Pulling Down the Statues

Jews have never been statue people. Ever. We don’t respond well to the glorification of humans in sculpture form. And that’s because God has let it be known, from the very beginning of our long relationship, that God doesn’t like it. It’s not just the idolatry prohibition either. It’s about the glorification of the human form, a kind of deification cast in a mold or chiseled out of granite, then propped up for the worshipful masses. It has what they call in Yiddish a strong element of past nisht, something that’s just improper.

I might be wrong, but to my knowledge there are few, if any, statues of Jewish dignitaries in Israel – or anywhere else, for that matter. For instance, there’s a mountain in Jerusalem named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. But there’s no statue of him on the mountain that bears his name. At the site of Ben Gurion’s grave there is no statue. Instead there is a large stone slab with his name – and that of his wife’s name – on the edge of the wilderness where he lived out his long life.

From a Jewish perspective, no one – not even Moses – deserves to be worshipped or adored in stone. It’s not the physical form that is relevant. Rather, it’s the deeds and the ideas of humans that we revere. It’s not a statue we ask for. We want access to someone’s thoughts. Give us their books. Let us evaluate and then re-evaluate their essence, not a two-dimensional heroic image.

I know that there are other religious traditions that use icons and images in a way that we do not. I respect those traditions and the ways in which these representations are serious aspects of how they express their faith. I grew up in a small city that was very Catholic, with an emphatic Sicilian interpretation. There were thousands of Mary Magdalene statues. I get it.

It’s one thing when a family creates a religious shrine in their own space. It’s quite another when statues are erected in public spaces at public expense. Statues cast people in permanence. This is not a good idea, based on the fact that humans are fallible – that people who are praised may in time be revealed as not praiseworthy. Christopher Columbus, for example, turns out to have been the first transatlantic slave dealer. It’s not that he didn’t do some symbolic discovering. And he’s been a part of American mythology for centuries. However, it turns out, there’s a lot more that’s negative to say about him. His story is over. 

It’s time to create a new mythology, one that’s more inclusive, more sensitive to the origin stories of others. It’s time to pull down the statues of exclusivity and exclusion. It’s time to recognize that the regalia of the Confederacy, its stars and bars and its generals and its desperate defense of slavery and slaveowners is not some quaint Civil War story, but rather a tragedy of America.  That tragedy is surprisingly unknown by Americans. We don’t know our history. This seems like the time to start learning it.

It’s time to pull down the statues of those who actively sought to deny the rights of others. The story of America is ready for a rewrite. It’s time to widen the scope of our mythology. It’s time for indigenous peoples to be more than props in our story, time for the pain and testimony of Black folk to be more than a one month a year observance.

Don’t worry about our place in it all. Pulling down statues makes way for new ideas, more knowledge, more truth. That’s always good. The Jewish immigrant experience will not be erased. The Holocaust will not become an insignificant horror. We will continue to be a part of the American myth. We can all certainly be magnanimous enough to make room. And when we pull down the last offensive statue, we will get to the real work: pulling away our own prejudice to make way for a newer America, seeking greatness through diversity and compassion.

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