(JTA) — On top of a hill in front of an art museum in the biggest park in St. Louis stands a statue of an anti-Semite.
The monument to the city’s namesake, the medieval French king Louis IX, depicts the king astride a horse, wearing a crown and a robe and holding a sword in his right hand. Erected 116 years ago in Forest Park, it is one of the city’s best-known monuments.
Now, a coalition of activists want it taken down because Louis IX persecuted Jews, presided over a notorious mass burning of the Talmud, issued an order of expulsion against his Jewish subjects and led two Crusader armies in unsuccessful offensives in North Africa.
At a time when statues of Confederate leaders and other figures condemned for racist actions are coming down across the country, activists in St. Louis want the Louis IX statue to come down too. A petition launched last week is calling on the city not only to take the statue down, but to change the city’s name.
A group of local Catholics is defending the statue, and a group of far-right protesters are planning to rally for the statue on Saturday.
“The impossible is becoming possible,” said Umar Lee, a local activist who started the petition and also took part in a successful drive to remove a nearby Confederate monument in 2017. Lee is not Jewish but started the petition because of Louis IX’s anti-Semitism.
“So we’re at this juncture in time when we’re reimagining things and also, we’re taking a hard look at the history,” he said. “Monuments don’t exist in the past. They exist in the present. It’s not necessary to have a monument glorifying the individual in order to recognize history. King Louis IX will be in the history books no matter what we do in St. Louis.”
The petition calls Louis a “rabid anti-Semite” who inspired Nazi Germany, and the call for the statue’s removal is drawing Jewish support. Rabbi Susan Talve, the founding rabbi of the city’s Central Reform Congregation, said taking it down would help advance racial justice in the United States.
“We’ve been talking about that statue for a long time,” she said, adding that removing the statue would be “a very important part of reclaiming history, reclaiming the stories that have created the institutionalized racism that we are trying to unravel today. If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.”
But as in other cities where activists have sought to remove monuments, the removal effort has sparked a backlash. Every night, a group of several dozen Catholics gathers by the statue to recite the rosary. One of them, Anna Kalinowski, called the statue a “remarkable work of art.” She emphasized that she reveres Louis IX as “a man who really wanted to follow God and [who] really wanted to do the right thing.” She feels his persecution of the Jews should be viewed in historical context.
“He wanted people to be Catholic because the Catholic Church believed that when you’re Catholic that is the way to fully serve God,” she said. “He believed that with his whole heart and soul and he wanted that for the Jewish people. Do we think that the way he went about that is wrong now? Sure. I mean, everybody has a right to their opinion on that, but at the time we can’t be so sure because we have to be careful and look at the context of his actions.”
But Talve said that even at the time of Louis IX’s reign in the 13th century there were people who recognized that ordering the expulsion of Jews, burning their sacred texts and leading Crusades was wrong.
“I’m not exactly sure what people are meaning when they say that, when they say you can’t judge what was happening in the Middle Ages by today’s standards, but you know what? Pillaging and looting at any time I think was wrong,” she said. “Asserting that your way is the only way I think is always wrong.”
Lee and other activists will be gathering near the statue on Saturday morning in advance of the rally.
Jim Hoft, the editor of the far-right website Gateway Pundit and one of the rally organizers, posted a call for “all Catholic and Christian men and their allies” to gather by the statue at noon to recite the rosary. Kalinowski said her group is not affiliated with the Saturday rally.
Lee said he’s bracing himself for possible violence. But no matter what happens, he sees the protest movement as an opportunity to be honest about history.
“I don’t believe anyone should be free of critical historical analysis,” he said. “It’s very problematic if you say that because someone is a saint, they can’t be analyzed through a critical lens.”