Chicago Museum Closes Contentious Jewish Exhibit

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In the wake of an outcry from Chicago-area Jews, the Windy City’s only Jewish museum closed down a high-profile maps exhibition that parsed the issue of Israel’s borders and boundaries.

The Spertus Museum, part of the 84-year-old Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, located on Chicago’s South Loop, announced June 20 that it was shutting down Imaginary Coordinates, which was originally scheduled to close in the fall. The institute’s board of trustees came to the decision after nearly two months of vocal opposition from constituents.

“When it came down to the bottom line, there were large numbers of people who were deeply pained by the exhibition,” said the institute’s president, Howard Sulkin. “Every exhibition should have some disagreement or it’s not good art, but this went beyond that.”

The controversy generated by the Chicago exhibit is raising questions about the broader role of Jewish museums around the country. As Jewish museums come of age and seek to define themselves in the contemporary landscape, they are taking more risks.

Indeed, according to trustee Marc Wilkow, who has served on the Spertus board for a decade, the museum — which only six months ago unveiled its new home, a $50 million architecturally cutting-edge building — is seeking to serve as a platform for discussion of timely issues.

“Our mission goes well beyond looking back at our heritage. We also want to talk about current issues, and serious issues, but we don’t want to offend people,” Wilkow said. “That line can be hard to identify, unfortunately, and sometimes you don’t know that you’ve crossed it until you’ve unwittingly crossed it.”

The recently closed exhibition opened on May 2 and featured the institute’s collection of historic “Holy Land” maps, which date back to the 16th century, as well contemporary Israeli and Palestinian women artists’ works that take up the question of regional borders.

One video piece that raised eyebrows featured a woman asking Israelis in Jerusalem for directions to Ramallah. The Israelis all give her different directions and think that Ramallah is far away, despite its close proximity to Jerusalem.

“The Israelis come across as unfeeling,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “It was seen by some as part of a pattern of sympathetic treatment of Palestinians and a less sympathetic treatment of Israelis.”

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/4/2008

Well we know that one Isreali is worth many Palestinians don't we? Could it be that the depictions were true but was bad PR for the Isrealies? They have inordinate power here outside of their own country. Why? It seems they must control all propoganda in their favor, always. Unless you don't mind being labled 'anti-Jew' to the world.

We need one reality where the truth is given in all of its beauty and ugliness and no matter who dislikes it it remains. Otherwise their is only relative freedom for some not all.