Saturday, February 20, 2016

Museums and what they illustrate about those who found them

Sar Shalom

This month at Mosaic Magazine, Edward Rothstein has an insightful essay about Jewish museums and how they fall short in presenting Jewish culture. One observation I took from reading Rothstein's essay is that his observations do not apply just to Jewish museums, rather, they describe how most American Jews identify themselves as Jews in a general sense. Notably, Rothstein contrasts Jewish museums with other identity museums, which can be encapsulated in the following two paragraphs:
In the case of most minorities, to judge by the story told in identity museums, the freedom gained in the United States has been the freedom to become most like themselves. For their part, many Jewish American museums are more preoccupied with the freedom of Jews to become American than with the freedom of Jews to remain fully Jewish. In fact, there is often a suggestion that exercising the former freedom is precisely how Jewish Americans are most true to their identity. 
Thus, pride in Jewish American identity is measured in terms of how much that identity has contributed to the American scene. “However Jewish identity is defined,” we read at the Skirball, it has led to immense achievements and “its vitality is reflected in literature, film, music, drama, education, science, commerce, and technology.” Similarly, in the roster of Jewish achievements at the Philadelphia museum, in which Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein and Bella Abzug merit distinctive mention, I can’t recall any significant discussion of how Jewish identity has expressed itself in Jewish terms—in advancing Jewish scholarship, say, or in interpreting Jewish religious texts, or in formulating deeper understandings of Jewish peoplehood, or in articulating collective Jewish interests. When divisions within and among Jews are recognized, there is little doubt which parties are considered more authentic: namely, those whose ideas are most congenial to the vision of the museums’ founders. In these institutions, Judaism, including American Judaism, is transfigured into a kind of Jewish-inflected, progressive-style-Americanism.
Museums exhibits extolling a "Judaism" that resembles a "Jewish-inflected, progressive-style-Americanism," parallel the "Jewish" identities of many American Jews outside of the museums. An illustration of this phenomenon is the coopting of the Passover seder, one of the most readily identifiable rites of Jewish identity, into a ceremony to call attention to all of the oppressed peoples of today, with particular emphasis on the Palestinians. This practice takes what started as a rite to develop particularist identity around the redemption of Jewish peoplehood in ancient Egypt and turns it into declaration of progressive-style-internationalist with perhaps a bit of Jewish inflection.

It is this form of Judaism as ethnic inflection of progressive-style-internationalism that constitutes the animating ideology of groups like JStreet and the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in the United States and Yachad in Britain. Following the pattern Rothstein noticed regarding other identity museums, are there any organizations of African-Americans dedicated to undercutting the interests of the African-American community, Central American Latinos dedicated to undermining the interest of Central American Latinos, or, particularly, Arabs dedicated to undermining the communal interests of the Arabs? Individuals can be found, but there are few if any organizations and none as prominent as JStreet.

This difference in the nature of identity between Jews and other groups has consequences. While the Frontline episode "Netanyahu at War" framed and presented plenty of material to which supporters of Israel would object, one valid observation is that Barack Obama's worldview was formed through interactions with Chicago's Jewish community, especially the attorneys Newt Minow and Abner Mikva. Obama went further and told one of his aides that this tutelage makes him the closest thing to a Jew to occupy the White House. However, the Jewishness that shaped Obama's worldview was one like that of the museums that Rothstein decries, that is a community that stood with the African-American community in the 1960's and values tikkun olam, but standing for the interests of Jews does not register.

In conclusion, Jewish identity for many Jews is fundamentally different than ethnic identity is for members of virtually every other ethnic group. One manifestation of this difference in the nature of ethnic identity is in the difference between Jewish museums and other identity museums. However, other manifestations of this difference have greater consequences for the larger Jewish community, particularly when the universalist aspect of that identity leads Jews to have sympathies for others that trump any evidence that the object of their sympathies will exploit any leeway to cause us harm. This hyperuniversalistic vision of Jewishness leads people to say based on one side's narrative, "As a Jew, I must condemn Israel's ...."

Counteracting this phenomenon will require developing a healthy mix of particularist identity along with the universalist identity. This does not mean the need to develop a sense of chauvanism, but it does mean developing a sense that one can look out for the interests of the Jewish people without running afoul of being good international citizens. Having said that Jewish museums emphasizing universalism and burying particularism and sparsity of museums doing otherwise is merely a symptom of the strain of identity in the broader Jewish community that leads to Jews advocating the case of our enemies, such museums might help legitimate the notion that such is an authentic vision of Jewish identity. Therefore, creating museums promoting a vision in which Jewry does not need approval of others to be praiseworthy, could contribute to such a change in the concept of Jewish identity, but the task should be evaluated in terms of how it contributes to the larger goal.


  1. "It is this form of Judaism as ethnic inflection of progressive-style-internationalism that constitutes the animating ideology of groups like JStreet and the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in the United States and Yachad in Britain."


    In the US, every single ethnic group in the country tends to support the self-interest of the group, as a whole, except for the Jews. Jewish Americans were, aside from African Americans, the single most active group in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The reason for this is clear. Because the Jewish people know what it means to be singled-out for racial descrimination we tend to stand with other minority groups who have likewise suffered from racial descrimination, a movement that coalesced around the progressive-left and the Democratic Party.

    Part of the problem, however, is reciprocity.

    While we feel an ethical imperative to stand with them, via the movement and the party, there is no equivalent sense that they need to stand with us. On the contrary, much of the rest of the progressive movement believes that they have an ethical imperative to stand against us because they have convinced themselves that the Palestinian-Arabs represent the "New Jews" and, thus on some level, Israeli Jews are the "New Nazis."

    They believe this even as the Pal-Arabs announce their intention to stab Jews in the streets of Jerusalem or Hebron and to run us over with their vehicles. In fact, they interpret Arab genocidal intention toward Jews as clear evidence of Jewish malfeasance.

    Thus, they sincerely believe that Jews deserve whatever beatings that Arabs choose to dish out.

    1. No other ethnic group has wanted to assimilate so much. And for obvious reasons. Not assimilating wasn't just inconvenient, it was dangerous. Jews carried an entirely different baggage of history. In America - and in Europe - it was a survival instinct to assimilate as quickly as possible.
      Ironically, it may be that very assimilation that has helped others to turn on them.
      In European history, the worst things happened when Jews were assimilated, not when they weren't.
      It has been understood by Jews that to hold on to their ethnic and religious identity is something that puts them at risk. At least that's what they believed. Understandably.
      Unfortunately, it didn't help. In fact, as in the 1930's, it made things worse.
      As you can see, the more assimilated and "un-Jewish" American Jews have become, the more they have become targets.

      It's not reasonable to expect other ethnic groups to feel solidarity with Jews. That is identity politics, it pits groups against groups. It doesn't bring them together.
      The Civil Rights movement happened in what might as well be another Age. Sadly.