When Someone Else’s Icon is the Symbol of Your People’s Persecution

Sinagoga (the synagogue) blinfolded on the facade of Notre Dame de Paris, Rober E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia
Sinagoga (the synagogue) blinfolded on the facade of Notre Dame de Paris, Rober E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia

My first time visiting Notre Dame de Paris was when I was 11 years old. I grew up going to a French school, and visited Paris regularly with my family.  The towering spires, the gargoyles, the nooks and crannies captured my imagination, as it has captured the imagination of the French and the world for centuries.  In my mind Notre Dame was the center point of Paris, the appropriate centerpiece to a city of majesty and a culture I grew up identifying with.  And yet as Notre Dame burned a few weeks ago I had very ambivalent feelings.  Why was that?  Because in subsequent years, my connection to my Jewish heritage deepened, I studied Jewish history and then became a Rabbi, which brought me to now realize that Notre Dame is not just a symbol but also a location that embodies the dreadful persecution brought on the Jews of France in the middle ages.  And the very building itself has imagery which reflected and promoted that persecution.

On the façade of Notre Dame de Paris is a representation of the church and the synagogue.  Replacement theology, or supersessionism in Christian ideology places the church as the new synagogue.  The Jews’ subjugation and suffering became a proof of G-d rejection of the ‘old’ covenant with the Jews in favor of the ‘new’ covenant through Jesus.  This theology is symbolized by the statue on the front of Notre Dame showing the image of a woman, Sinagoga, who represents the synagogue or the Jewish people, looking down and subjugated.  Her eyes are blindfolded with a sinister snake, and in one hand is her broken staff.  In here other hand are the tablets of the ten commandments Held down towards the floor.  On the other side of the portal is Ecclesia, representing the church and Christianity.  She, in contrast, is standing tall, looking straight and carrying a chalice and a cross.  This imagery of the ‘vanquished synagogue’ appears often in Medieval Art, however its appearance on the front of Notre Dame puts it in a place of particular prominence.

This imagery and the theology behind it was not just a theory which was propounded at the time.  As we see in our own times, images carry messages which lead to actions.   The ideology behind these images inspired and incited the ongoing devastating persecution of French Jewry that lasted over three hundred years.  The oppression of Jews in France began in 1009, it worsened during the First crusade in 1096 and eventually the 100,00 Jews of France were expelled from France in 1182 by Philip Augustus with all their property confiscated.  The Jews would be recalled and expelled again several times until the final expulsion in 1394.  Much of this persecution was driven by financial motives, however it was particularly the piety of the kings and the people, especially that of Louis IX (he was canonized two years after his death is 1272 as St Louis) which drove the tyranny.  This abuse involved  poverty, dislocation, suffering, torture and the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, spurred on by the symbols emblazoned onto the front of Notre Dame.

The location of Notre Dame is also infamous for the Jewish people because across the river sits the Place de Grevre where 20 cartloads of handwritten volumes of the Talmud were burned in 1242.  This was devastating for the Jewish people who revere Torah study above all else.  The event was enshrined in Jewish consciousness by the poetic dirge (kina in Hebrew), written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, and read annually on Jewish day of national mourning, Tisha B’Av.

The wedding of Jesus’ grandparents in a synagogue with hanging eternal light.

It should be noted that not all of the representations of Judaism on the façade of Notre Dame are negative.  There is also the statue depicting the marriage of the parents of Mary (Jesus’ mother), in a synagogue complete with an eternal light, and a pile of books.  However the image next to it shows their offering being rejected in the Temple in Jerusalem, also depicted as a synagogue, this time complete with Torah scroll.  It is unfortunate to see, the Jews attending the wedding are wearing the pointed hat, the head covering which they were forced to wear in order to single them out and humiliate them.  Notre Dame is an iconic structure for the French people, representing national pride, art, and religion.  Yet for me it also represents an anti-Semitism that caused the suffering of thousands of Jews for hundreds of years.  Even in more recent times, French anti-Semitism reappeared during the Holocaust with the deportation and extermination of French Jewry by French conspirators and the Vichy government, and has continued on to this day with Jews being attacked on the streets of Paris.  The French have addressed anti-Semitism in more modern times; in 1995 President Jacques Chiraq formally apologized for French collusion with the Nazis in killing Jews during the Holocaust.  Should the anti-Semitic images from the middle ages be addressed as well?.

Jesus’ grandparents bringing offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem represented as a synagogue in medieval France with Torah scrolls on left. The offerings are rejected by the priest

This type of moral conflict, where one people’s icon is the symbol of another’s persecution has recently come to the fore in the United States in three areas: around the Confederate flag, the statues of Confederate figures who fought to maintain slavery, and the universities who are named after such figures.  What is to be done with figures that many revere, but who upheld an institution of slavery that brought massive suffering and murder to so many African-American slaves?  The broader question which is germane to Notre Dame as well is what should be the attitude towards historical icons that have a history with mixed morals messages?

The past few years have seen much debate over these issues, and the approaches taken to them have differed.  The South Carolina legislature in 2015 voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol Building, while removing the statue of Robert E. Lee is being decided in court.  Harvard University removed the crest of the Royall family who endowed the first chair of Law at the University because the family were slave owners.   On the other hand, Washington and Lee University, which is named after Robert E. Lee, the confederate general, has decided not to change its name.   These discussions are still ongoing, and are even more complex because there is a recognition that some of these figures had positive contributions .  Woodrow Wilson was a racist and promoted the segregation of the Federal work force, yet at the same time he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his work setting up the League of Nations, in order to try to prevent another world war.  Princeton University so far has not changed the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

There are no simple answers to these questions, and each dilemma undoubtedly needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.  So what should be our reaction be to the façade of Notre Dame, and is the fire and subsequent upcoming renovation a time to bring attention to these immoral images?  The Church has made outstanding efforts to change their attitude towards Jews.  The Catholic Church Renounced anti-Semitism with the second Vatican council in 1964, and in the year 2000 Pope John Paul II apologized for the persecution brought upon Jews by the church.  Is it appropriate for us to call upon the modern French Republic to apologize for the persecution brought about by their kings and the French church in the middle ages as well?  Perhaps we can turn to the events in Prague as a possible appropriate response.

In Prague there is a statue on the Charles Bridge of the crucifixion of Jesus with the words Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts written in Hebrew gold letters set above his head.  The Czechs forced the Jewish community to add this verse as a result of persecution.  In more recent times there was a call to action to remove the letters completely (no they are not the original gold).  The counter-argument given by the Czechs was that this was part of the history of the statue, the bridge and the city.  A compromise was reached in the year 2000 and a plaque was put up in English, Czech and Hebrew which describes the anti-semitic incident around the statue, and called it “a result of violence and an attempt to humble a community that worshipped in a different way.”   This was accompanied by an apology from the city of Prague to the Jewish community, and an amending of tour guide literature to reflect the text of the plaque.

One can debate whether such prejudiced symbols should be left standing with an explanation, and serve as an opportunity to teach about hatred, or whether they should be removed.  Certainly the addition of a plaque on the façade of Notre Dame below the statues, explaining the history and renouncing the message would be in order, along with the extensive reconstruction and renovation which will be taking place.  Then perhaps the French pride in their icon can be without blemish, and Jews such as myself can let go of our mixed feelings about this icon of the French people.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Feldman is Community Educator for Am Yisrael Foundation, an organization that runs programming for young olim and expats from all over the world in Tel Aviv. After attending Cornell University he received his Rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from New York University. He has lectured widely as a guest speaker on Jewish topics.
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