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.

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