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Let There Not Be Light at the Spertus Institute?

(Photo: The light of illumination goes dark at Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.)

[Note: Late on Friday, the Chicago Tribune article I discuss in this post was heavily updated to include additional details about the “Imaginary Coordinates” exhibit and the criticisms that led to the Spertus Institute’s decision to cancel it early. Primary among those criticisms: essentially, that merely thinking about the borders of the Holy Land is somehow “anti-Israel”. So the moral of this story seems to be, as far as the Spertus Institute is concerned, it’s OK for there to be only one side to a story…]

As reported in today’s Chicago Tribune, this week, downtown Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies bowed to pressure from Jewish United Fund (JUF)/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago president Steven Nasatir and closed its multimedia exhibition on Holy Land boundaries, “Imaginary Coordinates”, three months early.

The show, originally scheduled to run through September 17th, used maps and nontraditional media to examine the historical, cultural, and actual meaning of Holy Land borders for both the Israelis and the Palestinians who together live there.

What was the problem? According to Spertus trustee Philip Gordon, “significant criticism that ‘Imaginary Coordinates’ conveyed anti-Israel points of view”.

Gordon went on to say:

“Spertus was at risk of seriously alienating its core constituency…our fiduciary and mission-based responsibility to Spertus required us to direct the staff to close the exhibition.”

Spertus president Howard Sulkin was also riding the backtrack express today:

“[The trustees] came to realize that parts of the exhibition were not in keeping with aspects of our mission as a Jewish institution and did not belong at Spertus…This exhibition caused pain for members of our audience. That was never our intent and we apologize.”

Am I the only one who smells financial–and political–strong-arming here?

When probed by the Tribune to reveal the specific aspects of the exhibition that were deemed to be “anti-Israel”, or who else besides Nasatir had expressed such concerns, neither Gordon nor Sulkin had any response.

When I toured the Spertus during this year’s Chicago Great Places and Spaces, the senior Spertus official who led the tour seemed pretty confident in the exhibit’s ability to explain both sides of the issue of borders and residency in the Holy Land.

A review of the Spertus Institute’s own website reveals the grounding for such confidence. According to their About Us page, their mission is to be an educational institution that explores the “multi-faceted Jewish experience” and fosters “understanding for Jews and people of all faiths” through means including “thought-provoking exhibitions”.

As my Spertus tour guide took great pains to point out, the institute’s symbol, a flame above the Hebrew words for “let there be light” (yehi or), was carefully chosen to reflect such an enlightened perspective on the world.

That same website notes that the JUF/Jewish Fund is the Spertus Institute’s primary financial benefactor, so I guess whatever Steven Nasatir says, goes. But I can’t help thinking he probably should review the institute’s stated mission–and perhaps do some meditation on the reason for separation of church and state in the first place (and this, a fundamental principle both in the U.S. and in Israel).

Earlier this month, the June 5th issue of Time Out Chicago had this to say about the Imaginary Coordinates show, which it rated five out of six stars:

“…what’s really gutsy is the exhibition’s balanced look at Israel’s and Palestine’s competing claims for the Holy Land. At the risk of alienating part of its core audience, the Spertus presents a powerful and moving reflection on the meaning of borders, territory and home turf.”

Time Out Chicago seems to have been sadly prescient in this case (and maybe that’s where all parties got that insipid “alienating our core audience” phraseology). But I, for one, simply do not believe that rank-and-file Spertus scholars or Chicago’s Jewish community in general are closed-minded, much less closed-minded enough to demand this exhibit closed.

The Tribune said that the Spertus doesn’t think that closing a controversial art exhibit three months early amounts to censorship. As far as Gordon is concerned, the exhibit’s cancellation is nothing more than “…an institution saying, ‘We made a mistake, we’re sorry, and let’s move on.'”

Hmm. I don’t think I’m using the same equation to calculate censorship as Gordon. I’ve always relied on a conditional formula:

If Art Show, and Controversy, and Cancellation, then Censorship.

The formula is simple enough to stake one’s integrity on. But, like the Spertus, maybe I made a mistake.

Categories: Politics Visual Arts

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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3 replies

  1. Thanks, Robert (a downtown neighbor and friend) and Mark, for your two passionate if different perspectives. To me, it’s an integrity thing. Everyone had integrity. When we choose not to let ourselves be guided by it, however, it becomes a lot less apparent. I’m hoping in the future the Spertus lets itself be guided by integrity, first, and fear, not at all.

  2. The Spertus has lost all respect from the architectural comunity I work with over this. A large group of us were planning on going to see this interesting display – yet were disappointed to see the censorship by a small minority of what would have been one of the most provocative shows in the country this summer. The above comment is correct – Spertus is a private funded and administered institution and has every right to be closed-minded, elitist, and of course one-sided and propagandist. Spertus you fool no one anymore with your shiny new progressive facade.

  3. Everyone is blowing this up as a censorship issue, as if the Spertus Institute shifted from inclusive fairness to despotic rule from their administrator. What started out as the City’s program to include as many museums, libraries, cultural and academic institutions and a few art galleries to provide, “a citywide celebration of humanity’s greatest discoveries and the maps that record our boldest explorations,” turned into overtly thematic interpretations of politics at the Spertus Institute.

    The City had more educational goals in mind for this huge project, and I doubt politics was a topic they expected partners of the project to explore as disputes in the Middle East.

    I am certain when the Spertus Institute’s administration accepted the proposal from the city for its inclusion, it did not expect curatorial staff to direct the focus away from the Institute’s collection of historic maps of Judea into an abyss of quasi-soul searching of Palestinian identity or perceptions of Israeli guilt. This is current academic programming: the need to represent tolerance and inclusiveness to negate any perceived bias. In doing so, curators can appease one group of people while hurting the sensibilities and beliefs of others.

    Never mind that most, if not all, Jewish people (I included) found parts of the installation strangely offbeat for what should have been a straight-forward display of atlases from Spertus’ magnificent collection. I would expect similar protests from Greek-Americans if one of their institutions ever curated an exhibit of Turkish and Cypriot culture and territorial dispute–all in the name of “negating bias” or “acceptance.”

    The Spertus Institute, as a privately funded and administered organization, was right to pull part, or all of it’s submission to the Maps project, regardless of their organization’s overall objectives.

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