A few weeks ago I wrote about some Jewish perspectives on the efforts to remove the statues of Confederate generals and others from public squares, arguing that we as Jews should try to see the situation from the perspective of people of color rather than expect them to adopt our position. I also tried to come up with some criteria for removing a monument by citing the example of the Arch of Titus in Rome as potentially offensive, but ultimately something Jews might want to keep. This week, on the Forward website, someone has indeed argued that the arch should be removed as a monument to anti-Semitism.
Michael Weiner writes that the arch symbolizes the defeat and slaughter of Jews and was used by church and secular authorities over the centuries to humiliate and subjugate the Jewish community of Rome. As I wrote previously, he is absolutely right on the history, but I suggested that the original intent of the monument is important. The ancient Romans were not creating an anti-Semitic piece of art; they were celebrating a military victory.
But perhaps such a distinction is too subtle. After all, for people today, what a monument means now is more important than what it meant when it was originally created. I am currently reading In the Hands of the Great Spirit, a history of American Indians. The author, Jake Page, mentions the statue of Don Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador in New Mexico, which years ago was vandalized by cutting off his right foot. Those responsible felt it was a fair retribution for Oñate ordering amputations during the Acoma Massacre of 1599.
The statue of Oñate has now been temporarily removed, its ultimate fate unknown, but Indian communities continue to see it a symbol of the historic and ongoing mistreatment by European colonialist and the American government. On the other hand, most Jews are not much concerned with Roman anti-Jewish policies, and, unsurprisingly, the immediate comments on Weiner’s Forward article were almost universally opposed to removing the Arch of Titus.
My criteria have evolved on the subject of removing memorials. Perhaps we should start by removing the most egregious offenders: Confederate generals and Spanish conquistadors. Then let’s work on removing systemic racism from our midst, after which we can reassess some of the more difficult cases such as founding fathers who fought for liberty but also owned slaves. Public sentiment on these memorials might be a good gauge of the progress we have made in reshaping our society.
For years these statues have meant freedom and democracy for some, while others see them as monuments to hypocritical slave holders. Maybe if our society has truly lived up to the visions of freedom envisioned in the words of those like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson then their statues will come to symbolize that part of their legacy for all.