In chapter 12 of Deuteronomy, the Torah’s zero-tolerance policy regarding idolatry is revealed.
And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. Deuteronomy 12:3
For the Deuteronomist and his ilk, the concern was that a divided kingdom had forged a distorted culture, one that strayed from the old, unifying stories and practices. Deuteronomy reflects the thinking of King Josiah of Judah, who wanted to strengthen Jerusalem’s position as the capital, so that the temple would be unquestioned in its supremacy over other so-called sacred places.
During the period when the nation was divided, which began after the death of King Solomon, there were two capitals, Samaria in the north and Jerusalem in the south. They were geographically close together, like Washington and Richmond, but culturally worlds apart. The tribal nations of Judah and Israel each had their own heroes, cultural touchstones and religious practices.
Although the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE and its ten tribes dispersed forever, old customs died hard – in fact, they spread southward. So when Josiah took over Judah half a century later, his country was not fully unified. The remnants of Israelite worship remained, as was the temptation to decentralize worship, moving it away from the temple and Jerusalem. The reforms of Josiah, as made clear in these verses, changed everything.
It’s time for a similar reform here in America. It’s time for the idols of the Confederacy to come down.
I always found the nostalgia for the Confederacy amusing, if misplaced. But I was never a descendant of slaves having to look at a symbol of my great grandparents’ oppression while heading to work every day. The Confederate flag was somewhat troubling to me, but no more than the bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup I gleefully poured onto my pancakes in the morning. Little did I know that the good auntie is actually a racist icon, simultaneously nostalgic and sinister.
Maybe, I thought, it’s not so bad to allow defeated populaces to maintain a little of their heritage so that they might also hold on to a modicum of pride. Let those southerners rail about the damn Yankees and gain some vicarious revenge in the annual Blue-Gray Football Classic (which disbanded in 2002). And, OK, let them have a few statues too.
As a Jew, I know all about the need for any group to be allowed the pride of maintaining peculiar customs and celebrating heroes. I also know how offensive it is when your neighbor’s heroes are, for me, terrorists. Many Jews feel the pain that many African Americans feel regarding the Confederacy when we see Palestinians naming city streets for terrorists who have caused us so much pain. I’m sure others feel the same way about the glorification of former Irgun and Stern Gang members in Israel cities.
But time can heal lots of wounds. There was a time when David Ben Gurion so hated Menachem Begin that he refused to call him by name. But now the two exist on maps, side by side - we can take the Begin Expressway on our way to Ben Gurion Airport. And American tourists can walk down a Jerusalem street named for former arch enemy King George (IV, not III, but who still calls out to us as we exit the city, “You’ll be Back!”). Hey, there’s even a statue to Benedict Arnold in Saratoga – sort of. When it comes to municipal memorials, the general rule until now has seemed to be, “forgive and forget.”
One could easily fall into Donald Trump’s slippery-slope line of thinking. Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and did some repugnant things, but we don’t yearn to destroy their graven images, though they are, in fact, graven. Yes, political correctness run amok could poke holes in many of our myths, the statues’ defenders say. So what’s such a big deal about Jefferson Davis and General Lee?
And Christopher Columbus – he’s an entire culture war unto himself waiting to happen - and with protesters taking aim at his statues in Boston and Virginia this week, it’s happening.
The distinction between heroes and villains can be dulled by nostalgia, sweetened by sentiment and blurred by the passage of time. It all can get so confusing and complicated.
Which is exactly what feeds the narrative of the extremists. They rely on our equivocating, our hemming and hawing, to build up their idols, fortify their symbols and corrode our culture.
Despite all the pain they cause, perhaps the statues of Confederate leaders could have remained standing in some location, like those images of a discredited Napoleon in Paris, or those statues of former Soviet leaders now guarding toilets in Tallinn, Estonia, or in Israel, several busts of Emperor Hadrian who in the second century slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews, banned circumcision, and rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city.
But any chance for tolerating even a ridiculed presence of Confederate icons became impossible the moment that the Alt Right draped itself around the stars and bars as the “true defenders” of the Confederacy. When that happened, at that very instant, this thing was no longer about nostalgia, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Rhett Butler, Auntie Mame and the Little Rascals. It was no longer cute and sentimental. It was about potent, living imagery, symbols not of lovely old Dixie, but of whips, hate, murder and a racist ideology that still thrives in very dark places.
Whatever they were before David Duke embraced them (and there is evidence that they were symbols of White Supremacy from the start), these cultural symbols are now dangerous idols that threaten the unity and moral fiber of the American Dream.
There is no more banjo on my knee. It’s more like an infection.
Josiah had it right. Even though the Israelite north had been destroyed many years before, its subversive legacy needed to be crushed completely. And in America, where racist hate refuses to die and is currently, shamefully being nurtured at the highest levels, the same now goes for the symbols of the Confederacy. General Lee might have been an honorable gentleman in his day, but he and his flag are now a wholly owned subsidiary of the KKK.
Sorry, southerners. I really am. But your symbols have been stolen by the Nazis. They were always subversive, but now they’ve been stained irreparably.
The graven images need to come down, now.
Joshua Hammerman is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. His new book, “Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously,” was just published by Ben Yehuda Press.