A Jewish Historian’s Perspective: Places of Memory, Good and Bad: Paris, Rome, Jerusalem and Charlottesville
French historian Pierre Nora spent his life describing and explaining “places of memory,” sites commemorating significant moments in the history of a community that continue to resonate and to transform from generation to generation.
For the French Republic, the Bastille is one such “place of memory,” as is the Arc de Triomphe. Begun by Napoleon and completed in 1836, the Arc is a place of French pride and memory, where war dead from the Revolution to the present are recalled and military triumph exalted.
Part of the power of this central “place of memory” resides in the architecture itself. The Arc de Triomphe is a larger version of another triumphal arch, the Arch of Titus. This arch, located on the Sacred Way in the ancient center of Imperial Rome, commemorates the victory of the Roman general Titus in the Jewish War of 66-74 CE.
Built circa 82 CE, its deep reliefs show the general, soon emperor, processing through Rome in a triumphal parade. The spoils of the Jerusalem Temple are borne aloft by Roman soldiers. Napoleon and those who came after him literally lifted this Roman triumphal arch from its foundations and placed it in central Paris, transferring the glory of Rome and the glory of Roman triumph to the French nation.
Commemorating French military prowess, the Arc de Triomphe is quite a complex monument. French victory in World War II, for example, was hardly unequivocal. Hitler did, after all, celebrate his own victory here, and France did not exactly emerge victorious by its own power.
The Arch of Titus, too, is quite a complex place. Titus had not defeated a foreign power but put down a pesky rebellion by a small province. For Christians, the Arch became a place to celebrate Christian triumph over Judaism and the imperial power of the Catholic Church. For Jews, this arch was a symbol for their own defeat, even as some took solace by claiming that its magnificence was proof that Israel had once been a “powerful nation” and formidable foe. In modern times, it became a symbol both of Jewish rootedness in Europe and a place of pilgrimage where Jews, religious and not, could proclaim, “Titus you are gone, but we’re still here, Am Yisrael Chai.” Or as Freud put it, “The Jew survives it!” Where once Mussolini had celebrated the Arch as part of the heritage of Fascism, Jews after the war assembled here to demand a Jewish State. Others imagined exploding the Arch and thus taking final retribution against Titus for his destruction of Jerusalem. Instead, the State of Israel took the Arch back unto itself, its menorah becoming the state symbol.
I tell these stories of Paris, Rome and Jerusalem as parallels to the horrible events in Charlottesville. The sculptural remains of the Civil War, North and South, are still very living “places of memory.” Whether in the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Brooklyn, also modeled on the Arch of Titus, or in the thousands of statues across America, the Civil War is very much with us. Each place and time since then has thought about and reimagined “The War of Southern Secession” in complex and differing ways. The meanings of these “places of memory” are not stable. They shift and transform as essential elements of our social fabric and civil religion from generation to generation. Conflicting visions often inhere in the same sculpture, much as Jews and Classicists often “see” very different messages in the Arch of Titus.
Tearing down a “place of memory” is a serious matter. The act of iconoclasm, of tearing down or transforming a “place of memory” is never neutral. The list of such events is long and includes the Maccabees’ destruction of idols in the second century BCE, the midrashic account of Abraham breaking the idols, late antique Christians and Muslims smashing Roman religion (and burning synagogues), Orthodox Christian iconophobes destroying sacred icons during the eighth century, Protestants ravaging Church art during the Reformation, Kristallnacht, the Taliban destroying giant sculptures of the Buddha, or Eastern Europeans tearing down sculptures of Lenin and Stalin after the fall of Communism. (The list goes on.)
Such transformations of our visual cultures mark major transitions and often culture wars. They are attempts to change our memory by obliterating or shifting what we see and expect on our social landscapes, to change how we relate to our places of memory.
The ceremonial—the liminal—moment of removing a “place of memory” is always laden and significant. It is a “shorthand,” a summary statement and dramatic enactment of the ways that those present understand the place and encode its memory.
The march of the neo-Nazis, the texts they recited, the torches and flags they carried, and the violence they instigated are essential to understanding who these people are and what values they see in the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.
Reading this event, one can tease out their entire worldview—and it is horrifying. Similar tools help us to understand the counter demonstrators, civic leaders and others involved, including President Trump. This “place of memory” is now a place of bloodshed. This transformation deepens the memory and transforms a site where the soon-to-be-removed statue of Lee will no longer be present, but its shadow will be felt for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
Steven Fine is Churgin Professor of Jewish History and director, Center for Israel Studies, at Yeshiva University.