Monumental Decisions

History is in danger of being erased:  that is the perceived danger posed by the toppling of a statue in Bristol. The protesters in Bristol, southwest England, tied the bronze statue of Edward Colston with rope before toppling it to cheers from the surrounding crowd before unceremoniously dumping it into the River Avon.

Colston had been a member of the Royal African Company, which transported approximately 80,000 men, women, and children from Africa to the Americas. The transporting of these slaves by Colston was done so in subhuman barbaric conditions, a consequence of which, a staggering 19,000 of those transported died on the journey.

On his death in 1721, he bequeathed his wealth to charities and his legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets, memorials and buildings. The statue was erected in 1895 only to recognise his philanthropic contributions.  

Anti-racist protests have sparked a clamour for the removal of any memorialising of perceived tyrants and racists globally. From King Leopold in Belgium to John B Castleman in Louisville, Kentucky to Robert Baden-Powell in Poole, Dorset. There have also been calls to rename streets.

In Britain, these calls have led to a backlash by many fearful that if the crimes of Britain’s Empire past are widely acknowledged then it will empower demands to address the consequences: todays entrenched racial injustices.  

The removal of statues is seen by some as a rewriting of British history, as inevitably there is ignorance of the full historical facts. The majority of the population in the UK were ignorant of Colston being a slave trader prior to his statue being toppled, due to the city where his statue stood, choosing to depict him as a philanthropist for the last 100 years.   

Many citizens in the UK prefer to remain with imperial nostalgia rather than be reminded of imperial injustice of our once great British Empire.

This debate reached fever pitch last week with the defacing of the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, Westminster with the words “was a racist” during a Black Lives Matter protest. Activists claim he believed in racial hierarchies. Churchill, who was recently voted the greatest Briton of all time by the nation, is credited with the single-handed galvanising of the British people to stand up to the tyranny of Hitler and Nazi Germany. His statue is now boarded up for its own safety.

It feels to me nations have been dragged kicking and screaming into a mass history lesson, with the Black Lives Matter protesters standing at the front of the class as our teachers. It feels enlightening to gain a deeper understanding and fresh more wholesome perspective into the nations in which we live.

However, History is a complicated, multi-faceted business. It is exceptionally rare that we can deliver a tidy clear-cut historical verdict.

In Judaism, we are not expected to live in the past but to live with the past, and there are numerous examples highlighting this for us.

Lots wife on escaping the wicked city of Sodom was punished for looking back at the city when it was being destroyed, Lord Jakobovits famously said that at the beginning of the Amidah we take three steps back before we step forward, because, as Jews, we have to look back in order to look to the future, as we carry the past with us

When we study Torah, it becomes abundantly clear that no person that has ever lived was perfect.

King Solomon declared in Ecclesiastes “There is no one righteous who lived and never sinned”, and so we are shown in the Torah the greatness of our leaders, but also their failings, not for us to gloat or belittle them, but to learn from them.

Abraham questioned G-d  in relation to the inheritance of the land of Canaan by his descendants and was punished,  Moshe was considered to have sinned in failing to speak to the rock rather than hit it, Miriam’s speech despite the best of intentions was considered derogatory.  

For each of the personalities we learn about in the Torah we are expected to look at their lives in their entirety. To see things from a narrow perspective inevitably leads us to a skewed vision in terms of evaluating the mark and contribution they made

Ethics of the fathers behoves us to judge “Kol” every person favourably. The word “Kol” can also be interpreted to mean the whole rather than every. In other words when evaluating and judging a person one must look at the matter in the round. Consider that persons total contribution. There will be admirable aspects of a life, and some aspects to be ashamed of.

This is, of course, a critical lesson for evaluating history, but it is also a most crucial principle for us to utilise when interacting in our day to day relationships.

published Times of Israel 12/06/20

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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