Exploring Literature: Bigotry in marble & text: responding to antisemitism

By Bill Simons

As Americans and Jews, we confront polarizing discord concerning representations of the past in the form of statuary, film and literature. The classic television police drama “Naked City” featured a 1963 episode, “Strike a Statue,” relevant to the contemporary debate over the relative priorities of art, history and politics. Guest star George C. Scott – already a powerful on-screen presence seven years prior to his celebrated performance as General George S. Patton – played Kermit Garrison, an intense émigré sculptor plying his craft in a Lower Manhattan studio.

His pinnacle work, nearly complete, casts the leader of a European liberation movement as a heroic, larger than life figure. A fellow veteran of the resistance army accosts Garrison in the studio, asserting that their former idealistic leader evolved into a murderous tyrant once in power. Arguing that completion of the statue would strengthen the grip of the dictator on an oppressed people, Garrison’s former comrade beseeches him not to complete the statue. Garrison roars back that art transcends politics and that the monument truthfully depicts the figure on the day he emancipated a captive city. Despite moral suasion, an offer of $20,000 to desist, picketing, assault, threats and a botched assassination attempt that takes the life of his pregnant wife and unborn child, Garrison’s determination to complete the statue is implacable. The preceding is germane to considering a response to antisemitism in art and literature. 

Antisemitism has a long history in the art and literature of Western civilization as four examples from the classic canon attest. “The Canterbury Tales,” picaresque medieval fiction by Geoffrey Chaucer, is presented as a series of masterfully told tales by Christian pilgrims traveling to an English religious shrine. One of the stories, “The Prioress’s Tale,” belongs to the blood libel tradition, relating the tale of a boy martyr, cruelly murdered by a venal Jew, who deposits the corpse in a muck hill. 

William Shakespeare’s unmatched gift of language and telling insight into human character – displayed in tragedies, histories and comedies – mark him as England’s pre-eminent dramatist. However, he shared the then prevailing belief in ghosts and witches, as well as the cupidity of Jews. Shakespeare’s 1590s play “The Merchant of Venice” features an avaricious Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who literally demands a pound of flesh. 

The popular 19th-century British novelist Charles Dickens created compelling characters and plots. Illuminating the evils of poverty and class exploitation in moving prose, Dickens displayed and encouraged empathy for the victims of economic and social exploitation. Yet, in “Oliver Twist,” Dickens fashions the Jewish Fagin as a depraved despoiler of young boys, luring them into a life of crime by an apprenticeship as pickpockets. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is the signature novel of America’s 1920s Jazz Age. Fitzgerald presents Meyer Wolfsheim, a gangster whose Jewishness includes such ethnic physical stereotypes as an “expressive nose,” as the villain of “The Great Gatsby.” Loosely modeled on real-life Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein, Wolfsheim shatters “the faith of 50 million people” by fixing the 1919 World Series and corrupts the novel’s tragic hero, Jay Gatsby. 

How best to respond to offensive culture and history? Roman emperors employed damnatio memoriae – forced erasure of public memory – toward past leaders whose policies, stature and/or legacy potentially challenged their power. Damnatio memoriae included the defacement of memorials to predecessor emperors. In practice, damnatio memoriae didn’t work particularly well in the ancient world, and the obliteration of the past would appear an impossible task in our age of social media. The 19th century witnessed formal efforts to bowdlerize – eliminate or rewrite – passages from written works deemed offensive. As George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” illustrates, however, the manipulation of historical fact, perception and opinion is potentially the framework for a totalitarian society. 

America received a whiff of such machinations during the first half of the 1950s when McCarthyism, anti-Communist vigilance hyped to a paranoid level, stifled civil liberties, drove books from library shelves and purged writers, artists and professors from careers. Both damnatio memoriae and bowdlerizing are futile. Likewise, apathetic appeasement grants bigotry fertile ground for hate-fueled bias to morph into violence. Clearly, our generation must not let demagogues reminiscent of Tom Watson, instigator of vigilantes who lynched the Jewish Leo Frank in 1915 Georgia, or bigoted fanatics who find inspiration in Adolf Hitler go unchallenged. Rather than ignore bias or demand the obliteration of its toxic artifacts from our historical and cultural record – both flawed stratagems – there are other options. 

For several decades in the later part of the 20th century, Harvey Michaels taught history at both Swampscott High School and at Temple Emanu-El in the adjacent town of Marblehead, MA. In Swampscott, he also served as history department chairman while simultaneously holding the position of religious school principal at the Reform synagogue. Michaels’ students were the children of World War II veterans, and the zenith of the Cold War punctuated his teaching career. His courses addressed both Nazism and Communism, still volatile subject matter. Michaels did not teach Nazism or Communism; he taught about them. He provided his students with resources and tools to understand the context that allowed for the emergence of now discredited ideologies and regimes. His students confronted the words of Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto” and Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” and were encouraged by a master teacher to subject them to deep reading, analysis and debate. They learned indelible lessons about the Holocaust – and critical thinking – in his classrooms both in high school and at the temple. Despite the passage of time, many of his students still remember those sessions.

Michaels also illuminated domestic political, legislative and judicial processes, as well as the role of international diplomacy and collective security. Much more important than memorizing the Gettysburg Address, he observed, was to engage it. Michaels recognized historical and contemporary situations that necessitated armed self-defense in accordance with domestic and international law. However, he invested education with great priority in combatting injustice, including racism and antisemitism. In 1989, after vandals defaced Temple Emanu-El and the North Shore Jewish Community Center, also in Marblehead, with swastikas, Michaels met with one of the young perpetrators five times in counseling sessions. 

If Michaels were still alive, perhaps he would suggest that an alternative to toppling public statues might be revisionist historical addendum through new text accompanying these bronze and marble structures – text that would offer contextualization and oppositional views, with connections to live interactive links to allow for expanded debate. He might also point out the options of relocating certain memorials from public squares to museums, as well as the opportunity to create new art reflecting divergent perspectives. It is doubtful, however, that Michaels would have found either inaction or striking a statue the best antidotes to injustice at home or abroad. 

Rod Serling, the great screenwriter, Binghamton native and Jewish-American combat veteran of World War II, addressed the issue of the physical artifacts of the Holocaust: “All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it, they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.