Tuesday, December 15, 2009

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN -- Riffing on architecture bans (and destruction), from Vilnius

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column is a riff about how the recent vote to ban new mosque minarets in Switzerland struck a chord -- making me recall historic bans and regulations on synagogue architecture -- and the ultimate destruction of them.

I wrote it after I got back from the seminar in Vilnius, which came a week after the Swiss vote and focused on the lasting impact of the destruction of Lithuanian Jews -- and their built heritage.
I realize that the Swiss voters who overwhelmingly approved the minaret ban were responding to scare tactics that raised the specter of an extremist Islamic takeover in their country.
Yet in a certain way, the Swiss vote Nov. 29 and the Lithuanian seminar were connected.

To me, the ban on minarets recalled centuries of restrictions on the size or prominence of synagogues. The Swiss ban is just the latest example of how governmental authorities target religious architecture as a means of limiting religious or cultural expression.
 In the story I quote Sam.

"Beginning in the fourth century and continuing through the Middle Ages, and again in the 20th century, the 'legal' restriction and destruction of synagogues quickly led to the same policies applied against individuals, and then whole communities. 

"Restricting specific types of religious or cultural expression -- especially when such restrictions are deliberate exceptions to existing building, zoning, health and safety codes -- is discriminatory."
It is, he said, "an act of denigration of cultural custom and, by extension, of the people who cherish, or the religion that requires, those very customs."

 I also noted the focus of the Vilnius seminar -- and now the destruction of nearly all traces of Jewish historic presence in Vilnius left a gaping hole that has yet to be filled.
Before World War II, about 100,000 Jews lived here. The Great Synagogue, standing in the heart of what is today's postcard-perfect Old Town, was the most magnificent of more than 100 synagogues and prayer houses in the city. The Vilnius Old Town today is on UNESCO's roster of World Heritage Sites, but almost no physical traces of its Jewish past remain. There are a few street names, wall inscriptions and plaques, but that's it.

Read full story


  1. I understand where you're coming from but I think the minaret issue is a little different. When Synagogues and any other houses of worship are built in any country, they do not represent a threat. They are houses of worship for the new immigrants and they neither threaten nor tower above the churches of the original inhabitants. When a minaret is erected, it is a sign of Islam, a culture (not only a religion) that is bent on overtaking the original culture, and installing its Shari'a laws over the existing. This is not supposition because it happened throughout the Middle East, which is why the ME is primarily Muslim and the old religions are virtually gone. It's happening in England, in France, in Sweden, and in the old USSR countries (Chechnya, etc). When the new is bend on overtaking the old (whether by the sword or by cultural annihilation), the playing field changes, and the rules are different. Switzerland has every reason to be afraid, as does France, and should England be; Israel was the first in this new era and, in fact, should not be alone in this fight, or Pastor Niemoller's Holocaust poem will be valid once again. (you have my email; please reply if you wish)

  2. Actually, I don't have your email... it doesn't appear with the comment. Anyway, as I said in the column, I'm not talking exact parallels. But resonances. The ban on one recalls to me the bans on the others. And the way that symbols (architecture and other) are still used can be seen in the video from Moldova that I posted earlier -- members of the dominant Christian religious uprooting a menorah, planting a cross, and then turning the menorah upside down, all the while chanting slogans about how the Jews are trying to dominate the country, etc.