Frenzied removals from their proverbial pedestals
By David E. Kaplan
Well, there should be some comfort in that it is less harmful to fell an enemy made out of stone or metal than human flesh but where and when will it end?
What heroes of history that inspired at the time a statue, can structurally stand the test of time? If the pulling down of General George Washington’s statue, as occurred last Thursday in Portland, Oregon and that a statue of Sir Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square had to be boarded up, then few kings or queens, generals or their soldiers, philosophers, writers or poets, adventurers and explorers or even religious leaders are safe!
Maybe Israel is thankfully free from attack here! Apart from a bust of David Ben Gurion at Israel’s international airport and a comical statue of the first Prime Minister on a beach in Tel Aviv doing a handstand in a bathing costume, there are no official statues of its leaders or anyone else for that matter.
Of course, statues are not just material but are the embodiment of ideas and beneath the veneer in the current climate, lies the heinous legacy of slavery. However, to Israelis and Jews, coupled with the systemic racism embedded in American society is the concern of the spike in global antisemitism. It is hardly surprising why there is increasing immigration of Jews to Israel from those regions where it is most felt.
From a parochial perspective one can ask if there is a global calling for the pulling down of statues, why mostly focus on the 19th century; why not start say in the ancient land of the Pharaohs? There are the statues of Ramesses II, considered the principal villain of the Exodus story. Unlike the pharaoh “who knew Joseph”, the pharaoh of Moses was cruel and vindictive and when Moses asks him to release the Israelites, Pharaoh makes the slaves work even harder. (Exodus 5:7-8). So evil was this Pharaoh, it took no less – according to the Bible – God’s intervention to free the Jews from bondage, annually celebrated on Passover each year.
Should we expect today’s Egyptians to tear down statues associated with ancient slavery?
Of course not!
There are no shortages of statues in England to “the hammer of the Scots”, King Edward I who in 1290 ordered the expulsion of the entire Jewish community from England. The edict was only overturned during the Protectorate more than 350 years later, when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to England in 1657.
Do the lives of Jews matter enough that there should be a demand for the removal of the statues of King Edward I and some of his royal predecessors who had little problem persecuting the vulnerable Jewish community of their realm?
In Germany there is no shortage of statues to the influential and esteemed religious thinker Martin Luther – the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation but who would clearly qualify today as a racist.
In a paragraph from his “On the Jews and Their Lies” , Luther deplores Christendom’s failure to expel the Jews. Moreover, he proposed “What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews”:
“First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools … “
“Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
“Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them”
“Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb …”
“Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside …”
“Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them …”
“Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow …”
Considered a powerful influence this 14th century thinker on the 20th century Nazis, should not the statues of Luther who advocated the felling of Jewish life, so too be felled?
Of course not!
While for a time, the French crown was happy to have Jews in its lands paying taxes, however, that all changed in 1394 when Charles VI suddenly demanded they leave the country once again. Permitting a brief period to sell their possessions, the Jews of France were given the royal boot and there was hardly a Jewish presence in the land again until the 1700s, when Jews fleeing violence and discrimination further East arrived in Alsace and Lorraine. By the eve of the French Revolution, there were roughly 40,000 Jews in France.
Should the many statues of Charles VI inspire a storming today for the people of France that over two centuries ago lead to the ‘Storming of the Bastille’?
Of course not!
What of the statues of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon who sponsored the exploration of the Americas but also spearheaded in 1492 the expulsion of the Jews of Spain with the edict known in Spanish as Decreto de la Alhambra, Edicto de Granada? Only in December 1968, was this vile edict formally and symbolically revoked!
Should their statues not go the way of today’s discredited racists?
Of course not!
Systemic racism as with antisemitism should be addressed seriously not cosmetically. It is easy to ‘attack’ statues, but to assail deep-rooted hatred is far more complex.
But this is what is required!
The images in the media of the storming of statues reminded me of that famed dystopian novel by the American writer Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 that so intrigued me as a teenager. First published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 presents a future American society where books are outlawed, and “firemen” burn any that are found. Irrespective of its content, all history and knowledge recorded in books are to be destroyed. Could ‘suspect’ statues face a similar fate?
Personally, as a lover of history – I enjoy being exposed to the statues of historical characters as I do exploring castles and cathedrals, fortresses and forts as well as the battlefields of Waterloo, Crecy, Agincourt, Towton, Yorktown, Gettysburg and closer to home – Megiddo and the Old City of Jerusalem. There will always be reason to find fault with the relics of the cataclysmic encounters of the past, but should we expunge their presence?
It was illuminating however, to discover gestures of monumental understanding by Israel following its wars with Jordan and Egypt with whom it now enjoys peace agreements. Soon after the 1967 Six-Day War ended, East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents wanted to erect a monument to the Jordanian soldiers who had died in the battle for the city.
Faced with this request was Meron Benvenisti, the new Israeli administrator over Jerusalem’s eastern sector and later a Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem. He understood that there was formidable opposition to the idea among the Jewish residents of the recently unified city. As he later explained, “it was as if relatives of World War II German Luftwaffe pilots killed in bombing raids over England were demanding a memorial in Trafalgar Square.”
Navigating delicately through a labyrinth of emotion and sensitivities, Benvenisti approved the erection of a simple marble obelisk commemorating the Jordanian soldiers who died defending what had been the Jordanian-held sector of the city. Benvenisti hoped that it would help reduce intercommunal hatred and consolidate coexistence and while that may not yet have materialized, the monument still stands at the northeast corner of the Old City.
No less remarkable is that not far from the “Ad Halom” Bridge in Ashdod, stands a memorial to the Egyptian soldiers who died invading Israel in 1948. It was constructed as part of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, where Egypt agreed not to dismantle and to protect two existing memorials in the Sinai to fallen Israeli soldiers.
As was pointed out in a 2012 Times of Israel article:
“Imagine a memorial in Paris to the German soldiers who died invading France in May of 1940 or a statue honoring the 65 Japanese airmen who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
It would be unthinkable!
Nevertheless, an obelisk of red Egyptian granite with an inscription honoring the Egyptian war dead, in four languages – English, Hebrew, Arabic and Hieroglyphics – stands for all to see and honour.
Despite the hatred and threatening nature imbedded in the rhetoric of Israel’s once neighbouring enemies, Israel is proud to honour with these monuments, the dead of those Jordanian and Egyptian soldiers it once fought against.
There will be no dismantling in Israel of these monuments. Rather, they serve as structural reminders on our landscape to preferably pursue peace rather than war.
Maybe the only contribution I can safely add to this complex debate is to suggest that statues or monuments in the near future should be to our heroes in the medical profession who during the current Corona pandemic are risking their lives and of their families. These are men and women who soldier on not to HURT but to HEAL.
In this, we may find a global consensus.