Propaganda Slips

Propaganda Slips

Visitors to an exhibition about Arab Americans, now on view at the Museum of the City of New York, can learn about two distinct waves of immigration from Arab lands: one beginning in the late 19th century, another in 1965.

Audiences can learn, too, about the distinct religious groups that comprise the Arab community in New York: Muslim, Jewish and several Christian denominations.

And visitors who look closely also can learn: "Thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians [had] been killed and thousands more wounded by weapons which the U.S. supplied to Israel." Or, "About 6,000 Lebanese and Palestinian men [had] been seized and placed in concentration camps in Lebanon or Israel."

These statements and similar charges are contained on a flier displayed in the exhibition, titled "A Community of Many Worlds."

The exhibition, which opened March 2, is devoted mainly to Arab New Yorkers’ cultural and commercial contributions and achievements.

It is on view through Sept. 1 on the first-floor gallery of the museum, at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

The flier announces a July 31, 1982 protest demonstration organized by a group called the New York Emergency Committee on Lebanon. It is included in a section of the exhibition called "Homeland Issues," which deals with the political activism of Arab-American New Yorkers.

"We feel it’s possible to present political views as history without thereby condoning them," said Sarah Henry, vice president for programs at the city-funded museum. "To omit them is to tell only a piece of the story."

In fact, the museum has gotten little flak from supporters of Israel. Fewer than a dozen complaints have been received on the exhibition’s treatment of Jewish and Israel-related issues, and most of those found the exhibition "too solicitous" of Israeli or Jewish concerns, Henry said.

Some consultants to the exhibition apparently are also criticizing the museum for whitewashing aspects of the show dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Yes, we’re getting it from both sides," said Henry, adding that she had yet to hear the consultants’ objections directly.

Jewish groups contacted by The Jewish Week were unaware of the exhibition’s specific content. Officials at the Anti-Defamation League, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and the Sephardic Community Center in the Syrian-Jewish neighborhood of Midwood, Brooklyn, said they had not received any calls about the exhibition. The Syrian- and Yemenite-Jewish communities are featured in the exhibition.

"This is not a show about the Middle East," Henry said. "We only incorporated the history of the Middle East when it’s there to illuminate the history of Arab and Arabic-speaking people in New York."

But reached by The Jewish Week, one consultant to the exhibition, the Palestinian-American filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, said she objected to several changes made "at the last minute" that she felt obscure the historical record.

One was a chronology that in Jacir’s view fails to represent the cataclysmic significance for Palestinians of the year 1948, when Israel proclaimed its independence and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians went into exile. The second is the deletion of the term "Palestine" from a map displaying the countries of origin of Arab Americans. The museum replaced the term with "Palestinian Authority," Jacir said.

"This was done out of fear and ignorance," she said. "The museum didn’t want to be ‘too political.’ For me that’s not being too political. It’s a question of silencing my history."

Some of those late changes were recommended by Sara Reguer, a Middle East scholar who chairs the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College. The museum asked her to vet the exhibition’s Jewish content "for accuracy," Reguer told The Jewish Week.

She praised the museum’s efforts as a balanced presentation. To those who might suggest that bringing in a "Jewish consultant" changed the direction of the exhibition, Reguer says, "I don’t have that much power. I advise."

Paula Hajar, an activist and educator who consulted on the exhibition, said the exhibition team engaged in "long, drawn-out discussions" about the "Homeland Issues" section and worded it very carefully.

"Any time a public installation is critical of Israel, everybody walks around on tiptoes," she said. "That was always part of our conversations."

read more: