Confederate statues should be toppled, many say; and many have been toppled. The statues represent hate and glorify racism, the argument goes; and who wants to be reminded of all that? Who wants to be reminded of slavery and the values that sustained and defended it? Symbols of these reprehensible historical developments should be put away forever.
If just one small word in this argument is replaced, a damaging inconsistency is revealed. Instead of asking, “who wants to be reminded of all that,” ask, “who needs to be reminded of all that?”
The answer, based on the preservation of Nazi concentration camps in particular, and on the Hebrew biblical imperative to remember in general, is: everybody. That is why we have national “Days of Remembrance” of the Holocaust.
The late historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi pointed out in his slim but seminal work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982), the Hebrew word remember in its various forms appears 169 times in the Hebrew Bible.
Everybody needs to be reminded of evil.
It would belabor the obvious to say that Auschwitz represents hate and glorifies racism. Yet, we need to remember Auschwitz, and all the Nazi killing centers. There is no more universally powerful way of doing so than by seeing them — by retaining them and opening them to the public. Neo-Nazis and their ilk would topple Auschwitz, but millions of others have preferred to be reminded by visiting Auschwitz, the pain notwithstanding.
The hate symbolized by the Confederate statues is deemed by many as sending the wrong message and as painful. Painful these statues surely are, but as for the message, it is this: Generations were seduced by the idea that blacks are subhuman — just as the message of Nazi concentration camps was that Jews are subhuman. All of us need to remember that countless millions of people can be brainwashed into seeing a certain class of human being as subhuman. Symbols sustain that memory. It is inconsistent to except symbols of slavery.
Some argue that there is a radical distinction between a Nazi camp and a Confederate statue, namely, that the camps were erected and operated by the Nazis themselves, while the Confederate statues were erected after the Civil War, after the end of slavery, by white supremacists. Their retention serves no historical purpose.
This is a distinction of chronology, not of substance. Hate animated the supremacists the same as it animated slaveholders. These statues are not “after the fact.” They came after slavery’s end, yes; but they embody its hatred. The supremacists who erected Confederate statues promoted the same values as the slaveholders (and may in some cases have been former slaveholders). Remembrance of slavery and of statues serves the same purpose. We need to remember slavery, post-slavery racism and Nazism all for the same reason: Evil can seduce millions of people.
A statue depicting Jews peering into a pig’s rear end, reportedly dating from the 15th century, stands to this day in the Stephan Church in Calbe, Germany. If one were to argue that dehumanizing images such as this have in fact nurtured racism, rather than reminded its viewers of the evils of racism and fortified opposition to it, that may be true in non-pluralistic polities. However, in politically pluralist democracies such as our own, the benefits of remembrance radically outweigh the comforts of historical erasure.
Let citizens of Calbe, Germany, see what their church once stood for.
Let the citizens in the southern United States see who undermined their humanity.
Let the citizens of Europe see what their anti-Semitism birthed.
One programmatic word unites all of these monuments of hatred: education.
If you erase the physical evidence of virulent anti-Semitism from churches and comparable sites, what else will best generate education about the dangers of anti-Semitism? This physical depiction of Jews is shocking. This physical evidence trumps the power of the eye on the page or screen and of the ear listening to a lecturer to convey the horror of anti-Semitism.
If you raze the concentration camps and build apartment buildings over the sites, what ekse will best generate education about the Holocaust? No book, class or movie can possibly have the same impact as the actual killing sites.
If you take down the Confederate statues and smash them or melt them down, what else will best generate education about slavery? The glorification of the Confederate generals and leaders on these statues is shocking. When physical testimony to the inhumane system is removed, the passion to do the educational job will eventually fade.
Do not cancel history. Engage it. Contextualize it. Elucidate it. Otherwise, the cancel culture will soon enough cancel its cancelers, since the meaning of cancel culture is: Don’t think. Conform. It’s a chicken that will come home to roost.
Very few biblical imperatives hold as much enduring power in Jewish tradition, society and conviction as Deuteronomy 27:17: “Remember what Amalek did to you when you left Egypt.” The war of the L-rd against Amalek, the embodiment of evil, is “from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). The generation of the Nazis, the generations of slavery, the generation after slavery — it makes no difference. Remember!
Every artifact of the racists that is destroyed diminishes memory.
Now, erasure of the past is qualitatively different from its revivifcation in the present. A Confederate flag should no more be raised in today than a swastika should be displayed today. As we remember the past, we go forward in a new world.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com.
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