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.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.