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Leave Peter Stuyvesant Alone!

I’m all for a good statue removal, but erasing the memory of New York’s anti-Semitic founding father is silly

Mark Oppenheimer
August 24, 2017
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Now, don’t get me wrong—I am all for a good statue removal, whether under the blazing sun or, as in Baltimore and Austin, under cover of darkness. I have always wondered why those of us in Union states have so long colluded in the pretense that Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other secessionists were heroes, rather than what they obviously were: traitors. And I am down with a sensible renaming, too: John C. Calhoun was a bad man, and there is no reason that, having made a mistake, a school like Yale shouldn’t correct it. There’s no statute of limitations on coming to one’s senses.

But when it comes to the recent, boneheaded call for New York City to remove all memorials to Peter Stuyvesant, the 17th-century Dutch leader of the New Amsterdam colony, I have to draw the line. Of course, Shurat HaDin, the Israeli legal organization that is winning some nice press coverage by pushing this absurd line, is right to point out that Stuyvesant was an anti-Semite: he didn’t want Jews to settle on Manhattan island, and he slapped them with a special Jew-tax. He also wasn’t so nice to the Indians. A bad dude, we can agree.

But is that any reason to take down the statue in Stuyvesant Park? Or to rename the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant—about which Big Daddy Kane rapped, about which Billy Joel sang? What about Stuyvesant Town, the East Side housing complex whose residential dramatis personae has included David Brooks and David Axelrod, Robert Siegel and Paul Reiser and Frank McCourt and Mary Higgins Clark and Howard Cosell? Will it be renamed De Blasio Mews? Or, as the Israeli right-wingers behind this fringe effort might have it, Jabotinsky Towers?

Whether in Stuyvesant Park, Bed-Stuy, or Stuy Town, New Yorkers have made the old hoary anti-Semite’s name their own. Peter Stuyvesant doesn’t own it anymore. New Yorkers do. And, I would argue, some non-New Yorkers too. I’m thinking about my children, whose great-grandfather, grandfather, and mother were all educated at the Stuy-viest of all the Stuy-named places, Stuyvesant High School. Here’s an institution, this elite public school, that has educated Jew after Jew after Jew: not just Dick Morris but David Axelrod, not just director Joe Mankiewicz but economist Robert Fogel. And Gary Shteyngart and Ron Silver and super-agent Bernie Brillstein and sports-book fixer Jack Molinas. I could go on. Okay, I will: convicted spy Morton Sobell.

May I rest my case? Stuyvesant High School, like many other things Stuyvesant, is the Jewish experience, and it’s the American experience. We own him now. He’s ours. The statue stays.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.