Three monuments—the statue of Saint Louis in Missouri, the Judah P. Benjamin monument in North Carolina, and buildings named for Woodrow Wilson at Princeton—allow us to understand how Jews should think about their place within the American racial order and how antiracists should think about Jews within the struggle to disrupt the legacies of racism.
Although not included in the earlier article on anti-Semitic statues in The Forward, “The Apotheosis of St. Louis” is attracting attention. A petition started by local activists has called for its removal. Local Catholics and the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, alongside far-right agitators, have rallied to the monument’s defense.
Erected in 1906 to honor the namesake of the city, the statue features Louis IX, who was canonized in 1297, only 20 years after his death. There is no doubt about his anti-Jewishness. Stigmatizing Jews as blasphemous usurers, insisting “that a layman, as soon as he hears the Christian faith maligned, should defend it only by the sword, with a good thrust in the [Jew’s] belly, as far as the sword will go,” Louis presided over a mass burning of the Talmud. Thousands of Jews were murdered in his crusades even before crusaders left his lands.
Still, the statue of Saint Louis should become a teachable “monu-moment” rather than be removed. It was not erected to glorify anti-Jewish racism. Monuments, even those that happen to celebrate Judeophobes, do not necessarily extol Judeophobia. Nonetheless, Saint Louis’ anti-Judaism is central to what made him a revered Christian monarch.
The response to the call for the statue’s removal indicates that many Christians still do not realize that persecuting Jews was key to defining Christian values and to the development of modern racism. Christians must acknowledge this toxic source of white Christian nationalism that is at the heart of the global rise of authoritarian populism today.
The Judah P. Benjamin monument in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the other hand, demands reckoning on the part of Jews. Born Jewish in 1811, Benjamin became a wealthy slave owner in New Orleans; was elected Senator from Louisiana in 1852; held cabinet positions in the Confederacy; and served as a right-hand man to Jefferson Davis.
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The marker to him in Charlotte was installed in 1948 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Little more than a tombstone but located nearby the recently installed Black Lives Matter art installations, viewers today read, “this monument was erected in his honor by Temple Israel and Temple Beth El, the Jewish congregations of Charlotte.” Despite the inscription, both synagogues rescinded their support and both want the marker removed.
Like the thousands of Confederate statues that litter the South, the Benjamin marker should be removed. It is time to take down this wall celebrating the Lost Cause narrative, a petrified tale to the glory of white supremacy. These monuments were explicitly built to venerate a cast of characters committed to the racial caste system of the South, martyrs to a supposedly noble cause that Southerners wanted to preserve following the Civil War.
What can no longer be repressed, however, is that Jews, just like other white Southerners, must reckon with their place within slavery and Jim Crow, the foundations of white privilege. For Benjamin was hardly alone. As Bertram Korn concluded in his pioneering study, “[Jews] participated in the buying, owning, and selling of slaves, and exploitation of their labor, along with their neighbors.” Jews’ behavior “seems to have been indistinguishable from that of their non-Jewish friends.” Not one Jewish political figure or writer from the South “ever expressed any reservations about the justice of slavery or the rightness of the Southern position.” What enabled the success of Jews like Benjamin in a racial state was their passport of whiteness.
How this passport of whiteness functioned for Jews is made clear in the recent article by Jonathan Sarna about the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s public policy school and residential college.
As Princeton’s president, Wilson prevented the enrollment of Black students, believing they were an “ignorant and inferior race.” As U.S. President, he brought the Lost Cause narrative into the White House by screening The Birth of the Nation. Most significantly, he oversaw the re-segregation of the federal government.
Sarna reminds us, however, that Wilson was “a hero to Jews.” The first to hire Jewish and Catholic faculty at Princeton, he was a progressive on immigration, he endorsed the Balfour Declaration, and he supported Louis D. Brandeis as the first Jew on the Supreme Court.
Sarna’s point is that while Wilson was hardly perfect, he was once lionized for his virtues and we cannot simply start erasing from our public spaces the names of those figures whose views we now hold contemptible. I made the same point about Saint Louis.
But Sarna’s conclusion comes from a one-eyed way of looking at the past: Wilson was bad to Blacks and good to Jews. Too often repeated by scholars of Jewish studies, this way of comparing pasts fails to address how racism was institutionalized.
Indeed, as scholars including Sarna have shown, social mobility for Jews in America was directly related to the fact that anti-Jewish bias was often elided by the history of anti-Black, anti-Mexican, anti-Chinese, anti-Catholic (and today by anti-Muslim) discrimination. Wilson’s legacy should teach us to think of racism as entangled and relational, relative to other groups, not absolute.
We have to appreciate what Albert Memmi called the “relativity of privilege.” In The Colonizer and the Colonizer, he explained that privilege is relative to “the pyramid of petty tyrants,” whereby “each one, being socially oppressed by one more powerful than he, always finds a less powerful one on whom to lean, and becomes a tyrant in his turn.”
The passport of whiteness has defined the American Jewish experience. Unless we acknowledge this and actively work as antiracists, Jews will continue to be complicit in America’s racial system.
The controversies about these three monuments consequently contain three important lessons about racism and what we can do to dismantle it: (1) Christians must confront the legacy of Christian anti-Judaism in an era of surging white Christian nationalism; (2) Jews need to grapple with our history as benefactors of the passport of whiteness; and (3) we cannot understand anti-Semitism in the United States without simultaneously acknowledging how it is entangled with anti-Black and other racisms.
Jonathan Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in the Humanities at Rhodes College in Memphis, and currently completing a monograph, Critical Theories of Anti-Semitism: Confronting Modernity and Modern Judeophobia.