accusations of religious bigotry”. http://www.wbur.org/news/2017/03/03/dudley-muslim-cemetery-permit

This same conclusion could be drawn in the language of an article found in the Malden Evening Mail about the Jewish cemetery in Malden. When you visit the Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground you find plaques explaining its history and the controversy over the article in the Mail. Malden had a very vibrant Jewish community in the 1890s. In May of 1892, the Malden Evening Mail published an article about the Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground about the manner and number of burials at the Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground. The article reported that “a child was buried in a shoe box” and that there was a “burial there in the evening.” Both things made sense in a traditional Jewish burial; coffins tend to be made out of a material which decomposes quickly which could be a shoe box for the deceased body to make contact with the dirt. Also Jewish law requires the dead be buried within 24 hours, which could explain why there was a burial in the evening. Yet both of these observations were used to question whether the burial was made in a “decent manner.”  Furthermore, in April of 1892, the Boston department of health had inspected and passed the Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground. The article however built on fears about the differences between the newly arrived Jewish  and Christians already residing in the area. According to Eli Barnavi “Anti-Semitism began rearing its ugly head in America in the 1890s” in the article Jewish Immigration from Eastern Europe: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-immigration-from-eastern-europe/

Executive Director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts Stan Kaplan discussed the cemetery’s history during its 2013 rededication. “Our community’s story must be told again and again, lest we forget that many first generation Jews who immigrated to Boston now sleep in the dust,” Kaplan said

I was reminded of Kaplan’s words in October of 2016, when some the citizens of the town of Dudley raised concerns over plans by an Islamic center to create a Muslim cemetery on vacant land in the town. During a zoning hearing on Feb. 4, 2016, over the plans, one person asked pointedly, “Why can’t you bury your dead in a Christian cemetery? If you’re willing to violate jihadi law, why not bury them there?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dD9pi09BB_0 The person also declared “the ride from Afghanistan is 4 hours” in response to the reason the Islamic center was requesting that land and not satisfied by the other cemetery that they have that is in Enfield, Conn.,  which is an almost a two-hour drive.

Dr. Amjad Bahnassi, emphasizing the importance of the Muslim cemetery in Dudley, said, “We want to bury our dead people here. … I deserve to bury here. I deserve to die in the town where I work hard. I don’t want my family to go far away.” The Dudley Zoning Board of Appeals gave the Muslim cemetery its final approval on March 2, 2017.

A monument at the Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground. Photo by Jennifer McClain.

The Islamic Center has now abandoned its push for a cemetery in Dudley and I see ominous signs of racial and religious discrimination. Earlier this year, President Trump issued an order for what he himself called a “Muslim ban.” Many people from predominately Muslim countries were detained at airports for hours and some refused entry.

Additionally, for the Jewish community there has been a sharp increase in harassment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into more than 100 threats against Jewish groups in this past year.

Yet both the Muslim and Jewish communities worked together in February of this year (“As Jewish Institutions Endure Attacks, Muslims Pledge Financial Aid,” New York Times; February 28, 2017). Muslims vowed to raise money for Jewish cemetery vandalized in St. Louis. Tarek El-Messidi, an activists involved in crowd funding \ financial aid for the Jewish Institutions under attack, told a New York Times reporter, “I hope our Muslim Community, just as we did last week with St. Louis, will continue to stand with our Jewish cousins to fight this type of hatred and bigotry.”

The “Muslim” ban is currently on hold due to rulings by three federal judges. Here in Malden we’ve had a great start combating the prejudice that could rear its ugly head. From the Muslim center open houses to the Chinese New Year festivals; this community has joined the fight against racism head on by reminding us the value in being good neighbors and citizens. I have great hope that what happened in Dudley and Jewish cemetery recently in St Louis will not happen here. I believe our Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground is safe as is our Muslim center and our synagogues. Malden won’t let me down.

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