The Jewish Museum blinked. But it wasn’t enough to placate critics of its controversial exhibition, “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” set to open in nine days.
Following a contentious, two-hour meeting last week with some Holocaust survivors, brokered by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, the museum agreed to better inform visitors of the charged content of some of the more controversial pieces. It added an unmissable warning sign, tightened access to Alan Schechner’s Web-based image “It’s the Real Thing: Self-Portrait at Buchenwald,” and cut a new exit to allow the squeamish to avoid an unexpected encounter with busts of Joseph Mengele and designer label canisters of Zyklon-B.
Despite these moves, seen by museum officials as a gesture toward survivors’ sensitivities, critics are planning a number of protests and are standing by a boycott if the museum does not cancel the show.
“This does not in any way solve or ameliorate the problem,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a representative of Holocaust survivors who first proposed a boycott of the show. “The museum leadership simply does not get it. It’s not how or where [the works] are exhibited. What is offensive and causes anguish is they are displayed at The Jewish Museum at all.”
Hikind was harsher, calling museum officials “intellectual whores” for listening to and then ignoring survivors’ pleas to cancel a show they say trivializes their experiences in concentration camps. Hikind is organizing a protest when “Mirroring Evil” opens next Sunday. He will push for a new compromise that may include moving offensive works to an offsite location.
Others hailed the museum’s concession.
“I think it’s a proper decision,” said Michael Berenbaum, a historian and exhibition consultant. “When we designed the [U.S.] Holocaust Museum, we created a safety valve as a way for people to go around the cattle car.”
But strangely unruffled, however, are the artists. Their art has had a life outside The Jewish Museum and they don’t seem especially concerned with how it is displayed.
“I don’t know if I can comment on the warning sign,” Tom Sachs, whose “Giftgas Giftset” was singled out as one of the most offensive works, told The Jewish Week. “That’s a curatorial concession, more their decision than mine.” He does not usually work with Jewish themes, but “Manischewitz Luger,” his rendering of a pistol with kosher food packaging, is already in the museum’s permanent collection.
Though his work has also been singled out, Alan Schechner is equally nonplussed. “I think The Jewish Museum has been fine” in their handling of the uproar, he said in a phone interview from Savannah, Ga., where he teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His work has been shown widely to little debate, but in “Mirroring Evil,” visitors must affirmatively click a button in order for his digital images to appear on the several computer monitors facing a wall.
“It’s a difficult work, I always knew that,” he said of “It’s the Real Thing.” “I think if people have found it offensive, it’s fair to inform people so they can make informed decisions.” He added that art galleries often add warning signs for sexually explicit work like that of the Chapman brothers.
“I do art as a way of connecting with people so I’m sad that some response hasn’t allowed for dialogue,” he said. He would have preferred Dov Hikind to pick up the phone. “I would have been happy to have spoken to him.”
“It’s the Real Thing” has become a flashpoint for both sides. For a protest that was to take place Thursday in front of the museum, planned by Rabbi Zev Friedman of Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, L.I., one ninth-grader made a sign by removing Schechner’s superimposed image from the concentration camp and placing it by the burning Twin Towers to illustrate the museum’s insensitivity to the victims of trauma.
“Basically, this says the emperor has no clothes,” said Rosensaft, who is a founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “They wouldn’t think if putting busts of Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero. The museum should tell us what’s the difference.”
As part of the museum’s effort to canvass Jewish opinion makers, a process that started well over a year ago, Rosensaft is to meet with director Joan Rosenbaum on Monday.
The outspoken critic has rallied groups like the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors to join the boycott, but not everyone supports that move.
“This is the wrong exhibit at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman. “But the ADL feels that boycotts are not productive. Jews are too frequently the object of boycotts.”
Indeed, this controversy is breaking new ground in Jewish community infighting. Longtime friends Berenbaum and Rosensaft, who both serve on the governing body of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, are at opposite ends of this question of how the museum should adhere to survivor’s sensitivities.
An activist for Jewish causes, Rabbi Friedman said it saddens him to lead his first protest of a Jewish institution. “One of the arguments they used is freedom of speech, which is 100 percent right, but freedom of speech isn’t necessarily a Jewish value,” the rabbi said. “Jewish law goes one step beyond and says there has to be sensitivity in speech.”
And, for some, the meeting — which showcased what Berenbaum called “class differences” — only yielded acrimony.
“I think there is no need to justify this show to any Holocaust survivors,” said psychologist Eva Fogelman, who has written extensively about the children of survivors and served as an unpaid museum consultant. “They have been through enough. This is not a show about the victims, but the perpetrators, about the second and third generations trying to understand, and in some cases failing to understand, the perpetrators.”
Hikind complained of the museum’s “holier than thou” attitude that “they knew better.”
Others felt bullied by the angry survivors. “It was not a constructive dialogue,” said Nechama Tec, a historian of the Holocaust and consultant on the exhibition. “I felt they were extremely pushy and wouldn’t let us finish a sentence.”
As for the general public, they will have the opportunity to make up their minds starting March 17.