The image of the seven-branched menorah that appears on the Arch of Titus at the Imperial Forums in Rome is now the symbol of the State of Israel. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

From Rome to Charlottesville, a statue is never just a statue

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 transform from generation to generation.

For the French Republic, the Arc de Triomphe is one such “place of memory.” 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 C.E.

Built circa 82 C.E., its deeply carved reliefs show the general, soon emperor, parading through Rome in a triumphal procession. The spoils of the Jerusalem Temple, including its menorah, are borne aloft by Roman soldiers. Napoleon and those who came after him borrowed the design of this Roman triumphal arch, transferring the glory of Rome to the French nation.

Subsequent events have complicated the meaning of the arch, which was intended to commemorate French military prowess. French victory in World War II, for example, was hardly unequivocal. Hitler did, after all, celebrate his own victory there, and France did not exactly emerge victorious by its own power. One of the more enduring photographs of the liberation shows American troops marching under the arch.

The Arch of Titus, too, is a complex monument whose meaning shifted over time. 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, the arch was a symbol for their own defeat and exile, 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, the Arch of Titus became a symbol both of newfound 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 there 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, basing the design for its state symbol on the menorah carved into its surface.

I tell these stories of Paris, Rome and Jerusalem as parallels to debate that has been intensified following the horrible events in Charlottesville. The sculptural tributes to the Civil War, North and South, are still 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 — “The War of the Rebellion,” to many Northerners, “The War of Northern Aggression” to some in the South —  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.

In a pre-civil rights era, a statue of a Confederate general was seen by many as a tribute to military bravery and regional loyalty. Today the tide has shifted, and a consensus regards them as reminders of a racist past and an ignoble cause.

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 religious images (and burning synagogues); Orthodox Christian iconophobes destroying sacred icons during the eighth century; Protestants ravaging Church art during the Reformation; Nazis torching synagogues during Kristallnacht; the Taliban destroying giant sculptures of the Buddha; or Eastern Europeans tearing down sculptures of Lenin and Stalin after the fall of communism.

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.

In the meantime, each community and locale will act and respond as we play out this distressing  drama and rehearse the repercussions of this tragedy in our lives.  Some Confederate statues will come down — as in Baltimore and at the University of Texas, Austin. Some will be contextualized or moved.  Others, alas, will be left undisturbed and continue looking down on us contemptuously. These once mostly forgotten monuments are again potent and complex places of memory.

Faced with similar provocations, Talmudic rabbis would avert their eyes from Roman imperial sculpture, placed in the cities of ancient Israel as tools of control. Some would spit in their imperial faces. When they could, others would tear down the statues of the hated emperors and their colonial regime. In modern times, Jews avoided walking beneath the Arch of the Evil Titus.

Charlottesville is now a place of bloodshed. Perhaps it will begin to heal once the statue of Lee comes down. Nevertheless, the statue will continue to cast a shadow for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.

(Steven Fine is the Churgin professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University. He is director of the Arch of Titus Project.)

Elie Wiesel memorial statue proposed by Congress members

Several U.S. congressmen introduced resolutions to honor the life and work of Elie Wiesel, including a proposal to create a memorial statue to be placed in the U.S. Capitol building.

Three members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council — Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.; Patrick Meehan, D-Pa., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla. — offered a resolution Friday in praise of Wiesel’s contributions to the American understanding of the Holocaust.

On the same day, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., proposed a bill for the statue to memorialize the activist and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner because his “moral leadership served as a beacon across our country and around the globe,” Cohen was quoted as saying in a release.

His bill as of Monday had 14 cosigners, both Democrats and Republicans.

“Elie Wiesel was one of the greatest examples of good the world has ever seen,” Steve Israel said of Wiesel, who died July 2. “He educated the world about the atrocities of the Holocaust, taught us the true meaning of ‘never again,’ and devoted his entire life to ridding the world of hate and intolerance. I am proud to introduce this resolution to honor Mr. Wiesel’s life and acknowledge the indelible mark he has made on the Jewish community and the entire world.”

“Elie Wiesel was a giant,” Meehan said. “His writings brought the truth about the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald to the rest of the world and for decades he was a tremendous messenger for peace.”

Wiesel had been awarded numerous honors from the United States, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal and the Medal of Liberty.

Hungarian town votes down contested statue of anti-Jewish politician

Following an outcry, a municipality in central Hungary cancelled its plan to erect a statue commemorating a statesman who drafted anti-Semitic laws during the Holocaust.

The city council of Szekesfehervar voted down on Friday the plan to erect with public funding a statue in memory of Balint Homan, the Clubradio station reported.

Homan served as minister of education and religion in the 1940s and was partly responsible for drafting legislation in 1938 and 1939 to restrict the rights of Jews in Hungary and for the deportation in 1944 of 420,000 Jews to Auschwitz.

The plan to erect a statue in his honor provoked protests by local and international Jewish groups, including the World Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League.

The private fund that initiated the statue’s erection this week sent a letter to the municipality and to the mayor, informing them that they are withdrawing the Homan statue project. The foundation also repaid authorities the $55,000 paid by them for the project.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also expressed his opposition to the the erection of a statue honoring Homan.

Winehouse statue features Star of David

A statue of Amy Winehouse in London has the iconic blues singer wearing a Star of David.

The unveiling Sunday in the Camden Town neighborhood, where Winehouse lived, marked what would have been Winehouse’s 31st birthday and was attended by her parents.

The statue, by Scott Eaton, casts the singer, who was Jewish, mostly in gray striking a typical pose – one hand on hip, the other clutching a miniskirt – topped by a bouffant hairdo stuck with the statue’s only burst of color, a red rose.

Around her neck is a Star of David set in a circle.

“It is incredibly emotional to see Amy immortalised like this, but Scott has done an amazing job in capturing her,” her father, Mitch Winehouse, was quoted as saying by New Musical Express. “It is like stopping her in a beautiful moment in time.”

Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at 27.

Winehouse statue features Star of David

A statue of Amy Winehouse in London has the iconic blues singer wearing a Star of David.

The unveiling Sunday in the Camden Town neighborhood, where Winehouse lived, marked what would have been Winehouse’s 31st birthday and was attended by her parents.

The statue, by Scott Eaton, casts the singer, who was Jewish, mostly in gray striking a typical pose – one hand on hip, the other clutching a miniskirt – topped by a bouffant hairdo stuck with the statue’s only burst of color, a red rose.

Around her neck is a Star of David set in a circle.

“It is incredibly emotional to see Amy immortalised like this, but Scott has done an amazing job in capturing her,” her father, Mitch Winehouse, was quoted as saying by New Musical Express. “It is like stopping her in a beautiful moment in time.”

Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at 27.


Hitler statue unveiled outside former Warsaw Ghetto

An Italian artist reportedly placed a statue of Adolf Hitler in a building outside what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto.

The statue, which depicts Hitler kneeling and is titled “Him,” is part of a new exhibition by Maurizio Cattelan titled “Amen,” according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In a statement Thursday, the center called the display a “tasteless misuse of art.”

Efraim Zuroff, the center's Israel director, referred to the statue as “a senseless provocation which insults the memory of the Nazis' victims.”

The statue reportedly was placed in the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw last month and recently opened to the public. The art center’s website describes the exhibition as an exploration of the notion of “love thy enemy,” adding, “What does forgive  those who trespass against us mean? Evoking the traumas of history, they deal with memory and forgetfulness, good and evil.”

In the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to the Nazi death camp Treblinka.

Penn State’s Jewish community weighs how to move forward

One unlikely venue for fallout from the Penn State University sex abuse scandal is the campus Hillel, for which now ousted university president Graham Spanier—the school’s first Jewish leader—was a fundraiser and vocal supporter.

On Monday, the Penn State community was stunned when the NCAA levied a $60 million fine against the university and a four-year postseason ban on its football program based on a university-funded report by former FBI director Louis Freeh released several weeks ago. The report looked into the crimes of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is now awaiting sentencing for multiple counts of child rape, and alleged a cover-up by Spanier, iconic football coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and retired vice president Gary Schultz.

Paterno died in January at 85, Curley is on administrative leave and Schultz has retired. Curley and Schultz are awaiting trial on perjury charges.

The school has about 40,000 students on its main campus in State College, Pa., some 10 percent of whom are estimated to be Jewish, according to data collected by Penn State Hillel.

Aaron Kaufman, executive director of the Hillel, declined to address specifics about Spanier’s impact on the organization.

“The events of the past year have reinforced the need for students to be part of a caring and supportive organization where they can engage in dialogue and address issues that are troubling them,” he said in a statement to JTA. “As we prepare for the start of a new school year, we remain steadfast in our commitment to helping our students—and the entire university community—heal and move forward in a positive way”

But Bill Jaffe, a former longtime member and past chair of Hillel’s board of directors, said the former president’s role was large. In addition to regularly attending High Holidays services, Spanier helped Hillel secure major speakers, such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and make a case for larger on-campus facilities for the Jewish student organization.

“Clearly his energy and enthusiasm will be missed as part of the Hillel community,” said Jaffe, a member of the university’s endowment campaign executive committee. “I don’t think one can deny the impact he’s had on Hillel and therefore, if he’s not here and not involved, I would think there may be some impact” on the group, he said.

Jaffe added that he could not measure to what degree Spanier’s absence would be felt.

Shortly after the release of the Freeh report, Rabbi Nosson Meretsky, director of the Chabad of Penn State, wrote in an email to students and alumni that the difficult period could ultimately lead to positive change.

“In Judaism we believe everything happens for divine providence,” Meretsky told JTA this week. The rabbi noted that it is no coincidence that the report came to light during the three-week period leading up to Tisha b’Av, which Judaism attributes to some of its greatest calamities.

“Penn State has to look at itself and examine the culture, which in my mind is not a bad thing.  Examining yourself and that process of teshuvah can be a good thing,” he said, referring to the process of repentance. “Penn State has not been destroyed … I think it will only become better.”

For the past several years, Chabad had a letter of support signed by Paterno on its website. It was taken down in December, but Meretsky said that was because of a web redesign, not the scandal. The new site does not yet have a section for such comments, but once it does he is unsure that the Paterno letter would return, he added.

As for Spanier, the rabbi recalled bringing him matzah just before Passover and gift baskets, or shalach manot, for Purim. He said he will continue to reach out to Spanier.

Outside of State College, Jewish alumni are dealing with their school’s new image, too.

When the scandal broke in November, Rabbi Efrem Reis of Temple Beth Israel in Sunrise, Fla., and a 2006 Penn State graduate, urged people to reserve judgment until all the investigations were completed.

“Now it is clear that my university failed me and, much more importantly, the victims,” he told JTA. “They allowed innocent children to be scarred and hurt in a place that was supposed to foster and encourage youth to reach new heights.”

The fact that Paterno appears to have knowingly turned a blind eye is especially painful, he said.

“Joe Paterno made me a smarter person and helped me to be a better rabbi through his generosity” through donations such as to the Pattee-Paterno library and the campus spiritual center, which housed various student religious groups, including Hillel. “Unfortunately, his error tarnishes his legacy so deeply that it turns me away from connecting and donating to my alma mater.”

Despite his reluctance to donate to the university itself, Reis plans to continue giving to Penn State organizations and the university’s Jewish groups. He said alumni need to step up their efforts for these organizations so they can continue to help students—especially now.

Dan Greenstein, a 2008 graduate and a former Hillel religious chair, said Penn State provided him with a lifetime of memories that no scandal can erase.

“None of these things can be tarnished by the apparent failure of administrators to act like decent human beings,” the meteorologist said, adding that “The perception of Penn State has certainly changed to the greater public, and that will undoubtedly take a long time to repair.”

Reis hopes campus Jewish groups can play a role, urging Hillel and Chabad to work together to raise awareness of child abuse and “to be leaders in a campus coalition to restore the image of the university through good deeds and acts of loving-kindness.”

Rabbi David Ostrich of State College’s Congregation Brit Shalom, where Spanier is a member, believes the media and public have drawn conclusions from the Freeh report that go further than intended.

“I believe that Graham Spanier is an honorable man,” Ostrich said. “When he says that he was not covering this up, I believe him.”

When Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz first learned of the allegations against Sandusky, they thought they were dealing with a moral individual, the rabbi said.

“As it turns out they were wrong, and I am sure they all feel terrible about their failure to identify criminal and immoral behavior,” he said. “However, there is a big difference between being deceived or incorrect judgments and conspiring to cover up wrong-doing.”