photo by Jeff Sandquist
In an old favorite episode of ABC’s “Modern Family,” strict mom Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) is trapped in her bedroom when a southern California earthquake jams the door.
Her flighty older daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) tries to take advantage of the situation by ditching her SAT studies to sneak out to a party – but she needs teacher’s-pet little sister Alex (Ariel Winter) to keep mum. In return for her silence, Alex demands that Haley drive her to the Museum of Tolerance.
“Fine,” Haley replies. “How far is Tolerance?”
Your mileage will vary, but you can find the Museum of Tolerance on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, not far from Century City and Beverly Hills. Founded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the museum opened in 1993 with the mission to present the Holocaust in both its historic and modern context and to “confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world today.”
That feels like a tall order right now. We are in the midst of a heated election campaign in which tolerance often seems to be in short supply and very far away. Donald Trump’s supporters have included a small minority of open racists whom Trump was slow to disavow. Trump himself is often accused by opponents of racism and other forms of bigotry, particularly but not solely due to his prolonged and only recently abandoned questioning of President Obama’s citizenship. Some of those accusing Trump of intolerance have invaded his campaign rallies to prevent him from talking and his audience from hearing what he has to say, which hardly qualifies as a display of tolerance either. We have had angry debates over who should be entitled to use which public bathrooms and over the appropriateness of “stop and frisk” policies that are supported mainly by people who have never been stopped or frisked.
I was in Los Angeles on business this week. A few days ago, I took five friends and colleagues to the Museum of Tolerance for their first visit. (I had visited once before, around 15 years ago.) I was the only Jewish person in our group, which included a mother-daughter pair who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons. Not that it seemed to matter. We all paused to look at some of the portraits and biographies of Holocaust survivors who came to California and were later associated with the museum. We lingered together over the section recapping the women’s suffrage movement, and together we watched the films and reviewed the displays recounting the history of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.
We moved together through the main Holocaust exhibit, which re-creates German public and private life over the course of a quarter-century as Adolf Hitler and fellow Nazis exploited and fanned latent anti-Semitism into an unprecedented industrial-scale genocide across a conquered continent. The museum’s overarching message is one of individual responsibility: that each of us, as ordinary citizens, decide for ourselves whether to acquiesce to intolerance or to resist it, and that our individual choices matter.
I did not see any mention at the museum of the story of Mormon oppression in the United States. Perhaps I missed something, but if I did it could not have been very big. I don’t know if my Mormon companions noticed the omission; they said nothing about it. But their people, too, like mine, have a story of oppression and exodus. The first generation of Saints – which is what they called themselves – was hounded, often violently, from western New York (where Joseph Smith founded the faith in the early 19th century) all the way across the Mississippi River to Missouri. They were driven back across the river in the 1830s to settle in a western Illinois community they called Nauvoo, which is now a major Mormon pilgrimage site. There they were attacked again; Joseph Smith and his brother were assassinated in Illinois in 1844. The Saints then fled to an area near present-day Omaha and planned their eventual migration to the Great Basin, which at the time was part of Mexico. In 1847 the first company of pioneers headed west to what is now Utah to scout the route over which thousands would soon travel at great hardship and peril. By the time most Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, the territory was under the control of the United States, with whom the LDS church maintained uneasy relations for the next 50 years or so until Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896.
Not many non-Mormon Americans today know this story. More of us should.
I find it ironic that the Wiesenthal Center itself has been at odds with modern LDS church leadership. Tension flared a few years ago when some Mormons began performing posthumous baptisms-by-proxy of Jewish Holocaust victims. One church member reportedly attempted a posthumous conversion for the murdered parents of Simon Wiesenthal himself. LDS church leaders apologized and promised to cut off access to the church’s genealogy records to members who abused them; church policy permits posthumous conversions only for direct ancestors of the individual seeking the rite.
There is a difference between hate-motivated violence and cultural insensitivity due to ignorance or well-intentioned shortsightedness. The first needs to be confronted, as the Museum of Tolerance suggests. The second can be better addressed with respectful dialogue and education. Some of this year’s rancor stems from our being too quick to assume the worst in one another. Maybe if we stop, we would find that Tolerance isn’t quite as far as it may seem.