The Peter Stuyvesant statue in New York City stands in a Manhattan square named for him. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Should New York City remove statues of its anti-Semitic Dutch governor?


Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson … and Peter Stuyvesant?

One of these things is not like the others.

Amid the impassioned debate over whether, when and how to remove statues memorializing the Confederacy, an Israeli nonprofit is seeking a piece of the action. On Tuesday, Shurat HaDin, which represents terror victims in court, called on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to remove all memorials to Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director-general of New Amsterdam (now New York), who was an anti-Semite.

“Peter Stuyvesant was an extreme racist who targeted Jews and other minorities including Catholics and energetically tried to prohibit them from settling in then New Amsterdam,” read a statement by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, Shurat HaDin’s president. “New York, of all American cities, which boasts such important Jewish history and claims such a present day vibrant Jewish community, should take the lead in denouncing Stuyvesant’s bigotry.”

The group’s complaint affects a range of locations and institutions around the city — from the elite Stuyvesant High School to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood. The Dutchman also has a statue in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Square.

It’s true that Stuyvesant hated the Jews — to put it lightly. He didn’t want them to stay in his colony when they arrived in 1654 from the Netherlands via Brazil. When that didn’t work (because — awkward! — some of the colony’s owners were Jewish), Stuyvesant settled for prohibiting them from building a synagogue and serving in the militia. And he slapped them with a special tax.

He also called them “the deceitful race, such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” So, yeah, not a fan.

But does that put him on par with the leaders of the Confederacy? Not so much.

The statues of Lee, Davis and Jackson aren’t being taken down only because they were racist, though they certainly were. It’s because they led an armed rebellion against the United States so they could form a country built on the principle of enslaving an entire race.

If activists were calling for the removal of any monument to any racist (or anti-Semite), municipal workers would have their hands full taking down monuments to everyone from George Washington (he owned slaves) to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who interned Japanese Americans en masse) to Edith Wharton (who has been described as “vehemently anti-Semitic, even by the standards of her milieu and her era”). Despite the protestations of President Donald Trump, no one is demanding these actions.

And in the generations following the Civil War, Lee and crew became symbols not just of military honor but of institutionalized racism. Most of the Confederate memorials went up during the imposition of Jim Crow and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and there was another burst of defiant statues during the civil rights era. The statues celebrated segregation, and worse.

Stuyvesant is no such symbol. Though he institutionalized anti-Semitism for a brief period, his likeness isn’t viewed as a call to Jew-hatred. It’s likely most Jews in New York City don’t even know he was anti-Semitic (I didn’t before today).

Shurat HaDin is calling for all of Stuyvesant’s memorials to be renamed for Asser Levy, a prominent member of the first New York Jewish community who campaigned for equal rights. Levy already has two city parks and a school to his name — and he’s unlikely to get all of Stuyvesant’s real estate. Notably, Shearith Israel, the still-running congregation founded by the original New York Jews, has not joined Shurat HaDin’s campaign.

Plus, Bed-Levy just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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