The Buckling of Spertus

Sad news for the Jewish community of Chicago, for Jews everywhere…

“Imaginary Coordinates,” an exhibit at the Spertus Museum has closed down due to pressure from the Jewish United Fund of Greater Chicago. “Coordinates” explored historical maps of Israel/Palestine not simply as navigational devices but as tools that can “manipulate an outcome” and serve as “products of memory and spiritual imagination.” This innovative and important exhibit incorporated artifacts and videos, and sought to expand the conventional notion of cartography as the only way to define borders. When first mounted, it was initially suspended, then tweaked. Now it’s no more.

Apparently, the Jewish Federation here believed that an intelligent examination of the cultural influences of politcal borderlines is tantamount to anti-Zionist propaganda. Even since the reworking, the JUF, which contributes roughly 11% of Spertus’ budget, has been laying heat on the museum to cease and desist. This past week, Spertus finally buckled.

JUF President Steven Nasatir was quoted in a newsy Chicago Trib piece thus:

Aspects of it were clearly anti-Israel. I was very surprised that a Jewish institution would put forward this exhibition. I was surprised and saddened by it.

No, I’d say intelligent exploration and provocative debate is precisely what belongs at a Jewish institution – regardless of what certain powerful minorities in our community might say. I’m particularly troubled by this patronizing attitude that the exhibit should not be viewed without the “appropriate context.” Whose context – the Jewish Federation’s? Isn’t that really the point: that it was this sort of bias that the exhibit was seeking to explore?

12 thoughts on “The Buckling of Spertus

  1. It’s so disheartening to know that the institution that claims to care for the whole Jewish community is so narrow minded as to submit to the demands of the purse holders (and big money givers) It’s just the latest in the actions that cause dismay.

    Thanks for going public with a broader view.

  2. Reb Brant, thanks for raising this issue. I knew nothing of it. The exhibit sounds absolutely amazing. I don’t want to miss it. Have the curators sought other places to house this important work.

    I totally agree with your critique of the president of the JUF’s statement. This kind of censorship communicates weakness within the Jewish community and a betrayal of our core values.

  3. I knew when I read the article in the paper that I could count on you to speak up about this distressing decision by Spertus and this “blackmail” by JUF. This reminds me of the synagogue signs I saw (and still see in some locations) provided by JUF which read “we stand with Israel”. Those synagogues (like JRC) which chose not to display the signs due to political concerns and interpretation were considered by many to be anti-Israel in all areas and looked upon almost as traitors.
    Thanks for offering insight and open mindedness to counter the narrow mindedness of many in the Chicago Jewish community.
    Vickie

  4. JUF doesn’t represent anybody, in the sense that we have representatives whom we appoint or elect. JUF is merely the organization that collects money from Jews and distributes it where the elite directors (not necessarily the donors) decide it should go.

    In the absence of an acknowledged leadership of the entire Jewish community, the big donors assert their decisions.

  5. Boy, it’s hard to believe I have to find myself defending a principal, supporting the JUF on this one. I don’t necessarily agree with the position they take, but it is not incumbent on an organization, including a community organization like the JUF, to support groups, policies, organizations, programs that they feel are at odds with their goals. I don’t expect to see JRC donating to Right to Life (just choosing an organization name, I’m not recommending support for it) because it is a community wide organization that some people might agree with, but the “elite directors” of the synagogue don’t.

    The leadership of organizations make policies for organizations. If you want a larger voice, get involved. As a synagogue we should return to our fund raising efforts on behalf of the entire Jewish community, not just our narrow goals. While Rabbi Rosen has recommended some very worthy organizations to support of a variety of crises, he should also point out that aid to most major crises can be directed through the JUF as well.

    And finally, re. Vicky’s comment. I believe that JRC has made a major error by not having a “We Stand with Israel” sign, such as found in the majority of area synagogues. The centrality of Israel and Zionism is both a foundation of Reconstructionist Judaism (you can look at the JRF website if you are interested) and we need to be clear that support for Israel is not the sole perspective of the right. Standing with Israel doesn’t mean supporting every decision (from the left or the right). It means recognizing the centrality of Israel to Judaism and the Jewish people. JRC is not the only congregation whose membership is primarily liberal, and we are not better– nor more open minded — than other congregations.

    I know former members who’ve left the congregation because we seem to have lost our Jewish focus in favor of social causes (yeah, we call it Tikkun Olam, but we still don’t often put it in a Jewish context.). They felt that “alternative voices” were not as welcome. But ok, that goes back to the earlier point about the people who are most involved, most active, “the elite directors,” are those who set the agenda. If I, or anyone else, wants to change it, then we need to get more involved.

    Sorry for the long rant. I kow it somehow got off track from Spertus. Don’t like how/what the JUF funds, then get involved in the organization. I can assure you they need the assistance.

    (Let me assure you, I have, honestly, the highest respect for writers who’ve posted here, just providing another perspective.)

  6. Perhaps the progressive Jewish community in Chicago should create an alternative to the JUF that better reflects our values in the same way that J Street better reflects our values than does AIPAC.

  7. a,

    It’s hard to address an anonymous posting, but when did freedom of expression and artistic freedom become unJewish? As we near 4th of July, surely a “United Jewish Fund” (maybe someone should recommend a name change) would support artists and museums’ freedom of expression.

    I justed graduated from a USC Communication masters program. We focused on social media, but every chance I could get, I went to USC Cinema’s School Interactive Media program (http://interactive.usc.edu/). They are the next generation of creators (our future Spielbergs, the smartest students now go into this dept., which used to be called video gaming, not the cinema track) and have created mind-blowing stuff like FLOW, DARFUR IS BURNING, PMOG. That a organization would quelch a project that is on the cutting-edge, best situated to appeal to younger, media-savvy Jews would be more depressed if it wasn’t so common.

    I’m reading the New Yorkers article on Adelson and again, it’s almost shocking at the level of corruption of our spiritual value (but the shock’s gone as it’s so common).

    Jewschool responded to another example re: a mainstream Jewish org. corrupted, flawed decision and ultimately the org. reversed course. A small, small victory, but one the Chicago Jewish blogasphere and beyond might want to consider — http://jewschool.com/2007/09/16/12653/plant-trees-ogle-breasts/,
    which triggered a flurry of public, email letters (see my link).

  8. Ross,

    Ross, your point about alternative organizations is one worth thinking about. There are many alternatives, and progressive organizations. But it’s kind of like donating to the United Fund. If you don’t like the community approach, we can all donate to more specific, parochial organizations.

    On an international level you might look at the New Israel Fund (http://www.nif.org) which was established as an alternative to the national federation organization’s traditional Israel campaign.

    Here are a couple of good list of Jewish Tzadaka organizations,

    http://www.tzadaka.org
    http://www.conferenceofpresidents.org/content.asp?id=55 – Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations includes more than fifty major, national organizations, including the JRF, Am. Friends of Peace Now, the Workman’s Circle, Aminu, and a host of other organizations you may or may not agree with.

    There are lots of others. I’m sure you have a group you are interested in as well.

    Personally, I don’t think its a good idea to distance ourselves from the bulk of the Jewish community.

    Btw, here’s an organization that looks impressive. Kahal America http://kahalamerica.com/?page_id=3 Rabbi Rosen (Board of Advisors) and Fomer Cazzanit Lori Lippitz (Board of Directors) are involved.

  9. a,

    I agree with your suggestions, but not with your characterization of the JUF as “the community approach” and as their representing the “bulk” of the Jewish community. Though the Federation raises a great deal of money and supports many worthwhile Jewish community institutions, that does not make them tantamount to the community itself. Indeed, the number of people who give to their annual campaign is a small fraction of the Jewish community – and their existence as a Jewish fund-raising institution does not give them the right to speak for the the Jewish community at large. The Jewish community is a much wider and more diverse place than simply the JUF and there are many ways to identify/participate within it.

  10. The closing of the Spertus exhibit has generated a lot of discussion. I was unable to view the exhibit before it closed. In the comments to Rabbi Rosen’s posting on the matter, no one has mentioned what was actually in the exhibit.

    Gila Wertheimer, associate editor of The Jewish Star, gave an example of one display that is described by Rhoda Rosen, Spertus Museum director, as the “anchor” of the exhibit. A drawing appears done by Nico Louis Herschel for his son Tsewie in 1942. It includes the hope that his son would someday reach Israel. His son does eventually go to Israel, but Nico and his wife were killed in the Sobibor death camp

    Displayed next to this drawing is a medicine container filled with dirt from a Palestinian village that no longer exists. The name on the bottle is Ahmad Ibrahim, a man born in the village who has lived in the U.S. for the past 50 years. Rosen is quoted as saying: “The vial may be read as a map of the pain of exile.”

    I am in agreement with Wertheimer’s analysis in The Jewish Star that the juxtaposition of these two objects suggests that Jews are no better than the Nazis. I find this insinuation disturbing.

    I do agree with Rabbi Rosen, that “intelligent exploration and provocative debate is precisely what belongs at a Jewish institution.” But this an exhibit in a Jewish museum… not a classroom. The forum for discussion and debate was not provided in the museum. People simply left the exhibit with a negative image.

    Rabbi Rosen seems offended by the JUF’s assertion that context is required for such an exhibit. Yes, context is important. This exhibit was political as well as artistic. You need to view the political situation in Israel in context with the behavior of the surrounding Arab countries over the past 60 years.

    I have chosen not to use my last name on the Internet, but those of you who have a JRC directory can figure it out.

    Ann H.

  11. Ann,

    but shouldn’t a museum generate debate? What is the point of art if not to ask difficult questions, even about the Holocaust, esp. artwork created under the most horrendous circumstances contrasted against a media project that allows for a range of interpretations, debate and like the digital format, diversity?

    I find your view a bit parochial and myopic given interactive media is the cutting-edge and the best way to reach young Jewish audiences.

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