The Smithsonian’s Politics

In early January, the Smithsonian Institution announced, after being pressured by Jewish groups and members of Congress, that it would no longer be working with the New Israel Fund (NIF) on a lecture series commemorating Israel’s 50th birthday. The decision brought a sigh of relief from many people and provoked outrage from NIF organizers. The tragedy is that one of America’s great cultural institutions got itself mixed up in Jewish/Israeli politics. This was not, however, the first time the Smithsonian ran afoul of Jewish sensibilities.

Some years ago, the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum was taken to task for exhibits of German V-2 rockets that failed to mention what many thought was the salient fact that much of the work on these and other projects in Germany was done by Jewish slave laborers. Reason prevailed in that case and the accompanying text was changed to include references to the Jewish workers.

During the 1990 Festival of American Folklife, an event put on each year by the Smithsonian, an exhibition called “Musics of Struggle” was included. This featured an eclectic mix of American coal miners, Kurds, South African blacks, Hispanic farm workers and the Galludet “Deaf President Now” movement. Israeli and Palestinian singers were also on the program. Instead of the music of Israel’s struggle for independence and survival in a hostile region (typified by the anthem Hatikvah), the Israeli sung about injustices toward the Palestinians.

During the performances, pro-Palestinian groups passed out flyers and newsletters that were anti-Israel. The Festival program listed 10 books for further reading on the conflict, only one was sympathetic to Israel. An insert stuck into the program after it was published apologized for listing the members of the Palestinian signing group as coming from “Jerusalem, Israel.”

The Festival performances were in that case cosponsored by an Arab-American organization that was essentially hostile toward Israel, so you would have thought the Smithsonian would have learned its lesson about enlisting cosponsors that might provoke controversy or hostility.

I have no problem with NIF sponsoring any kind of forum they want, but the Smithsonian has to think more carefully about what it does with the money it gets largely from taxpayers. Now a case can be made for the type of program NIF wants to put on, one they are calling “Israel at 50: Yesterday’s Dreams, Today’s Realities,” which apparently will take a critical look at Israel’s past and present. Is this the best way to “celebrate” Israel’s first half-century, especially by a federally funded organization like the Smithsonian? I think not.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not looking for anyone to offer any “on the one hand, on the other hand” analyses of my character on my birthday. The truth is that Israel’s “realities” are discussed every day, every year. One of NIF’s speakers, for example, is Thomas Friedman, who gets his usually disparaging say about Israel every week in the nation’s most prestigious newspaper. He and other prospective NIF speakers may not be anti-Israel, but their speeches aren’t likely to glorify Israel either. Even if the program had been “balanced” with people from the other side of the political spectrum, who needs balance? The critics already dominate the news; unabashed boosterism would be balance.

Sorry folks, but setting aside one day every 50 years to extol Israel’s accomplishments is not McCarthyism, it’s a salute to the triumph of Zionism.