Too Good to be True?

The new, pluralistic permanent exhibit at the Museum of the Jewish People feels increasingly at odds with its surroundings.

ANU — Museum of the Jewish People opened to the public in March 2021. The opening of a new museum is a cause for celebration, marking the completion of a long process. In ANU’s case, this was the culmination of a decade of planning and renovations, at the cost of one hundred million dollars. The festivities for such a major event would usually include an official opening ceremony with speeches, guided tours through the galleries, and the obligatory hors d’oeuvres. Unfortunately, as with so many other social gatherings, COVID-19 put an end to these large-scale plan plans, and ANU’s opening had to make do with a strong media campaign.

Necessity, as the old adage goes, is the mother of invention. Many museums around the world developed virtual exhibitions during the extended lockdowns, making their collections available online for free. Like them, ANU offers a virtual tour. Thanks to the vaccination rates in Israel, however, it was also physically open from the start. When I first visited the museum in March, visitors were encouraged to purchase time-stamped tickets in advance in order to facilitate crowd management. At the time, this was not a problem. Even though the museum did have visitors, it was hardly at capacity even under COVID-19 restrictions. Inside the museum, there was mandatory mask-wearing, and visitors were mindful to maintain social distancing requirements.

In July, I returned for another visit, this time as part of a guided tour for about twenty people. We were all masked, but perhaps were not quite as mindful of social distancing as during my earlier visit. As we approached the elevator to begin the tour, some members of the group hesitated, feeling that it would be too crowded. Their discomfort was understandable: a reminder that, although museums have reopened, things are still not back to normal.

A visit to ANU proves that, for all the recent innovations in online museology, there is still no substitute for a visit to a museum. Described on its website as the “largest and most comprehensive Jewish museum in the world,” ANU tells the story of the Jewish people through an array of artifacts, multimedia presentations, and interactive exhibits. The curators and designers have done a remarkable job of coopting architecture, object placement, and the use of tactile elements to engage visitors. These experiences, evidently, are not attainable in an online exhibit. The same holds true for the strolling around, random conversations, and the other serendipitous elements that are part and parcel of a visit to an actual museum space.

Museums, as many scholars have noted, are not just temples of knowledge and art, seeking to preserve it for the generations to come. They are public institutions that shape and reflect certain ideologies. In the case of ANU (lit. “We”), this is clear from its name and history. ANU is a complete reworking of Beit Hatfutsot (the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora), which was opened in 1978. The new branding already tells of a different agenda. No longer is it about the diaspora, and its implied center in Israel, but rather about unity and difference. If I had to sum up the museum in one word, I would choose the prefix multi. It offers a pluralistic and inclusive vision of what it means to be Jewish—multicultural, multilingual, multi-denominational, and multi-ethnic.

Figure 1: Mosaic entrance. Photo: Zvi Feller

After entering through the ground floor, visitors are directed to an elevator to the third floor, where the first gallery, “Mosaic: Identity and Culture in Our Times,” is located. In an interview with Haaretz, director Dan Tadmor understandably expressed pride in the design of the exhibition. The opening segment—a media installation reflecting contemporary Jewish life and personal meanings of Jewishness—is beautifully executed. The walls are covered with blown-up pictures of Jewish families; in the center of the hall, full body-size screens, show a total of twenty-one Jews of different backgrounds. A lesbian Reform rabbi from the United States, an Israeli Moroccan Jew, and an Argentinian Jew all appear on the screens simultaneously, each speaking in their own language. The metaphor of the mosaic conveys that each is an individual part of a larger, coherent picture. Another image that could be evoked is that of the Tower of Babel. The languages constantly change, with each person on the screen speaking directly to the visitor but not to one another. The volume levels in the exhibition prevent it from becoming a cacophony of voices; but there isn’t harmony either. The text panel introducing the installation emphasizes, among others using bold font, that “there are many and diverse ways to be Jewish” and that these many ways create the “multifaceted identity of Jews” (there’s that multi again).

This emphasis on diversity rather than a normative statement of what it means to be Jewish emerges in another nearby segment of the exhibition, “Communities and Boundaries.” Using mostly text panels but also a handful of small objects and videos, the exhibit presents a cross-section of Jewish denominational life. Orthodoxy is given the most space, with about half of the exhibit dedicated to streams such as Hasidim, Mitnagdim, and Mizrahi Orthodox. On the other side of the aisle—literally—are the Liberal (Reform), Conservative, and Reconstructionist denominations. Secular Jews are placed in the middle, a category of their own. Like the permanent exhibition as a whole, the section has a non-judgmental air to it. The various practices are all presented as part of the same mosaic. But at the same time, perhaps having the Orthodox on one side and the Reform and Conservative on the other reflects a deeper reality. “Jewish Americans in 2020,” a recent report by the Pew Research Center, found that about half of the Orthodox Jews surveyed for the report, and about six in ten of those who identified as Reform, said that they have “nothing at all” or “not much” in common with the other denomination. What unites these Jews? The Pew Center’s report suggests that, in the North American context, the memory of the Holocaust—given a modest place in the historical narrative of ANU, as one important episode in Jewish history—and caring about the State of Israel provide the strongest points of identification for Jews in North America.

Figure 2: Luminaries. Photo: Zvi Feller

What makes something Jewish? Jewish culture and the place of Jews in general culture are central themes in “Mosaic.” This question runs throughout the entire floor, whether in a segment on Jewish food, or in those on film, theater, and music. This question is referenced explicitly in the context-setting text panels, and comes up as well during the guided tours. The reference to prominent Jews in all fields of culture feels a bit like a triumphal procession of Jewish ingenuity, a strand that culminates in a section dedicated explicitly to “Luminaries,” or famous Jews. Thankfully, its playful tone prevents it from becoming too self-indulgent. Alongside objects like Leonard Cohen’s guitar and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous lace collar, there are caricatures of prominent Jews, executed by Israeli illustrator Yirmi Pinkus, and media stations offering up the biographies of 150 famous Jews. The concluding installation is an animated video of well-known Jews, accompanied by a song by Israeli hip-hop artists Sha’anan Street and David Klemes.

Whereas the opening act of the exhibition is dedicated to contemporary Jewish identity and culture, the second act, titled “The Journey: The Historical Story through the Generations,” is an encompassing history of the Jewish people. True to the museum’s inclusive vision, the curators clearly made the effort to include more female voices and marginalized histories such as that of Mizrahi Jews. But on the whole, the feeling is more conservative and less innovative than that of “Mosaic.” This might be because the visitor moves through the exhibit in a chronological, rather standard fashion. An animated movie at the beginning presents a bird’s eye view of Jewish history, beginning with Abraham and ending in the present time. The exhibition proper follows much of the same path, beginning in antiquity and progressing up to the present. Perhaps as a nod to Beit Hatfutsot—or maybe for want of better alternatives—some materials from the permanent collection of ANU’s predecessor have been reused, such as the plaster replicas of the medieval Ecclesia and Synagoga, and several historical dioramas. Another explanation for the more traditional feeling conveyed by this gallery is that, although it uses similar design elements and attempts at relatability (objects and videos with actors playing historical or semi-fictional characters from the period, for example), the bulk of this floor still relies on textual information, of which there is simply too much. Each section on its own is well done, but the overall rush of information is overwhelming.

The exhibition ends on the first floor. “The Foundations” shows the reception of the Hebrew Bible in world culture, alongside a presentation of the Jewish lifecycle and holidays. Rather than relying on historical objects, the museum has chosen modern iterations and artistic interpretations of Jewish rituals. Like “Mosaic,” it is meant to show both the specifically Jewish and the Jewish contribution to world culture. The last part, titled “Hallelujah!,” is a reworking of a beloved highlight from Beit Hatfutsot: the impressive Synagogue Hall with models of synagogues from all over the world. Multimedia stations, videos and related objects have been added, creating a beautiful and moving exhibition and a fine place to end one’s visit.

The sheer amount of material across 7,000 square meters fulfills ANU’s claim to being a comprehensive representation of Jewish history and culture. But it also prompts a question about the ways in which we tell this history. The question of whether there is such a singular object of research called Jewish history—indeed, whether the history of the Jewish people is unified—has confronted every historian of the Jews. In implicitly answering it, the new exhibition at ANU offers a different historiography to that of its predecessor. Beit Hatfutsot’s ideology could be summarized in the single image that opened its permanent exhibition: an enlarged replica of a relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting Roman soldiers bearing the menorah aloft following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE. That exhibition ended with the symbol of the menorah and the 1948 War of Independence. Jewish diaspora emerged as a result of destruction; Jewish history is a national history whose telos is the return to the land. This narrative reflects a type of Zionist historiography sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem School, which emerged in the 1960s around a group of scholars from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

But a strong strand of contemporary historiography rejects the assumptions of the Jerusalem School, offering instead a less monolithic vision of Jewish history. Developed primarily in North American departments of Jewish Studies, it tends to stress plurality and diversity and offers a different vision of society—and of what it means to be a Jew. Two examples make this point evident: Cultures of the Jews (2002), a collection of essays edited by David Biale, and Aaron Hahn Tapper’s Judaism(s): A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Judaism (2016), a textbook for undergraduate students. Both books show that the pluralization of Judaism and Jewish history is becoming ever more prevalent. ANU follows this mode of telling the Jewish story (or stories), asking what is “Jewish” about something and offering multiple answers. This approach is mirrored in the very conscious decision to allocate space for female luminaries and perspectives as an integral part of Jewish history, both in a special section on the third floor and across the exhibition. Mizrahi Jewish life and culture is also emphasized much more than it was in Beit Hatfutsot. These are important correctives, and the tour guide made sure that we didn’t miss them. In this sense, ANU is a critique of its predecessor.

With some variations, the same museum could have been built somewhere else, for example in New York. In a sense, this is a compliment, a testament to the move away from Beit Hatfutsot’s centric narrative. But there is also a problem here. ANU ignores, or at the very least downplays, its rootedness in the Israeli context. In March 2021, the same month that ANU opened, Israelis went to the polls for the fourth time in two years. Although the political deadlock has, at least temporarily, been resolved with a new fragile coalition under the leadership of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, this should not obscure the fact that ANU’s vision is highly contested in the State of Israel. If anything, the last election results prove that many openly and vehemently reject ANU’s ideals. Betzalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, has a long history of vocal opposition to the LGBTQ+ community. But compared to number six on his party’s list, the recently elected Avigdor Maoz, Smotrich seems moderate. Maoz sees same-sex marriage as a spiritual threat to Judaism and Israel, and opposes women serving in the IDF. It would be wrong to dismiss them as part of a fringe phenomenon. Alongside the Religious Zionist Party, Shas (Mizrahi Orthodoxy), and United Torah Judaism (ultra-Orthodox) represent similar positions. Together, they account for twenty-two of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, and about eighteen percent of votes cast at the last election.

This rejection of pluralism extends beyond gender. It is about who gets to define Jewishness. To an extent, this struggle over the definition of who is a Jew is not new, neither is it limited to the Israeli context. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the United States, for example, do not recognize Reform or Conservative conversions. In a similar vein, Neturei Karta and the Satmar Hasidim, reject secular Israeli culture as non-Jewish and see the State of Israel an obstacle to redemption. Only in the Israeli context, however, the definition of Jewishness is tied at times to laws of citizenship. The state—through a chief rabbinate controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox establishment—refuses to recognize many conversions, such as that of the Abayudaya community in Uganda. A recent Supreme Court decision recognized non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel, ruling that converts to Judaism through this path were entitled to the rights of citizenship according to the Law of Return. One could expect this decision to be watered down or overruled through legislation. In fact, the Minister of Religious Affairs at the time, Ya’akov Avitan (Shas), expressed his contempt for the decision, stating that “the Jewish people does not recognize Reformers, nor ridiculous conversions.” Note that he speaks in the name of the Jewish people: a univocal position in complete opposition to the multivocal tenor of ANU.

ANU is everything its creators hoped it would be. A cutting-edge, beautifully executed, comprehensive museum of the Jewish people. And precisely because of that, it feels at odds with its location. As the Museum of the Jewish People, its permanent exhibition is inspirational, but also aspirational. It is increasingly at odds with the diverging paths of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in which the museum is located.

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