The Chicago Jewish community appears very touchy about anything remotely critical of Israel. Jewish directors of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs apparently pressured its director to cancel a talk by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer last year. Now some of the same figures may have deemed an Israel-focussed exhibit at Spertus College to be too hot to handle. As a result the exhibit, Imaginary Coordinates, already closed briefly during its run after controversy first erupted, has been closed two and a half months early because of complaints that it was anti-Israel:
Feeling pressure from members of the Jewish community, Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies said Friday it is closing 2½ months early a museum exhibition on Holy Land maps and boundaries that dealt with Israeli and Palestinian concepts of homeland.
Spertus President Howard Sulkin said in a statement that the institute’s trustees “came to realize that parts of the exhibition were not in keeping with aspects of our mission as a Jewish institution and did not belong at Spertus. This exhibition caused pain for members of our audience. That was never our intent and we apologize.”
“Spertus was at risk of seriously alienating its core constituency,” said trustee Philip Gordon. He said the board agreed “that our fiduciary and mission-based responsibility to Spertus required us to direct the staff to close the exhibition.”
When you think about it, the very idea that a curator at a Jewish art gallery would present an exhibit that was anti-Israel is preposterous on its face. Without having to know much about the actual content of the exhibit, anyone who’s followed the touchiness of the mainstream community on these subjects knows what’s coming. The artists in the exhibit dared to question a few shibboleths. The Jewish philistines of Chicago felt their hearts twitter from the sheer chutzpah of daring to question assumptions about Israel. Like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, they said: “Off with its head.” And just like that, Imaginary Coordinates has become a figment of our imagination.
Someone will have to explain to me how an exhibit described thusly on the Spertus site could cause “pain” to the museum’s “core audience” and force the president to apologize so abjectly–and for what?
Imaginary Coordinates is inspired by antique maps of the Holy Land in Spertus’ collection. The exhibition juxtaposes these maps with modern and contemporary maps of this region, all of which assert boundaries. It brings these together with objects of material culture and artworks that question national borders, as a way of charting new spaces, fostering conversation, and imagining new communities…
Imaginary Coordinates is Spertus Museum’s contribution to Chicago’s citywide Festival of Maps. In the year that marks Israel’s 60th anniversary, this exhibition offers a space in which to reflect, debate, and engage in civic dialogue. Curated by Spertus Museum Director Rhoda Rosen.
Apparently, Chicago’s Jewish community is deeply threatened by “questioning national boundaries, charting new spaces, fostering conversation, and imagining new communities” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Really, this is pathetic. And imagine how the poor curator who devised this innovative exploration of artistic and political ideas must feel being given the shaft for his/her troubles.
This decision reminds me of previous decisions by art museums to censor or cancel controversial exhibits. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum bowdlerized an exhibit about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. The Corcoran Gallery cancelled an exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Rudy Giuliani tried to force the Brooklyn Museum to cancel its exhibit of art deemed offensive to Catholics. In many of those cases, the institution came out of it looking pretty bad in the wider community for compromising its artistic integrity in the face of the onslaught. Given that Spertus is a Jewish community organization, I’m guessing that perhaps the furor will not be as intense and neither the Museum nor the College will pay the price they should for their cravenness. But perhaps I am wrong.
And lest the dreaded C-word (censorship) come to mind–this isn’t that–not by a long shot:
In an interview, Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said he had seen the exhibition and felt that “aspects of it were clearly anti-Israel.” He declined to specify what elements of the exhibition he found objectionable.
“I was very surprised that a Jewish institution would put forward this exhibition,” he said. “I was surprised and saddened by it.”
He rejected the notion that closing the exhibition amounted to censorship of controversial ideas.
“It’s an institution saying, ‘We made a mistake, we’re sorry and let’s move on.'”
Nasatir’s “let’s move on” reminds me of the policeman at the scene of a car wreck urging bystanders to move on. It’s the call of bureaucrats everywhere who prefer the public not dwell on their machinations nor question their thinking.
Spertus has uploaded a video of the exhibition narrated by a curator which provides an overview of it. Skip the first 1:40 or so of the video which deals with the history of Spertus. Time Out Chicago published an interesting review of the exhibit and its earlier tempoary closure. Artforum also reviewed the show. This Chicago Reader review begins to reveal a bit about why aspects of the show might have bruised the sensibilities of the Jewish federation leadership:
Other pieces include Ahmad Ibrahim’s Memory Map of Jimzu, showing every house destroyed in his Palestinian village in 1948, and artifacts like a menorah with shell cartridges for candleholders.
I am very eager to hear from any readers who may’ve seen the exhibit and any Museum personnel who would care to speak, even in confidence about this episode. I’m also eager to speak with any of the artists included in the exhibit about their feelings about cancellation of the exhibit. I would love to see another art organization or gallery have the gumption to display the exhibit. Thanks to reader Dan Sniderman for bringing this to my attention.
Dan Sniderman says
I must confess being a Chicago Native, Jewish, and having never visited the Spertus. For much of my life I wasn’t particularly intrested in pursuing my religion in any way, but that changed 5 years ago when I met my wife and we decided we wanted a religious wedding and for both of us to return to Judaism… Every time I’ve walked or driven past the museum I’ve thought “we have to go for a visit soon” – and it keeps getting postponed. Once my 2.5 year old daughter is old enough to appreciate it – we’ll definitely make a trip…
Thanks Richard for your research on the issue – and if I hear more I’ll definitely pass it along!
Rupa Shah says
Mr Silverstein, you are lumping all jewish chicagoans by saying “Chicago Jewish community appears very touchy about anything remotely critical of Israel”. I would not agree with that statement as I have jewish friends and activist colleagues, who TOTALLY disagree with this decision. And they agree that this is a CENSORSHIP issue.
Lisa Kosowski says
I saw the exhibit and I was very moved by it. I am a Jewish Chicagoan and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I grew up in the Reform Jewish movement, became a Bat Mitzvah, attended Jewish summer camp, been to Israel 5 times (so far), including a year in college, and I’m engaged to marry an American Israeli. Just as I criticize the current American political leadership, I also openly criticize the policies of the Israeli government, but I would never consider myself “anti-Israel.” I can say with 100% confidence that there was NOTHING anti-Israel about that exhibit. It is shameful that certain members of the Jewish community use their money and power to suppress open dialogue about the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Yitchak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, and countless, nameless others have given their lives for the mere hope of reconciliation and a just peace. Yet, apparently, the misguided self-proclaimed Jewish “leaders” can’t even look at an art exhibit that they find “painful.” Even worse, they use their money and power to suppress free speech, free expression, and open dialogue for the rest of us. They should be ashamed at the way they spit on the basic principles of democracy, and the traditions and laws of Judaism itself. SHAME ON THEM!
Bill Pearlman says
Interesting that you have yet to make a comment about Naveed Haq. But who the hell was Pamela Waechtner right. Just a Jewish woman who got her head blown off. Certainly not has important has the great Norm Finkelstein.
Mark Goldman says
Don’t you ban trolls like Bill Pearlman? People like him make reading this site somewhat unpleasant. (Much like they do to the world in general!)
Richard Silverstein says
@Bill Pearlman: Mark, thanks for reminding me that I now have some new tools to force Bill’s comments into moderation. You’ll prob. be reading even less of him than you have in the past. BTW, Bill’s the guy who advised the Israeli authorities they should have killed Norman Finkelstein instead of merely banned him.
And as for you poor cretin, Bill. I wrote a Comment is Free column about Naveed Haq’s mistrial. I’ve written five posts about the attack including several that referred to Pam Waechter (you didn’t even bother to spell her name right).
And what does any of this have to do with the Spertus Museum?
Richard Silverstein says
What a wonderful comment, Lisa. Thank you for it. You are dead on accurate.
Norman Weinstein says
I’d like to add to Richard’s compliment on Ms. Kosowski eloquent and courageous words my own. What a very refreshing and succinct statement which I, for one, wish everyone in and outside the Israel über alles camp could read. Each Thursday my wife and I receive a copy of The Jewish Week, a mostly centrist publication well known, I believe, by Jews throughout the country. Interesting how of late it seems to be moving ever more and more in a right-wing political direction in its letters to the editor, its editorials and various byline statements. In the most recent issue we read how the words of that freaky end-of-days con man, Reverend Hagee, regarding Hitler’s essentially being God’s tool, should be quite acceptable to Jews since said words are not unlike those delivered by certain of the Jewish prophets. All this claimed, of course, because the porcine Mr. Hagee, awash in bloody theological vituperations, has directed millions of dollars and other kinds of support to that beleaguered little democracy struggling for survival against a gang of murderous thugs also laying claim to God’s own land. Etc. And of course candidate Obama is receiving his share of darts from that publication for having bent only one knee before AIPAC. Ms. Kosowski has stated what perhaps has “oft been thought/But ne’er so well expressed”, and I can only hope that a sentiment such as hers will help serve to embolden those people to speak out, Jews and otherwise, who regard Israel highly but also condemn her brutal occupation and land-grabbing, her military excesses and warmongering, her seeming indifference to becoming yet another pariah nation. I suspect that the majority of American Jews still hold consistently liberal values, including those in their judgment of Israel and its policies, but its only through heeding the wise and courageous example expressed in Ms. Kosowski’s words will that majority feel brave enough to stand up, express their true opinions, and be counted among those who believe in Israel and real justice at the same time. Too many good people continue to don a self-protective camouflage of silence. Would that it were otherwise. Thank you, Ms. Kosowski, and mazeltmazel tof on your forthcoming marriage!
Norman Weinstein says
Sorry about that mazeltmazel tof. Please consider it a gracious double “mazel’, not a typo.
Richard Silverstein says
@Rupa Shah: I was talking about those pro Israel Jews who made the decision to cancel the exhibit, not all Chicago Jews. I was also criticizing the temerity of this narrow group deciding on behalf of the rest of the community that the exhibit was too dangerous for them to see.
Richard & Norman, you make me blush! But seriously, your comments and this wonderful blog are inspiring and we need to join together with other like-minded folks and continue to make our voices heard.
Lenore Holt-Darcy says
Dissent is a cornerstone of a free society, While such freedoms may be uncomfortable, ruffle our beliefs, personally offensive or just controversial, it is the price we pay to live in an open democratic society. Anytime voices are muted by banning books, refusing to display artwork or closing museum exhibits, we all loose. We loose the opportunity to dialogue about an issue, interact, with different points of view or just challenge our own beliefs.
It is with great sadness that I read in the June 21, 2008 Chicago Tribune that the Spertus Institute Board of Trustees elected to prematurely shutter the “Imaginary Coordinates”. The exhibit tried to bring together various viewpoints about the concept of a holy land and what that means to Christians, Jews and Palestinians. Juxtaposed with 500 year old biblical maps were cultural items and contemporary Israeli and Palestinian artists. All expressed their perspective of the struggles for territory and space; the heart of the Mid East conflict.
It is most unfortunate that the Board of Trustees bowed to the pressures of some of its vocal constituents who view anything not pro-Israel: as overtly anti- Israel. The two are not the same. Either sentiment affords no middle ground. These viewpoints are extreme. The exhibit demonstrated that there is a vast expanse in the middle geography that should be explored.
The exhibit clearly demonstrated the complexity of the issues involved in the Middle East. If peace is to be achieved, it can only be done by letting go of the litany of past wrongs. Both sides need to move towards new solutions that may very well reside in that very same middle ground geography.
We cannot get there- if we shutter discussion.
We do not honor the Jewish tradition of learning, debate and dialogue, which is as old as the Torah itself. We do not honor the open society that American is and that Jews relish, when we censor information we do not agree with or like.
Howard Cort says
This high-quality, even award-winning museum exhibit, was truly educational– and not only for Jews, but for Christians and Muslims, as well– the two other interal parts of the Abrahamic tradition. I would also guess that word was beginning to spread among the larger community, and even beyond the boundaries of the three Abrahamic faiths, about this exhibit. I suspect there already had been an increase in non-Jewish attendance at the Spertus facility, in addition to growing Jewish attendance.
The decision to close the museum was a step toward (1) reducing the interaction of various religious ; (2) reducing fuller understanding of the rich and varied Jewish heritage, by Jews and
non-Jews, alike; and (3) toward greater self-isolation and fearful engagement by the overall Jewish community with the wider public and world.
Thank you for promoting discussion of this important topic.
Judith Grayson, nyc says
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