I’m going off topic today, choosing to address the controversy surrounding the removal of statues around our country. I understand fully those who favor the removal of confederate military figures from places of prominence. I imagine that anyone, in particular a Jew living in or visiting Germany, would be mortified if German law allowed Third Reich statues to stand in public squares rather than being banned as they are.
Much of today’s controversy extends to statues of confederates who fought for slavery. Perhaps placing those in museums where they can stand amidst descriptions providing appropriate context is an acceptable compromise. But what of our founding fathers who also owned slaves? A recent essay written by a Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson suggested replacing the Jefferson Memorial located at the Tidal Basin of the National Mall with one of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who fought as an armed scout for the Union Army.
While I sympathize with these feelings, at the same time, I find frightful the crowds defacing and tearing down statues without any public debate or officially sanctioned action. As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens said in his July 3rd post, “George Orwell was here before us. In connection to the recent vandalism of monuments and destruction of statues, a line from ‘1984’ has been making the rounds – ‘every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered.’”
To consider another context, contrast Israel, where these types of issues are not likely to arise. “Israelis tend to be uncomfortable with statues of their leaders,” said Maoz Azaryau, a researcher at the University of Haifa who studies monuments. “they see them as golden calves.” This reference, of course, to Exodus 32:4 when the Israelites created a false idol as they became nervous Moses wouldn’t return during his forty days and nights atop Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments.
Within Israel there are a few sculptures of political figures. There’s a bust of David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel at the international airport in Tel Aviv bearing his name. A bust of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sits near the site of his assassination in Tel Aviv. A memorial including the likeness of British Zionist Alfred Mond stands in the Israeli town he founded, Tel Mond, but it’s an abstract representation. And there’s one in North Tel Aviv of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, but it’s a replica.
Orthodox Rabbi David Stav states Israeli’s aversion to memorializing individuals is rooted in the Jewish prohibition against idolatry. “Jewish tradition does not encourage admiring individuals, but rather admiring ideals,” he said, noting that the Torah is conspicuously silent on the location of Moses’ grave.
Azaryahu agreed. He said Israel’s political culture makes it difficult for heroes to emerge, let alone last long enough to get their own statues. Even one-time heroes like Ben-Gurion or Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were “eventually demolished,” he said. “You don’t have a hero cult in Israel, like in Roman, later European and American tradition,” he stated. “For someone to become a statue, they need to be shrouded in myth, and you can’t have that here.”
Which begs the question for us in the United States.
Should we immortalize our heroes in bronze? Are statues of anyone appropriate? Note that there isn’t any controversy over our Statue of Liberty, which represents an ideal and not an actual person.
But certainly, our culture is different. We’ve made People magazine popular. Lionized sport and movie stars become national heroes.
I’m not immune, either, having snapped family photos in front of statues of Florida Gator Heisman Trophy quarterbacks Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Do I worship them as idols? I’m not that fanatic.
What if Lee County (named after the confederate general whose bust was recently removed from Monroe Street in downtown Fort Myers) was renamed Spurrier County with an appropriate statue located next to the big banyan tree at the County Courthouse? Would FSU and University of Miami grads be justified to tear it down?
I say this to bring a little light-heartedness to a weighty topic. Please don’t eviscerate me!
Nevertheless, in today’s climate I believe it’s appropriate to ask questions. Do we tear down statues because they offend? Should we instead examine the worthiness of a statue or monument based upon the ideal that it stands for? For any monument, how do we identify that ideal? Who so interprets? Couldn’t that interpretation differ within the mind of each viewer?
I believe my pay grade isn’t up to snuff to answer those questions. I merely raise them. I’m interested in your take. If you care to share, please email me: email@example.com
© 2020 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.