We live in a time of heightened sensitivity to injustices of the past. Various heroes and icons of history are being assailed for their exploits, viewpoints, or support of causes that are considered revolting to modern-day sensibilities.
Consequently, all sorts of attempts are being made to remove their names, memorials, plaques, busts, and images from public and private venues or to open up discussion about their racist attitudes and misdeeds.
Yale University recently renamed its Calhoun College, which honored the 19th century statesman John C. Calhoun, because of his fervent support of slavery. Princeton wrestled with expunging the name of Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th president, from its School of International and Public Affairs because he was a segregationist, but its board of trustees decided to keep his name to be true to the university’s history despite Wilson’s flaws.
Statues of Christopher Columbus, who opened the western hemisphere for Europeans but who has been accused of engaging in the massacre of natives of the island of Hispaniola where he landed in 1492, are being vandalized in locales as diverse as Buffalo, Houston, Yonkers, and Queens. Statues honoring the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson have caused uproars in Virginia. New York City reportedly is giving consideration to removing plaques and monuments of a whole plethora of historical figures including George Washington (slave owner); Andrew Jackson (signed the Indian Removal Act, providing for the president to authorize the removal of Native Americans from their homelands in exchange for less desirable western prairie lands); Daniel Webster (congressional supporter of the Compromise of 1850 whose Fugitive Slave Act bill directed citizens to aid in the recapture of escaped slaves); and Bernard Baruch (endowed an association formed in 1894 to pay tribute to Confederate soldiers).
Such disapprobation may indeed be warranted – but where is the public remonstrance against celebrated anti-Semites of history?
Across the U.S. there are statues, busts, and plaques honoring automaker Henry Ford who, through his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, ran a series of articles, later published as a book titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, that blamed Jews for inciting the first World War. In 1938 Nazi Germany awarded him its Grand Cross of the German Eagle.
Charles Lindbergh was the first aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic but he spoke disparagingly about Jews, and in 1938 Germany bestowed on him its Order of the German Eagle With Star. Should statues honoring the American aviator, such as those in Saint Paul, Minnesota and Americus, Georgia be torn down? Should the state park named in his honor in Little Falls, Minnesota, where he grew up, be renamed? Should the mural in his image at San Diego International Airport be obliterated?
Should the National Gallery of Art in Washington remove its bust of the poet Ezra Pound, who during World War II made anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in Italy?
Should we not read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach or any other books by the British novelist Roald Dahl, who had a history of expressing animosity toward Jews?
Should we boycott the works of Shakespeare, whose Shylock (a Jewish money-lender) character in his 1596 comedy “The Merchant of Venice” is widely seen as embodying the vilest anti-Jewish stereotypes?
And let us not forget Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Order No. 11 during the American Civil War expelling Jews from portions of three southern states. Should Grant’s Tomb at West 122nd Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan be moved?
There are statues of the celebrated French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Louvre in Paris, and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia. But with his writings showing him to be a confirmed Jew-hater, should world-class museums honor him by exhibiting majestic marble sculptures that represent him as a virtuous figure of history?
The list of history’s anti-Semites is a long one. Again, the question is: What are we to make of their monuments and memorials at a time when the immoral actions and publicly stated views of numerous other celebrated figures of the past have caused activists and others to expunge or desecrate memorials to them?
Certainly we should make this an opportunity to educate the public about anti-Semitism. The current climate of political correctness opens a window for the Jewish community to tactfully set straight the historical record, just as other groups are doing with regard to slavery, racial hatred, oppression of Native Americans, and other injustices.
Jewish groups do not need to actively vilify anti-Semites of the past such as Ford or Lindbergh but the organizations and their leaders can let it be known that these historical heroes had flaws that contradicted their popularly perceived humanism, and that those flaws were particularly painful to Jews. School textbooks, museum displays, and sundry forms of media could illuminate their bigotry for younger people and adults who are unaware of their true character.
The anti-Semitism of these notables could also be examined in historical context. For example, there is a school of thought that some French Enlightenment figures were in favor of full citizenship for Jews based on the belief that they would assimilate into the general population and lose their Jewish identity once they were no longer subject to restrictions – but when Jews maintained their religious identity they were regarded as inherently different and this sparked anti-Semitic sentiment.
True, Jewish groups and historians have in the past made attempts to correct the historical record in many such cases. But given the current clamor to unmask the racist beliefs and rhetoric of historical figures, now may be a better time than ever to educate the public about the shortcomings of some of history’s great men and women when it came to their attitudes and actions toward Jews.