In the months following the white supremacy protests in Charlottesville, the national spotlight has illuminated the memorialization of individuals who used their power to demean others. Such figures include General Robert E. Lee, General Stonewall Jackson, and General John Hunt Morgan, who led the Confederacy’s revolt in the defense of slavery.
The racist demonstration in Charlottesville did not stop with Americans of color. As the bigots marched, their revulsion turned towards Jews. And yet, as an American Jew, the events in Charlottesville only highlighted what I already knew to be true: anti-Semitism rages across this country. These anti-Semites, empowered by an implicit go-ahead by the president, took to the streets in a show of force, shouting, “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” a Nazi rallying cry.
In spite of renewed determination to combat anti-Semitism from members of both major political parties and organizations across the spectrum, the spotlight has yet to expose a principle anti-Semite memorialized on our very own campus: Richard Wagner, one of five composers whose name and likeness is etched onto Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium.
Wagner is credited with promulgating vicious anti-Semitism throughout Europe, particularly in Germany. His written musical and philosophical works inspired – and were celebrated by – the leaders of the Nazi movement. He diffused his prejudice not only through his inclusion of anti-Semitic tropes and characters in his operas, but also through articles such as “Das Judenthum in der Musik” or “Jewishness in Music.”
Written by Wagner in 1850, “Jewishness in Music” analyzes why “Jewish nature” is intrinsically revolting to the “civilized.” In a section that is particularly abhorrent to me as a singer, Wagner seeks to explain the ‘ugliness’ of Jews’ singing voices: “The Jew’s production of the voice-sounds is a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle.” He uses terms more appropriately ascribed to maimed bird rather than an ethnic group.
Despite Wagner’s credo, there are legitimate arguments as to why musicians should continue to play his music. After all, he was, unquestionably, a very gifted composer. Why should I, as a Jew, give Wagner the satisfaction of not enjoying his music? Should I listen just to spite him?
However, marveling at Wagner’s musical talent does not forgive his vile attitude toward Jews. Nor does it grant him the right to unadulterated celebration, either in concert or as ornamentation.
And here we reach the crux of the problem. The commemoration of Wagner on Big Bridges is not, in fact, about celebrating musical genius. If it were, composers superior to Wagner – most notably, Wolfgang Mozart – would complement Big Bridges’ façade in Wagner’s stead. Rather, it is a relic of the era in which the building was constructed: a time when there were quotas on Jewish enrollment in higher education, or when Jews were barred from attending universities altogether.
Higher education’s past injustices toward Jews makes it all the more crucial that we clearly acknowledge that Richard Wagner is the Robert E. Lee of our campus. That is not to say that Jews are subject to the same ongoing system of systemic oppression and violence as Americans of color – American Jews in the 21st century are not.
I am horrified by the far right’s glorification of Confederate leaders; it hurts me to know that there are Black Americans who are forced to attend schools named after racists, live in towns that honor slave owners, and endure an administration that willfully embraces racism. It goes without saying that I proudly support the activists who failed to remain silent at the erection and memorialization of bigoted figures around the country, from local parks to the Capitol building. Systemic racism in this country strives to disempower Americans of color through the fear they experience every time they venture outside of their homes, and no comparison to any other system of oppression fully encapsulates the unique danger to which black and brown Americans are vulnerable.
The glorification of Lee and Wagner is unacceptable and their hateful ideologies deserve to be expunged from existence. As Robert E. Lee must be torn down from his podium in Charlottesville, so too must Wagner be removed from his lofty perch on Pomona’s most prized structure, one of the “most photographed buildings in Southern California.” With each day that Wagner sits atop Big Bridges, his looming bust reminds us all that Jews are unworthy of even basic human dignity. It is insulting to me as a Jew and as a student of this college.
It is now, in a time of increased anti-Semitic incidents, not just in the United States, but also worldwide, particularly on college campuses, that we must remain vigilant of everyday occurrences of prevailing anti-Semitism. Although students on campus may not be aware of the painful history Wagner evokes, I shudder to perform in Bridges Auditorium, for if statues could talk, Wagner’s would claim that I, like all Jews, “[am] innately incapable of enouncing [myself] artistically through either [my] outward appearance or [my] speech, and least of all through [my] singing.”
Zachary Freiman PO ’20 is a prospective Music and Public Policy Analysis double major from Sleepy Hollow, NY. He dreams of one day meeting Oprah Winfrey.