How do you blot out yet remember evil men?

'Historical injustices aren’t corrected by simply deleting them; on the contrary, they need to be recalled, over and again, to learn from them.'

August 16, 2020 11:59

Somewhat ironically, I’d never heard of Edward Colston until Black Lives Matter protestors tore down a statue of him in Bristol in June and threw it into Bristol Harbour. I have only ever visited Bristol once or twice, and I don’t recall his name ever coming up at school or university. But intrigued by the whole episode, I’ve read up a little on the renowned slave trader-come-philanthropist whose name has long adorned numerous buildings and landmarks in his home city.

The critique of him is clear. He was heavily involved in the Royal African Company for over a decade in the late seventeenth century, including a short spell as its deputy governor, when the company transported an estimated 84,000 African men, women and children to the Americas and sold them into slavery. Thousands died en route, thousands more in servitude, with the remainder condemned to live out a horrendous, sub-human existence for the rest of their days.

Yet he has long been heralded by some in Bristol for his philanthropy. He used a significant part of his unconscionably gained fortune to endow schools, hospitals and churches in the city and elsewhere. And today, if you visit the city, you can still travel along Colston Street, Colston Avenue or Colston Parade, see Colston’s Almshouses, or have a pint at the Colston Arms. That said, Colston Hall, a concert venue in the heart of the city, currently closed for renovations, will reopen next year under a different name, and Colston Tower, an ugly 1960s high-rise, had its name removed a few months ago. Along with the toppling of his statue, it’s clear that his name is starting to be blotted out.

Public opinion backs this. A recent YouGov poll found that 53 per cent of people across the UK supported the removal of his statue, with 33 per cent against. Young people were particularly in favour: 68 per cent of 18-24 year-olds backed it, with only 11 per cent opposed. But 46 per cent of those aged 65-plus supported them, even if most felt that the way the statue was torn down was not the most appropriate approach.

Personally, I’m somewhat torn on the issue, and I think my Jewishness informs that. On the one hand, we have a long tradition of blotting out the wicked. In Deuteronomy, we are told of our obligation to blot out the memory of Amalek, the biblical archetype of evil, who attacked our most vulnerable just days after fleeing Egypt. To this day we seek to do the same every Purim with his descendant, Haman, as we drown out the mere mention of his name during the reading of the megillah.

And it would be a huge affront to see our most notorious persecutors heralded as Colston has been. Imagine a Hitler Square in Berlin, or a Heydrich Hall in Prague or an Eichmann Street in Vienna. That said, we live with similar realities — a statue of Bogdan Khmelnytsky, leader of one of the worst massacres in Jewish history, stands proudly in the centre of Kiev, and Karl Lueger, the notorious antisemitic mayor of fin de siècle Vienna, whose ideas inspired Hitler to formulate his own, is still memorialised throughout the city.

Yet there’s nuance to Judaism’s approach to blotting out evil. Oddly, the very act of trying to blot out Haman’s name every Purim becomes one of our most potent memories of the experience of reading the megillah. In the booing and hissing that accompanies his every mention, it’s almost as if our efforts to remove him from our story reinforces its place in it. Amalek is the same — bizarrely we’re told that we must never forget to blot him out. How do you do that? Paradoxically, Amalek has to retain a place in our story 
in order for us to continually remove him from it.

Applied to the Colston case, one would retain his presence, no longer to glorify him, but to educate: to remind residents and visitors alike of his story and the profoundly immoral way in which his fortune was built. It seems to me that the Jewish approach wouldn’t be to remove his statue, but rather to reconfigure it in some way, perhaps by placing it on a plinth teaching the horrors of slavery, or putting it in a museum dedicated to that history. Historical injustices aren’t corrected by simply deleting them; on the contrary, they need to be recalled, over and again, to learn from them.

August 16, 2020 11:59

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