The Arch of Titus: A Useful Model

by Jonah Goldberg

Response To...

Knock Down the Taj Mahal?

I liked Kevin’s post about the Taj Mahal, and it reminded me of a point I wanted to make when all of this iconoclasm was erupting over the summer.

I think the Confederate statues put up in the 1960s as a middle finger to the civil-rights movement are hard to defend, and I certainly wouldn’t bother trying. But, as we’ve already seen, the statue topplers are part of a larger war on American history generally. When activists want to get rid of Abraham Lincoln, you know this is more of a fever and fad than an argument.

I keep thinking of the Arch of Titus, the model for similar arches all around the world, including most famously the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. For those who don’t know, Titus — who would later become emperor — led the siege of Jerusalem in the first Jewish-Roman War. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, mostly non-combatants, were slaughtered, and the Second Temple — the holiest site in Judaism — was destroyed. Tens of thousands of Jews were captured and sold into slavery.

The Arch of Titus, which celebrates all this, is a big tourist attraction in Rome. It’s also an important part of Rome’s history. Jews, understandably, did not celebrate the monument. From an article in The Forward:

Jews have lived in Rome for more than two millennia. According to an ancient ban placed on the monument by Rome’s Jewish authorities, once a Jewish person walks under the arch, he or she can no longer be considered a Jew. So, from the time the Arch of Titus was first built, no Jew has ever willingly walked under it, unless he or she was oblivious to its significance.

Until the creation of Israel in 1948, the ban was taken quite seriously. In 1997, it was lifted.

I’m not saying this is a perfect model for how to deal with every monument to some historic villain or crime, real or imagined. But I do think it is a useful one. There are ways to make your dissent known in this life without demanding total victory through the bowdlerizing of the past.

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