Statues of Limitations
Why we don't need statues to remember our history.
Charles Golding explains why Jews don't do statues.
[First published in the Jerusalem Post, June 2020]
I married my wife nearly 30 years ago in Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, England. To be precise, we married in the Sculpture Gallery, the family seat of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. It was a strictly Orthodox Jewish wedding, jointly presided over by a rabbi from the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and a rabbi from Lubavitch, UK.
Since the ceremony itself was taking place in a gallery packed with 14-foot marble statues, featuring some of Britain’s best loved prime ministers, it didn’t occur to us then to look at each and every one. The week before the big day, the rabbis noticed that there were more than a few statues of Greek gods, like Zeus and his family, dotted around the place too.
The wedding could only proceed we were told, if they were covered up, because they were idols. A few white sheets and dozens of flowers later, and everything was fine.
I thought about those statues last week when Britain and America were in the thick of the current statues crisis. Sir Winston Churchill’s statue was defaced and almost immediately fenced in for protection. Other statues weren’t as lucky. Some found themselves beheaded, while others were dropped in the sea. The other side of the pond, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue wasn’t faring much better.
Since then, local councils have been busy responding locally to hit lists drawn up by those who find their presence (the statues, not the councils) an outrageous offence.
Reading through Facebook and Twitter, it’s interesting to see how the arguments vacillate. How much do we care for other people’s feelings? Do we care only for our own? Black Lives Matter, and of course so do the others, including Jewish lives. Even to write that last sentence has brought opprobrium and accusations of racism. “People who say this just don’t get it!” They do get it. They just don’t agree.
Responses on social media have ranged from calls for a total blanket removal of all statues which offend, to offended outrage from those who are offended by the offense of others.
It’s complex. I’ve seen hundreds of comments from people who suggest we simply replace the offending statues with ones which don’t offend. And who will decide this? Aye, there’s the rub.
To others, the solution has been to keep the offending statues, but rather like cigarettes packets, make sure they come with a health warning explaining the nature of the controversy. Who will write it? Who will decide whether there should be a commentary along with the statue? No one’s come up with anything yet.
Then there were writers who asked the question: “Where will it all end?”
From a Jewish perspective in the UK alone, tongue-in-cheek commentators drew up lists of dozens of statues that could be removed, because they were either antisemites, passed antisemitic legislation, expelled Jews, or arranged pogroms. The list is long and predates the current BLM timelines.
As a practicing Jew (I guess which means that I haven’t got it quite right yet), we don’t seem to go along with statues. Up to the creation of the State of Israel, most things that Jews built got destroyed by people who didn’t like us. If they destroyed our houses of prayer, our community buildings and our homes, there seemed little point in building statues to commemorate our people.
We didn’t want statues from Greeks and Romans in our holy temples in the times of our sages. And had we wanted our own heroes, we’d have probably argued about who ought to be a statue in the first place. In any event, before the State of Israel, Jews didn’t do statues.
So how is it we remember as a people, scattered over dozens of countries worldwide, our history – and the goodies and the baddies? Our community memory is an oral memory; we are not called the People of the Book for nothing. We write things down and discuss them. We made sure they were handed down from generation to generation.
I was discussing the statue crisis with my son Levi (a very bright 15-year-old) last week. He reminded me about the story of Passover. There couldn’t be a better story to illustrate why we don’t need statues.
Passover is about God taking the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and liberating them from slavery. Yes, slavery. Working for nothing. Being totally owned by a ruthless and bloody dictator, Ramses of Egypt. Men separated from women, night shifts and day shifts around the clock. Punishment, and always torture and death. But no Moses statue.
My son reminded me that when we read every year at our Seder table the story of our liberation from the land of bondage to freedom, to become an independent people and a nation, we were told by God to do two things.
First, to remind every generation that we were slaves in Egypt; how we were slaves in Egypt, what they did to us, and how we were freed by a mighty hand.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, we were told that every generation must tell this story as if we were the slaves of Egypt, that we went through the years of bitterness and struggle, and God freed us.
Every year since I can remember, we read this and we remember. We are commanded to remember other things too; that the Amalekites bravely attacked the Jewish women and children who walked at the back of the march out of Egypt – unarmed and easy targets. But we don’t remember any of them with statues. Nor do we build statues of Esther, or Mordechai, or Judah Maccabee.
I took my children a few years ago to see the mummified remains of Cleopatra at the British Museum. You know her and Anthony if you remember your Shakespeare. (Now Shakespeare? Are they going to get rid of him? Why did my non-Jewish teachers at school get irritated when we questioned them about The Merchant of Venice and its antisemitic lines, only to be told, “He was a man of his times, Jews shouldn’t be offended”?).
Yes, of course, there are some Jews who are statues in the UK. If you go to Parliament Square in the center of London, you will see Benjamin Disraeli, the first Earl of Beaconsfield. He was born of a Jewish mother and father, although the latter converted his family to Christianity. Despite writing some wonderful books and making speeches in Parliament in admiration of the Jews, he isn’t there because of his religion.
I think I can fairly say most Jews remember and respect both our Jewish heroes and our non-Jewish heroes and our enemies through the oldest media in the world: oral and written history. No need for statues then. What do you think?
The writer is a former deputy editor of the Sunday Express, features editor of The Sunday Mirror, editor-in-chief of the Boston Jewish Advocate, The Jewish News, and a published author. He is currently a media trainer and consultant.