Let’s Consider Tearing Them All Down

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Statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo | Jim, the Photographer, 2012, via Flickr Creative Commons

The Association for Public Art lists 17 statues of political and civic leaders owned by the City of Philadelphia and viewable to the public.

Two are of George Washington, four are of U.S. presidents who were not Washington — Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and William McKinley — and two are of city founder William Penn. One statue is of Declaration of Independence signer Rev. John Witherspoon and one is of Constitution signer Thomas Fitzsimmons. There’s also one U.S. chief justice — John Marshall — and one mayor: Frank L. Rizzo.

In the wake of the recent Charlottesville, Va., rally of white nationalists protesting the removal of a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — a demonstration that turned violent when a suspected Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one — a growing chorus in this city is agitating for the removal of Rizzo.

The connection?

The waving bronze figure’s place of honor in front of the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall, say a coalition of protesters led by POWER and other groups, is an insult to the African-Americans who suffered under the police brutality that marked Rizzo’s tenure as police commissioner and then mayor in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Just last weekend, thousands of demonstrators marched from Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s historic building down North Broad Street in a rally dubbed “Philly is Charlottesville.” While most of the chants and signs highlighted the mass incarceration of people of color and the ravages of poverty and educational disparities among the city’s minority communities, when the march got to the Municipal Services Building, the cries turned to “Down with Rizzo!”

While it might seem odd for there to be a Jewish opinion one way or the other on honoring Philadelphia’s first Italian-American mayor, those who want the statue to come down do have a case to make.

For starters, ours is a tradition that demands justice — not just of the “law and order” variety, but of the kind that mitigates punishment with compassion, deterrence with rehabilitation. That’s hard to square with a city leader who sicced dogs on African- Americans.

We are also a people intimate with the horrors of anti-Semitism and the righteousness of the civil rights movement. That’s hard to square with a city leader who once campaigned as a defender of “the rights of whites.”

Still, those defending the statue have been making their case, as well. Rizzo was an immigrant hero, they point out, and maintained warm relations with the city’s Jewish community.

I wonder what the harm would be for the statue to come down from its official perch and to be placed elsewhere, either in a museum or the Italian Market, two ideas that have been floated in the press. But I have to point out that the “authentic” Jewish view is probably for not only Rizzo to come down, but every other statue in the city.

While the modern-day application of the principle is nuanced, Judaism’s prohibition on sculpted images of human beings — as well as of celestial bodies — is pretty strong.

Rooted in the second of the Ten Commandments prohibiting idolatry, its derivation through the Talmud and later rabbinic codifiers proscribes fashioning or even owning a three-dimensional likeness of man. The worry, say some authorities, is that one might think that the statue in your possession is an actual idol.

Most halachic authorities today allow figurines and other three-dimensional images, but it is worth noting that a few rabbinical leaders in Israel prohibit even visiting a wax museum in that country.

It is easy for most right-thinking people in the United States to view statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders — who actively rebelled against the country in the violent defense of slavery — as abhorrent honors given to an evil cause. And even among those who do not, it is relatively easy to appreciate the distinction between monuments to the dead erected soon after the Civil War’s conclusion as opposed to a statue supported by white supremacists as a statement amidst a series of race riots in the early 20th century, as was Charlottesville’s monument to Lee.

But without getting into the spiritual dimensions and religious ramifications of Judaism’s general prohibition of “craven images,” perhaps we should consider the wisdom of viewing all statues in a suspicious light.

Like all works of art, statues of famous figures capture and preserve an ideal. That’s fine for art, but dangerous in terms of historical dialogue. In Rizzo’s case, the smile and wave whitewashes the legacy of police brutality and racial conflict.

In Marshall’s case, the robed figure gesturing from his chair atop a pedestal outside the Museum of Art harkens back to an image of the former chief justice as the wise jurist who successfully cemented this country’s early governmental structures and processes in law. But in doing so, it necessarily ignores his legacy as, among other things, the author of Johnson v. M’Intosh and the father of the legal regime that made expropriation of Native American lands possible.

Without conversation and dialogue, these and other monuments to the past are forever destined to be either offensive emblems of subjugation, peddlers of inaccurate truth or forgotten hunks of metal. As Jews, we’re forbidden from worshipping idols. Maybe we should also forbid ourselves from worshipping the past.

Let’s instead construct a new monument to the future by reclaiming our sordid history as Americans and Philadelphians, and actively repairing the social, economic and political ills that continue to drive wedges between people.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]