No Singular ‘Sensation’

No Singular ‘Sensation’

As the "Sensation" storm raged last month, the fact that a Catholic mayor was accusing the Brooklyn Museum’s Jewish director of promoting Catholic bashing was noted but not highlighted.

Now with the controversy being decided in Manhattan Federal Court, Jewish involvement in the affair is being scrutinized further, even as it becomes clearer that the city’s Jewish community has split along political lines.

Two Orthodox groups long in the camp of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have come out in support of his position to withhold city funds from the museum because Giuliani is offended by some of the exhibit works.

The mayor has said he was particularly sickened by the painting of a black Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and pornographic images. Chris Ofili, who painted "The Holy Virgin Mary," is a British artist of Nigerian descent, and a Catholic.

Agudath Israel of America, the Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox advocacy group, filed a legal brief last week supporting Giuliani. Written by Agudah’s general counsel David Zwiebel, the brief strongly opposes the museum’s contention that the exhibit is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment freedom of expression clause.

"If the Museum insists on using its facilities to propagate such images, thereby shutting its doors to Orthodox Jews and other like-minded New Yorkers, it ought not be able to insist that the excluded contribute their tax dollars to help subsidize its exclusionary practices," Agudah wrote.

The Orthodox Union, a centrist national synagogue membership group, also backed Giuliani.

"Just as public funds should not subsidize the pollution of our air, rivers and earth, the Orthodox Union believes that taxpayer monies should assiduously avoid supporting cultural pollution," said OU president Mandell Ganchrow. "The right of free expression enjoyed by the ‘artist’ is not a right to a government check."

But the New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee, based in Manhattan and generally aligned with more liberal policies, opposed the mayor’s actions.

"We object to this decision on the grounds that this action to withhold funds limits freedom of expression," said a statement by committee president Suzanne Denbo Jaffe and executive director Diane Steinman. "An art museum in a free society must be free to make artistic choices without fear of government interference."

And Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin Cardozo Law School, has filed an amicus brief on behalf of six artists’ groups arguing that Giuliani’s actions violate the Constitution’s prohibition against government favoring any particular religion. "He cannot endorse Roman Catholicism, which he is, by preventing public money being used for art because it denigrates that religion," Hamilton told The Jewish Week Monday.

She said it would be just as unconstitutional if the painting was of Moses adorned with camel dung. "He cannot privilege religion in general," she asserted.

The issue has also divided Jewish cultural institutions.

Some critics lashed out at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust for failing to sign a letter by the Cultural Institutions Group formally objecting to Giuliani’s threats. CIG represents 33 organizations that receive city financing.

Museum of Jewish Heritage chairman Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, advised director David Altshuler not to get involved in the flap, according to the New York Post. The Lower Manhattan museum receives about $22 million in city funds. Altshuler did not return calls.

Museum vice chairman Howard Rubenstein told The Jewish Week he would not comment on the Post report. But former Mayor Ed Koch, a founding chairman of the museum, decried the decision.

"How can they remain silent?" Koch asked, noting that it was particularly painful that it was a Holocaust museum that was "intimidated" by Giuliani from speaking up. "Once you fail to speak out on behalf of others who are being unfairly punished, sooner or later they’re going to come for you."

Koch, a frequent and vocal critic of Giuliani, called the mayor’s moves to withhold Brooklyn Museum funding "ruthless, unacceptable and intolerable."

Meanwhile, The Jewish Museum did sign the Sept. 28 CIG letter supporting the Brooklyn Museum. The letter warned the mayor he would be setting "a dangerous precedent" to revoke funding "if he … finds even a single element of an institution’s programs offensive."

The Jewish Museum also receives city, state and federal government funds, said spokeswoman Anne Scher, who declined to comment further about her director’s decision to join 22 of 33 CIG members in signing the letter.

Meanwhile, at least one observer is incensed that Jews are behind "Sensation": Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman and exhibit sponsor Charles Saatchi.

"That a Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director had no compunction about selecting a parodic image of the Madonna from the whole of Chris Ofili’s dung-bedecked oeuvre shows either stupidity or malice," said the outspoken feminist writer Camille Paglia.

"The Brooklyn show has fomented hatreds in this country: as witnessed by the placard of a defaced Star of David carried, according to the New York Post, by a demonstrator outside the museum on opening day. Is this the destructive train of thought that the contemporary arts want to foster?"

Paglia, writing in the on-line magazine Salon, added that she resents "the double standard that protects Jewish and African-American symbols and icons but allows Catholicism to be routinely trashed by supercilious liberals and ranting gay activists."

The Brooklyn Museum did not return numerous phone calls for comment.

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