With monuments and statues being brutalized and destroyed over the past week, a story in this week’s IJN struck us especially: “Jewish sites in Syria, Iraq destroyed.”
Last week, the London-based Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative published its research showing that nearly half the Jewish sites in Syria and a quarter of the sites in Iraq have been destroyed.
This doesn’t come as a shock to anyone even vaguely familiar with the tragic fate of Middle Eastern Jews, yet somehow it is still a shock, the idea that centuries of rich Jewish history has been removed from history.
The statues tumbling down in the US and elsewhere are, to be sure, different from places of worship. In the US, the statues are primarily ones that honor the Confederacy. The history leading up to the Civil War and the succession of 11 southern states must continue to be taught. Indeed now more than ever we need to better take in the lesson of the past and understand where violent divisiveness leads: Civil War. Let us never forget that more Americans died in the Civil War than in other US conflicts combined.
But are these lessons taught through the veneration of Confederate generals and statesman? These people must be known, and perhaps even understood, but venerated? They represented a movement that was predicated on dividing the Union, not to mention their commitment to the evil of slavery.
It’s not that the statues are coming down that is problematic, but it’s how they’re coming down: In an anarchic frenzy. Chaos doesn’t strengthen democracy, it weakens it.
Were a federal commission appointed to discuss the removal of Confederate statues it could provide an immense learning opportunity. It would have to explain how these statues came to be, that most were built long after the Civil War to glorify the South, that they were used to create physical reminders of Southern white supremacy. The commission could even theoretically create a curiculum that would explore the society and economy of that era, exploring why Southern whites erected these statues and what their presence meant to the black community.
Of course the situation in the Middle East is completely different to that of the Confederacy. Here we have a minority ethnic religious group driven out, exiled, its institutions either purposely destroyed or simply left to rot over time.
Take the case of Iraq. In the mid-20th century, a series of violent progroms in Baghdad meant not only the murder of Jewish individuals and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, but it meant the exile of Iraqi Jews. With no community left, it’s no wonder its religious sites deteriorated to the point of non-existence.
It would be hard in the US to find someone who thought this was a morally valid thing to do, who would equate Middle Eastern Jewish communities with the Confederacy, but perhaps those Arabs who drove the Jews out viewed in much the same way we view the rebellious Southern states: as traitors.
That’s why any type of physical destruction of historical sites — even when it is deemed necessary and morally correct — must be preceded by thoughtful discussion and debate. Otherwise are we any better than the Arabs who destroyed Jewish synagogues? Or the Taliban who blew up the reclining Buddha?