The Pity of the National Museum of American Jewish History

Culture Watch

Dr. Judith Apter Klinghoffer taught history and International relations at Rowan University, Rutgers University, the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing as well as at Aarhus University in Denmark where she was a senior Fulbright professor. She is an affiliate professor at Haifa University. Her books include Israel and the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences and International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights

Freedom is the grand theme of the new National Museum of American Jewish History located in the Independence Mall in Philadelphia.  To emphasize the point, the core exhibition is divided into "Foundations of Freedom: 1654-1880," "Dreams of Freedom: 1880-1945," and "Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945-Today."  Freedom, the curators seem to argue, enabled the transformation of a small Jewish frontier outpost into the largest, richest, most important component of the Jewish diaspora.  The building, the accompanying text, and strange omissions, however, raise some interesting questions.  Jews are indubitably free in America, but just how free do they feel?  Or, to put it more precisely, how free do the museum creators feel?  Do they feel free enough to assert their deep commitment to their age-old religion?  Do they feel free enough to acknowledge their ties to the global Jewish family?  Do they feel free enough to take pride in their outsized contribution to America?

The museum building is a large shiny glass box devoid of any Jewish imagery.  Inside, the galleries are relegated to the periphery while the center is dominated by empty space crisscrossed by glass staircases in a manner appropriate for a Kafkaesque movie set.  The architects were instructed to make sure that "there was to be nothing religious in the Museum," and they have done just that.  If, for some reason or another, the Jewish museum would have to give up the building, the next tenant would have very little trouble adjusting it to its own needs.  Hasidic or Orthodox Jews who look “too Jewish” are similarly ignored despite their growing number and influence, not to mention their success in attracting the young.  Instead, the museum emphasizes assimilation, secularization and attachment to leftist agitation. 

Typically, when museum director Michael Rosenzweig talks about Jewish freedom in America, he emphasized that it means that Jews also possess the “freedom not to be Jewish.”  It is as if he failed to realize that Jews have rarely lacked the freedom not to be Jewish or that they have been paying enormously high a price for refusing not to be Jewish.  Few paid a higher price than the glorious Spanish diaspora whose expulsion from Spain after more than a thousand years of continuous habitation constituted the greatest pre-Holocaust Jewish tragedy.  To understand the enormity of the event, one has to imagine the consequence of a Jewish expulsion from America.  Hence, it should not be surprising to realize that the expelled Spanish Jews played a central role in convincing Queen Isabella to let Columbus sail.  Jews helped finance his voyage and some even sailed with him.  As Columbus reminded Isabella in his first letter to her, he sailed in the same month she expelled the Jews. 

Just as importantly, two of the places Spanish Jews ended up settling were in the Netherlands and its American settlements.  Unfortunately, the Spanish, with the Inquisition at full force, took over the Netherlands in 1549 and that forced Jews who chose to stay Jews to pack their bags yet again.  In 1654, twenty-three such Sephardic Jews insisted on landing in New Amsterdam.  Governor Stuyvesant wanted no part of them but, not wishing to alienate their Jewish investors, the Dutch West India Company overruled him.  To further ensure the safety of the poor refugees (four men, six women and thirteen children), five wealthy Jewish Dutch (Sephardic) merchants arrived in New Amsterdam in 1655.  

The Sephardic Jews of Dutch Curacao also helped fund most of the first synagogues built in America, including Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, the second-oldest continuously operating American synagogue. with which the museum used to share a building a short block away from the current site.

While the museum exhibit does start with twenty-three Jews landing in New Amsterdam, the aid extended by other diasporas to the American one is downplayed.  The aid the small American Jewish community extended to other Jewish diasporas during the notorious Damascus blood libel, the Mortara Affair and the negotiations for Romanian independence is ignored completely as is Jewish aid to Catholic Irish famine victims during the nineteenth century.  This despite the fact that chief museum historian Jonathan Sarna has written widely on these subjects.  With the exception of American Jewish efforts on behalf of Israel and Soviet Jewry, the philanthropic efforts of the American Jewish community on behalf of other Jewish diasporas in the twentieth century was similarly ignored.  Moreover, regardless of recent DNA evidence confirming that the Jews originated in the Middle East and the well-documented history of Jewish expulsions, museum curators insist on defining Jews merely as a rootless group of “Wandering People” who found a permanent home in the United States of America.  Perhaps they worried that placing the history of American Jewry in the wider context of the history of Jewish diasporas would have shattered the museum attempt to portray American Jews as just another American ethnic group.

To make sure that no one can think of Jews as unique the museum religiously ignores Jewish contribution to America’s scientific development.  German Jew Albert Einstein is included in the “Only in America” Hall of Fame but there is no mention of the world-changing letters Einstein sent to President Roosevelt leading the president to embark on the Manhattan Project.  Nor is there any mention of the American atomic effort or the fact that it was heavily staffed by Jewish scientists such as Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer.  No, do not bother to look for their names in the museum.  They are not there.  You will, however, find a prominent exhibit dedicated to the Rosenbergs.

The museum criticizes American Jews for failing to prevent the destruction of European Jewry, but it deliberately chooses to ignore the fact that they did succeed in saving many Jews, including important scientists, artists, and intellectuals.  American Jews then created for the newcomers institutions that enabled them to continue their invaluable work.  Two such well known institutions not mentioned in the museum are the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies and the New School of Social Research.  These newcomers in turn helped the United States to win the both World War II and the Cold War.  Actually, popular culture seems to be the only field the museum curators feel they can safely celebrate.  But no where will one find the name of Jewish Nobel Prize winners in science, medicine, or economics mentioned.  Not that composers, artists, or public intellectuals fare any better.  It seems that the curators wanted to avoid bragging.   

So how free do the builders of the spiffy new museum feel?  You decide.  Still, I suspect the museum is going to be a great success.  It is fun.  It is full of the latest audio visual gadgets, Bella Abzug’s hat, and camp memorabilia.  Democratic America has indeed been good for Jews and Jews have been just as good for America.  Unfortunately, those responsible for the museum feel too vulnerable to tell the history of their interdependent development in an accurate and forthright manner.  What a pity.

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Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 12/29/2010

In To Each His Own Museum, as Identity Goes on Display, Edward Rothstein beboans the sacrifice of historical accuracy to identity politics evident in a whole batch of recent museums including the Jewish one.