I n 1948, just after David Ben-Gurion became the head of the new Israeli government, he gave the order to shell the refugee ship Altalena docked just outside of Tel Aviv harbor. The ship, he suspected, contained arms for a rival faction in the new state, plus about 1,000 Jewish volunteers for the rival forces.

The command to Jews to fire upon fellow Jews was extremely controversial, then and now. Whenever we look at the giant bust of Ben-Gurion in Israel’s airport, many of us are pained and offended. We demand that the airport be re-named and the bust removed. We also demand that the name of Yitzhak Rabin Square in Tel Aviv be changed, because it was the young Rabin who carried out the order to fire on the ship, and it was he who, many years later, approved the disastrous Oslo Accords.

And while we are at it, we demand that the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument be taken down. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners, which is very repugnant. And Grant’s Tomb in New York: Did he not, among other things, ban Jews from territories under his control? As for Lord Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, his politics were hardly in accord with 21st-century norms, and his monument should also be removed — as should the memorial to Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris. And, yes, what about the pyramids? Are they not the ultimate monuments to slavery?

It has been going on for a long time now, this removal of Confederate monuments throughout the American South. It all came to a head last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a violent confrontation took place at the statue of Civil War General Robert E. Lee. Amid the hysteria of the Civil War-monument controversies, it is helpful to insert some civil discourse.

History cannot be erased. A society is entitled to choose its history and its heroes. The Founding Fathers of America were all slave holders, in accordance with the norms of their times. This is part of American history, part of our national historic memory. Having statues of them does not imply approval of all of their actions.

Context is crucial. Not every statue of a Confederate hero glorifies bigotry. Not every monument to a Union general commemorates a moral hero. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was by most accounts an intellectual, a fine scholar, and a sensitive leader of men. General William Tecumseh Sherman, who commanded the Union forces, was by contrast a coarse and rough-hewn individual.

Monuments and statues are part of the history of a people. Contexts may change, but monuments show, in the history and development of a people, what was once considered worthy of respect. It is not implying moral equivalence to declare that it is mistaken to refer to these as monuments to racism. They are efforts to remember certain figures within certain periods of our past. No history is monochromatic. No history is one-hued.

This movement to scrap historical monuments has infinite possibilities for mischief. (A major American sports network just transferred a football announcer, whose name happened to be Robert Lee, from a University of Virginia game. And a theater in Memphis cancelled a screening of Gone with the Wind because it is “racially insensitive.”) At what point does it stop? Not everyone who objects to the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is a racist (though some clearly are neo-Nazis and white supremacists); not everyone who wants to remove it is an idealist (though some definitely are). Most importantly: Destroying statues will not change the malice in people’s hearts. Although some monuments awaken old wounds, their elimination often stirs up deeply buried resentments that are best left undisturbed. After all, we are not talking about perpetuating murderous dictators like Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein. We are discussing Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Judah P. Benjamin who, though they were on the wrong side of history, were in their personal lives no less decent than their Northern counterparts.

So before joining the marchers at the next monument-removal scene down at the city square, give it a second thought. Do we really want to change the name of Ben Gurion Airport? Do we really want to tear down the Jefferson Memorial? Rather than expend energy on removing the external wrongs surrounding us, it might be more worthwhile — though infinitely more difficult — to work at uprooting the hatreds that lie within us. And at the very least, to check the bona fides of those with whom we are marching. And instead of tearing down monuments, let us consider building new monuments to our national resolve, in George Washington’s words, “to give bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 676)