Monuments and the different meanings of honoring and remembering

Thousands of protesters gather at the Robert E. Lee Monument for a peaceful rally in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury.

When I was sixteen years old, I participated in a cross-country teen tour summer program organized by United Synagogue Youth. I have quite a vivid recollection of our visit to Stone Mountain Park in Georgia. The laser-light show projected onto the cliff-face horseback soldiers was remarkable, only to be outdone by the ice-cold Dippin’ Dots for sale in the Georgia humidity. I also remember our staff advising us to wear ball caps and not yarmulkes for fear that those we encountered might “start something” with us as Jewish teenagers. There were a few bristly interactions — but I really don’t think I fully realized what I was seeing at Stone Mountain Park.

Years later I had the opportunity to serve as a group leader for this program. United Synagogue Youth no longer took teens to Stone Mountain Park. I thought perhaps it was deemed unsafe. I realized, however, it was far more fundamental than that. Aside from the “neat thing to look at,” why would we visit Stone Mountain Park in the first place?

Stone Mountain Park contains — at its center — a massive monolith serving as a memorial to the confederacy. The largest bas-relief in the world is etched into the stone’s side depicting Civil War generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, as well as confederate president Jefferson Davis. The park officially opened on April 14, 1965 — 100 years (to the day) after President Lincoln’s assassination. It is not coincidental that Stone Mountain was the location of the Ku Klux Klan’s annual Labor Day cross-burning ceremony for 50 years prior. Why would we visit a site meant to honor such history?

Imagine the horrific possibility of visiting a monument to Nazi Germany? Thankfully the German government would never allow such an anathema — which raises the question: Why should we?

To be certain: Honoring and remembering are two different things. Honoring in Judaism is about gravitas — the word kavod (honor) implies heft. When something or someone carries so much weight that we feel compelled to lift them up, that is honor.

Remembering in Judaism is about irreversible impact — the word zakhor (remember) implies etching something into your soul lest the next generation forgets. What we remember is not always positive; what we honor must only be positive.

We should indeed remember the Holocaust. We should indeed remember the horrors the evil Nazis perpetrated against Jews and so many others. But that is because we have a moral imperative to bear witness to this evil so that we never forget, ensuring that it will never happen again. This is why death camps still stand today— and this is why we visit them. 

Make no mistake, however: This is not honoring. We should never, ever, honor such atrocities.

In a parallel vein, we should indeed remember and learn about the confederacy — it was a painful and dishonorable chapter in our nation’s history. But there is no pride there. There is no room for honor. Neither of its leadership, nor of its symbols.

159 years ago, Alexander Stephens — vice president of the confederacy and not pictured in the Stone Mountain bas-relief — presented the “cornerstone address,” weeks before the confederate attack on Fort Sumter, launching the Civil War.

Stephens boldly declared of the new goverrnment: “Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” 

Any symbol of the confederacy — statue, flag, relief sculpture, etc. — is a symbol of racism. The confederacy was an enemy of the state. The flag was the flag of traitors. (And by the way, the flag we all debate is not even the actual flag of the confederate army — the “stars and bars” is the battle flag of the army of northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee’s direction.)

And most important, no one cared about the flag post-war until the 1948 segregationist Dixiecrat party adopted it as a symbol of resistance to the federal government. Other racist state actions followed suit thereafter (Georgia’s state flag redesign in 1956, for example).

We should not erase our nation’s horrid chapters. We should learn them so we do not repeat them. But our street names, city plazas, flags, monuments, and the like, are not those tools of instruction.

We are not rewriting history. We are not cancelling history. We are relegating it to its proper places of memory and instruction. Remembering — not honoring. 

I won’t be taking my children to Stone Mountain — and I will raise them to detest and protest such monoliths —figurative and literal.