St. Louis statue

"Apotheosis of St. Louis," the statue of King Louis IX of France, is located at the top of Art Hill in Forest Park. File photo: Mike Sherwin 

A local Israeli-American restauranteur and a pair of Muslim activists started a petition last week to change the name of the city and remove the statue of St. Louis in Forest Park because of the 13th century French king’s persecution of Jews and Muslims.

The effort comes as people around the United State push for the removal of statues and monuments of historical figures described by proponents as racist.

The Change.org petition had more than 650 supporters as of Wednesday morning and had attracted attention from local and international news organizations.

“St. Louis has a large and vibrant Jewish and Muslim community and it's an outright disrespect for those who are part of these faith communities to have to live in a city named after a man committed to the murder of their co religionists,” reads the petition created by Ben Poremba, a native Israeli who owns four local restaurants; Umar Lee, a Muslim activist and writer; and Moji Sidiqi, executive director of the Regional Muslim Activist Network. “I ask all people of good faith committed to the modern values of equity and coexistence to sign this petition to rename the City of St. Louis to something more suitable and indicative of our values.”

Poremba and Lee said they became aware of the king’s actions against Jews in 2009 because of a Tisha B’Av service led by Rabbi Hershey Novack, co-director of the Chabad center at Washington University, at the statue of Louis IX, which is located at the top of Art Hill and features the French king atop a horse, bearing a sword.

Tisha B’Av, referred to as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. At the service, Novack recited a poem in Hebrew and English written by a rabbi who witnessed the burning of 24 cartloads of manuscripts of the Talmud, the primary text of Jewish religious law and theology.

That burning was ordered by Louis, a devoted Catholic who was declared a saint by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297. The French king also ordered the expulsion of Jews who kept copies of the Talmud or other banned books, forbade Jews from working in moneylending and ordered Jews to wear distinctive badges, according to Jewishvirtuallibary.org. Louis also led the Seventh Crusade against Muslims in Egypt, during which he was defeated.

“I’m not a practicing, shomer Shabbat Jew, but as the son and grandson of victims and survivors of the Holocaust, the idea of burning books, the idea of making Jews wear a distinctive badge, the idea of expelling people out of their homes and taking their property for holy wars, for the killing of other faiths, that just is troublesome to me,” said Poremba.

He and Lee met more than 16 years ago after Lee, who had lived in Israel, heard Poremba speaking Hebrew in the Delmar Loop. The two became friends and canvassed in 2004 on behalf of John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president.

Lee, who was active in documenting the 2014 Ferguson protests, has been pushing for the removal of the Louis statue for years. The activists released the petition a day after Tower Grove Park’s Board of Commissioners ordered the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue because of the explorer’s mistreatment of Indigenous people.

“In this day, when we are reexamining history, taking a hard look at history… we can also take a look at those things that glamorize and glorify anti-Semites,” said Lee, who briefly ran in 2016 as a Republican candidate for St. Louis mayor.

While Poremba supports the removal of the statue, he said that after releasing the petition he has since “toned down a little bit of my rhetoric because I didn’t realize this was going to hit such a strong nerve with some folks here.”

Poremba received threats on Facebook and over email and calls for boycotts of his restaurants, he said. He also heard from people who said they supported the cause in theory but that the effort was a distraction from “the urgent and immediate issues of police reform and overhauling our criminal justice system [because of] its structural racism.”

“My interest in this is really more educational, and it’s part of my general belief that civic engagement and discourse is important for any society, and so I really don’t believe that efforts to change the name of the city will ever occur. The statue may or may not come down — I don’t know; it’s a beautiful piece of art, for what it’s worth — but I think that people should be aware of the history and not just accept it for what it is,” Poremba said.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson does not support the effort to remove the statue and change the name of the city, according to her spokesperson, Jacob Long. 

"She thinks the changing of names and the taking down of statues is sort of a distraction, and a one-day issue, from the real hard work and the difficult conversations we should all be having, not only in St. Louis, but also, frankly, around the country and the world surrounding the racial disparities and inequities that exist in our society," Long said. "Certainly, the people who are pushing for the removal of names and statues and streets, their causes are legitimate; we're not refuting that."

Linda Koenig, who leads tours of the city and serves as a docent at the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center, said that while it wouldn't bother her to change the name of the city or remove the statue, she doesn't think the petition makes sense.

"Judging historical characters by today's moral standards, their behavior centuries ago by today's standards, we can't do that," said Koenig, a member of Congregation Temple Israel. "There are skeletons in everyone's closets."

The petition sparked opposition nationally from pundits who saw it as anti-Catholic or the latest example of “cancel culture.”

“Absolute red line — and a red alert to St. Louis Catholics,” wrote Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American who serves as opinions editor for the New York Post and is a Catholic convert.

The National Review, a conservative magazine, included the petition on a list titled “The Cancel Counter,” along with an editor’s note stating that “A wave of ‘cancellations’ has swept the U.S. and Europe…. This list will be updated as the cancellations continue.”

As to the question of “Where does it stop?”, Lee said “You have these periods of history — and we’re living in one of them — that are very dynamic, where you’re having a cultural rebirth of a place, and they can be a little bit messy, but if it is messy, you have to look to the past. What created this? And what created this was previous eras where the thoughts of citizens of a place like St. Louis, who were Jewish, who were Muslim, who were black, who were indigenous, like Native Americans, were not thought of at all.”

He added, “And we seek to be a place where the feelings of all religions, all races, all ethnicities, all genders, are fully respected.”

This is not the stopping point for Lee. He plans to form a committee to campaign for the removal of the statue. If that comes down, in addition to pushing for the renaming of the city, he plans to work towards the removal of local items honoring Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean and was seen by some as a Nazi sympathizer.

In explaining his stance on the petition, Novack, who recited the poem on Tisha B’Av, said he was interested in “substantive, positive change in this region.”

“A child born in Wellston and a child born in Clayton ought to have similar opportunities for a high-quality education,” he said.

“If as a result of that positive change, a symbolic change ensues, I would be most gratified,” he said. “However, I don’t see how the taking down of this statue can be an end unto itself.”