Living With, and Learning From, Our Monuments

The statue of Columbus and Queen Isabella has stood at the center of California’s capitol in Sacramento for over 130 years. It is being removed in the present climate because of the controversial figure of Columbus. Isabella is an afterthought- but as a rabbi not for me.

Queen Isabella, with her husband King Ferdinand, signed the edict in 1492 expelling the Jewish community of Spain.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to leave within a very short time. They had to liquidate their property quickly, impoverishing so many of them. Many were murdered on the high seas or captured by pirates. Of all the expulsions of the Jews over the centuries this edict proved the most infamous.

The evil man behind the expulsion was the head of the Inquisition-Thomas de Torquemada. Ferdinand and Isabella had waited until the Moors had been totally pushed out of Spain, also in 1492, before agreeing to order the Jewish community also removed. The third seismic event in that remarkable year was of course financing Columbus voyage which would change human history.

Given Isabella’s tragic contribution to Jewish history would I want her statue removed from the Sacramento rotunda?

No I would not. The statue is a tangible reminder of California ‘s Spanish past, and of American history. It is an opportunity to discuss the important legacy of Columbus -and Isabella.

I am not naive. I realize that the statue is also put in a place of honor. All of these things: the provenance if the statue, what it has represented in Californian history, and why it may be problematic, should be the subject of discussion. For me, that is the point of such icons in the first place. Now that the statue has been slated for removal I hope that it will be displayed somewhere where visitors to the state capitol museum can learn about our civilization’s complex heritage.

As a rabbi I have over the decades been confronted with other monuments which I have found problematic. My father-in-law and I visited Vienna in 2002. Maria Theresa’s statue stands between the Vienna Art Museum and the Museum of Natural History. The empress was a notorious anti-Semite. I want people to know that. I hope that people, looking at the stone image, learn about her fully, which would include her persecution of the Jews.

Furthermore I would want people to be aware of the longer history of oppression in Austria, and how over time that prejudice towards Jews was overcome within the Empire.

Interestingly Maria Theresa’s own son and successor Joseph II would sign an edict of toleration in 1782, a crucial step towards full human rights for Jews in the Hapsburg Empire 85 years later. This was a long struggle. I wish for people to know this. The statue may spur people to learn about these and other things. For these reasons it would make me unhappy if the statue of the Hapsburg empress would be taken down, even though it stands in a place of respect.

Five years ago the Israel Museum displayed three bronze busts of the Roman ruler Hadrian, who governed when the Empire was at its greatest extent. This celebrated emperor was the second century tyrant who crushed the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Judea between 132-5 CE. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, many of them murdered in cold blood, or died of starvation, or disease. Many were sold into slavery. Jews were banned from Jerusalem for centuries.

Hadrian is one of the Jewish people’s greatest enemies. I want people to be cognizant of this history. For this reason I think it laudable that the Israel Museum would display these three artifacts, one of which was found in Israel, the others from France and the United Kingdom. Hadrian is known as one of the five Good Emperors, famous for Hadrians Wall constructed in England near Scotland. Exhibitions, as well as permanent monuments, enable us to learn more about these important historical figures. In particular the bronze bust found in northern Israel is a national treasure for the nation, even though the individual cast is a villain in Jewish history.

Monuments are always offensive to someone. The statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of New York’s Museum of Natural History which is now to be removed may be offensive to some people, the dated murals in the museum’s rotunda to others, the hundred twenty year old Northwest Coast Hall ( displaying native cultures ) to others still. Of course we would not design these exhibits the same way today as they were then. The fact that they are out of date is itself part of the learning process of how cultural fashions and values change. Every part of a great museum will offend someone. The answer cannot be to remove all that gives offense. Surely the answer must involve rather context, discussion and mutual sensitivity and respect.

Isabella, Maria Theresa and Hadrian are offensive to me as a rabbi and as a Jew.

But the fact that their images are displayed are not. I can live with these statues if they help us remember, discuss and learn from our past. That is the only way forward for us the human family dedicated to a tomorrow which will be better than yesterday.

Rabbi Richard Baroff is president of Guardians of the Torah.

About the Author
Rabbi Richard Baroff was born and raised in the Bridgeport, CT area, the eldest of four brothers. He graduated with a B.A. in History from George Washington University in 1981. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1987 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1987. Rabbi Baroff has served as rabbi of Tempe Beth David in Gwinnett County, Georgia from 1987-2001. He was Associate Rabbi of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta from 2001-2003, He became the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Zedek in East Lansing MI in 2007, serving that congregation for four years. In 2007 Rabbi Baroff returned to the Atlanta area to run a Public Charity, Guardians of the Torah. Rabbi Baroff married Raina Schmuckler in 1991, and they have a daughter Paula and a son Samuel.
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