It is human nature to see events through the lens of our own personal experience and history. That is how we make meaning of the things we witness: by relating our knowledge and feelings to what we see. Sometimes, this instinct is positive – it allows us to understand how others are thinking and feeling. But at other times, the impulse to personalize events alienates the experiences of others.
On Twitter this week former Knesset member Einat Wilf posted the following:
If Jews took down symbols of their discrimination, oppression, persecution, ethnic cleansing and genocide, not a stone or a flag would remain across the Western and Islamic worlds. Human history is mostly one of brutality and exploitation. To move forward we remember, not erase.
It strikes me that Wilf has fallen into the trap of interpreting the protests and pulling down of Confederate statues through the lens of Jewish history. Rather than trying to see why these symbols of slavery and white supremacy might be deeply hurtful to others, she asks why those people can’t see it the way that the Jews do.
The goal of intergroup relations should be a two way street: hopefully you can understand my experience just as I come to understand yours. Shira Telushkin, in the Forward, points out, for example, that Jews and African Americans had very different experiences coming to this country. While both groups have felt discrimination and been the victims of brutal attacks, Jews came to America as a beacon of hope, while Africans were brought unwillingly here in the chains of slavery.
The different origin stories of these two communities are really important. As Telushkin provocatively asks, how would American Jews relationship with the Holocaust change if we had to live with Germans, including Nazis and their descendants? Here in this country, everyone in the mainstream condemns Nazis and celebrates America’s defeat of Germany in WWII. What if we, like African Americans, had to live in the place of our greatest degradation that refused to fully reckon with its history?
Many pointed out to Wilf that Confederate statues were designed specifically to reinforce white supremacy, while the monuments in Europe she references might represent oppression for Jews, but they mostly were not created for that purpose. A good example might be the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the defeat of the Jews in Jerusalem. It was erected by Emperor Domitian to honor his brother Titus’s victory against the Jewish rebellion in Judea. While the arch was a symbol of oppression for the Jews of Rome, it wasn’t created as a monument to anti-Semitism. Rather, the Romans routinely built arches to celebrate their victories over many different enemies.
Today, most Jews would oppose dismantling the Arch of Titus because of its architectural and artistic value, particularly to Jewish history. It is one of the few contemporary depictions of the objects in the Temple in Jerusalem. But the same may not be said of the Crucifix and Calvary statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague. Over a typical depiction of Jesus on the cross are the Hebrew words kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Adonai Tzevaot – “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts”. This Hebrew was a specific anti-Semitic addition meant to humiliate the Jews of the city who would walk on the bridge every day. Those words should be removed and perhaps repurposed in a synagogue where they can be properly displayed.
Symbols are tricky because they often do not have just one connotation, and may mean different things to different people. A good rule of thumb in thinking about how we approach them should be: why was the symbol created in the first place and how do people feel about it today? If it was created to oppress others, and people still feel that oppression, it probably should be removed.
The Black Lives Matter movement has made many people uncomfortable, and that is a good thing. Discomfort prods us to be better and change. In our ongoing quest for greater understanding, we should try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, not think about how they don’t understand what it is like to be in ours.