Of Confederate statues and Holocaust memorials

August 15, 2017
Workers clean up broken glass after the Holocaust Memorial was vandalized in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., August 14, 2017, days after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned violent. Photo by Brian Snyder/REUTERS.

I’ve spent a good part of this morning thinking about yesterday’s toppling of the Confederate statue in Durham, NC.

At Duke University, where I work as an administrator, students have written  asking me to send a message celebrating this action as evidence of courageous activism. But yesterday we also witnessed the vandalism of the Holocaust memorial in Boston. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I can’t avoid making a connection between the two acts.  Why, I wonder, do we think of one as activism and the other as vandalism?  Some would argue we can and should. But I’m not able to accept that reasoning.

Let me explain. I absolutely want memorials to racism, hate and prejudice removed. They should be either destroyed, or relegated to museums with appropriate historical representation. But, I want their removal through legitimate, law-abiding processes. Yes, I understand that unethical government actions (like North Carolina gerrymandering) stack the deck against progressive movements. But that just means we have to fight harder to change those laws, however long that may take. We need active voters and they need inspiration to vote– like getting monuments to hate removed.

I’m also aware that many people legitimately feel overwhelmed by persistent acts of violence, oppression and hate.  For them, delaying immediate action, or redirecting it into interminable political processes is equivalent to inaction. I’m certain that in Germany in the 1930’s, my parents and many others would have preferred anarchy to what transpired. But, I’m more optimistic that, partly because of these memories and because of my belief in an America that cares, effective and legal actions will ultimately prevail.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose works are now archived here at Duke University, said that, “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I take this charge seriously. I hope that what we saw in Charlottesville this week and throughout the country in the last few years will serve as a wake-up call for each of us and for our nation.

I’m old enough to remember effective grass roots movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s in support of civil rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War. Certainly, these efforts preceded today’s social media campaigns laced with anonymous diatribe. But, we have ample evidence of the power of thoughtful, intelligent and focused efforts to counter oppression and injustice. Without a doubt, what’s needed today will require far more time, money and energy than simply posting on Facebook and Twitter will suffice. We need young people committed to supporting candidates and willing to run for elective office themselves. And, yes, sometimes these days, we need protests and vigils and rallies. But, lest we emulate those whom we decry, we need our actions to be mindful of safety, ethics, and laws. When we take the laws into our own hands, we also legitimate the same behaviors by those who seek to harm us.

So, in good conscience, I can’t endorse yesterday’s behaviors. I hope that we focus our collective actions on having every elected seat up for challenge in the 2018 elections filled with people who decry white supremacy, anti-Semitism, racism, and every form of bias and hate. Our future depends on it.

Larry Moneta is Vice President for Student Affairs at Duke University.   

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