When Bad Things Are Good

My father-in-law, who generously does my taxes for me, always says that April 15 is Opposite Day: tax season is the only time of year when bad things are good and good things are bad. Lost money in the past twelve months? Great! You can probably count on getting some cash back from Uncle Sam in June. 

This week, my research presented me with this same perverse logic. The third chapter of my dissertation relates how the JCC movement, at the height of Civil Rights activism in the early 1960s, came to declare their support for an open membership policy that accepted Jews and non-Jews as full Center members. I've been reading through documents from this period all week, and I encountered several studies that the Jewish Welfare Board made during the 1950s to determine the extent of non-Jewish membership in Centers throughout the United States. Two of these studies revealed that several Jewish Centers had determined to maintain a Jews-only membership policy in order to exclude non-white members from using their facilities. These Centers, which were located in both northern and southern cities, carefully hid this racial discrimination behind the justification that Jewish Centers had to uphold their "Jewish purpose." How terrible to uncover such a shameful act! And yet--I confess--what an exciting discovery!

My reaction does not reflect pure callousness, nor am I attempting to shame my grandparents' generation for my own personal aggrandizement. This chapter of my dissertation describes the evolution of a debate, and a debate inherently has two sides--I'm celebrating having found the record of my second interlocutor in this dialogue. It's not particularly thrilling to bear witness to the uncomfortable reality of midcentury racial prejudice, nor is it surprising, but I do believe it's of the utmost importance to share and reflect on this historical reality. So as a researcher, in unearthing these records of racism, a bad thing became good.

Describing this dissonance to a friend, he remarked that it could be turned into a great headline for (satirical newspaper) The Onion: "Local Historian Ecstatic to Announce Discovery of  New Genocide."