When the statue of Edward Colston was toppled last Sunday, some chose to depict it as a triumphant denunciation of slavery. As well as being a philanthropist, Colston was a slave trader, a symbol of the monstrous institution that stained Britain and other European countries for several centuries.
Transatlantic trade, which Britain both participated in and helped to end, was a cruel and inhuman practice and its legacy continues to cause hurt and pain to many black people. So it may be tempting to see in this a resounding victory for civil rights, a step forward for black lives and a tactical strike against bigotry and prejudice. But things are rarely that simple.
In thinking about how Jews should respond, our own history may supply an answer. As one wonders through the old Jewish quarters in Europe, there are any number of symbols of racist hatred and persecution that confront us from the past.
If you visit Rome, you can walk under the Arch of Titus, a powerful symbol of that Roman Emperor’s defeat of the Jewish rebellion in Judea. The historian Josephus estimated that over a million people died during the Roman siege, making it (until the Holocaust) the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history. Travel to Spain and you will find statues of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, the twin architects of the Alhambra decree which expelled from Spain those Jews who refused to convert to Christianity.
The European medieval church was responsible for promulgating the blood libel of deicide against the Jewish community and inspiring waves of violent attacks over the centuries. Church officials also closed many professions to Jews, forcing them into marginal occupations such as usury.
Today, any number of churches from medieval times stand as symbols of historical persecution. In Wittenberg, the Stadtkirche features a relief showing a rabbi lifting a pig’s tail with other Jews sucking on its teats. These ‘Judensau’ images can be found in dozens of churches on the Continent. Any number of art galleries will contain images of Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation and one of history’s most noxious antisemites. In Vienna, you can pass by the statue of Karl Lueger, the Viennese demagogue who ranted about his country’s ‘Jewish problem.’
In Westminster Abbey in London, one can find an effigy of Henry III, the medieval monarch whose statute in 1253 banned the construction of synagogues. Elsewhere, statues commemorate Edward I, the monarch who in 1275 banned Jews from living outside certain cities and later expelled the community. One could go on and on listing these symbols of infamy and intolerance but the point is fairly clear. Many of Europe’s public spaces contain images and sculptures that symbolise the lamentable catalogue of crimes against Jewry.
Yet as a community, we have not made demands to remove statues, close down churches or alter the nature of public spaces. To airbrush these objects from a public space does not change the historical circumstances that produced them. It simply leaves a gaping void.
Instead, we need to use these symbols as learning opportunities, reminding those in the present about the prejudices that disfigured the past. One way to do this is to place a plaque on offensive monuments. An example can be found at Lincoln Cathedral, which used to be a pilgrimage site for ‘Little St Hugh’, a boy who centuries earlier was widely believed to have been ritualistically murdered by Jews. It explains the infamous blood libel which resulted in the killing of 18 Jews in 1255, thus giving context to this tragic moment in history.
Applied to the present, the demand to destroy statues, change street names and deface public monuments is somewhat misguided. It will do nothing to remove the pernicious racism that continues to affect many black people, both in the UK and elsewhere.
Moreover, it misses a vital learning opportunity, one which will contextualise the lives of those connected to slavery. Instead of vandalizing the monuments of slave traders, one could place them in a museum of slavery, a testament to the sordid deeds from which their enormous wealth derived. A plaque would be an alternative approach.
Yet these things usually happen after spirited public debate and through a process of democratic consent. Instead, we are witnessing a descent into lawlessness, mob rule and the outright vandalism of the historical record. It is the wrong way to approach a sensitive issue.