New York, my beloved hometown.
A sleepless metropolis blessed with enchantment, mystery and contradiction.
Despite being abroad for a better part of the last decade, I can still remember the countless adventures I had in the Gotham of my youth.
Of all the glitz and glam of the city, the statues of long past personalities is what I remember most vividly. These stone and metallic reminders of our past always intrigued me Their vacant stares provoked countless questions: Who were these people? Why are they honored? What were their stories?
This curiosity developed into a full-fledged passion for history. I am ever thankful that my mother encouraged me in my endeavor to better understand the past. Through walks around the city, visits to museums and countless discussions and debates around the Shabbat table with my parents, I learned at a very early age that history is vastly more complicated and multilayered than we are led to believe.
History is complex, as are those that are forever immortalized within its pages. Humility and nuance must be used when examining these figures, otherwise one is left with oversimplified caricatures that don’t truly represent reality.
Understanding is also vital. We have the luxury of living in a very comfortable world, and our values and mindsets are vastly different from those in the past. It is imperative to understand this, as trying to superimpose our world views on historical personalities will never end in a harmonious union.
It is with a heavy heart that I have seen the desecration, defacement and destruction of several monuments around the world over the last few days. A statue of Winston Churchill, the man who led his nation through its darkest chapter, was defaced on the anniversary of the D-Day landings. The Lincoln Memorial was also desecrated by vandals, and a statue of Christopher Columbus was brought down and thrown into a river.
What madness is this?
This movement to destroy historical monuments is a byproduct of our current age. People now are used to quick answers and fast solutions, a mode of thinking brought about by the speed of the internet. Gone are the days of in-depth study and research. Instead, many people read headlines and parrot slogans and they believe this somehow equips them to pass judgement on history. This oversimplified outlook is disastrous, especially since this purging mob shows no signs of abating.
History is multilayered, and historical figures need to be judged fairly. They were mortals, just like us. They were not divine nor were they perfect. They were flawed and painfully human. This is why we should judge them in more nuanced light. Yes, Churchill had moments of monstrosity, but he also defended his nation and helped defeat the worst dictator the world has ever seen. Yes, Lincoln had his faults, but his leadership brought about the emancipation of American slaves. And Columbus, ‘discoverer’ is America, changed the course of history and helped pave the way for the creation of countless nation states in the ‘New World’. Was he angelic and pure? No, as that is an impossible standard for even the most noble soul to meet. But he did play a pivotal role in our history. And that is something worth honoring and remembering.
People today seem to see statues as idols, objects to be worshipped unquestionably. But that isn’t the case. They are reminders of the past. Sometimes the reminders are pleasant, sometimes they are horrific. But we need reminders to inform our present. Removing or destroying said reminders doesn’t remove the individuals from history, nor does it help facilitate reflection, interpretation and discussion. These monuments do, however.
There is a statue of Peter Stuyvesant in New York City. Streets, squares and schools are named after him. This Dutch politician was a powerful force back when New York was called New Amsterdam. He was also an angry man who hated Jews. When I see his statue, or hear his name uttered, I accept him as being part of the city I adore so much. I have no love for the man, nor do I hold any hateful grudges against him. He has been gone for centuries now. But when I walked down the streets of New York, I understand that this deeply flawed man helped create everything around me.
Those that clamor for these removals should take a moment to remember that the comfortable and privileged world we live in today was brought about by these imperfect individuals.
Those that advocate for the destruction of history are driven by passion and not reason. They have created purity tests to judge the actions of people who lived centuries ago. Such tests are impossible to pass. Even the great transformative personalities of the recent past such as of the Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatmas Gandhi and Malcolm X would fail to meet this high standard as they all had objectionable aspects to their lives. If we hold up such a benchmark, who could we possibly honor and remember? We would have to remove all the monuments and statues from every city. It would be like a heavily redacted document, full of countless gaps. An incomplete history for sure.
Those attacking the statues and monuments need to reign in their primal emotions and approach history with an open mind. The statues that are being attacked are of individuals that greatly influenced global events, and they each played their part in creating the world we live in today. Yes, they weren’t perfect. But nobody is. If people take offense at the statues they walk past, they should take that energy to learn about these people, pinpoint the mistakes they made and then strive to rectify them. That means building up, and not tearing down. Let the statues and monuments remain. Let them be constant reminders that we are a work in progress, that we have come a long way and that we still have a long way to go.