Smithsonian should offer diverse views of Israel Series on nation's 50th anniversary ought to foster intellectual debate

January 18, 1998|By PHYLLIS BENNIS

The mandate of the Smithsonian Institution is "to increase and diffuse knowledge" - knowledge, not celebrations or cheerleading squads. It was with that historic mandate in mind that the Smithsonian Associates, joined by the New Israel Fund, put together a series of diverse lectures to commemorate Israel's 50th anniversary later this year.

But a recent spate of congressional and media accusations against the institution's "Israel at 50" lecture series condemned the Smithsonian for planning a serious examination of Israel's accomplishments, failures and remaining challenges. What the accusers wanted instead, according to the New York Post editorial that led the attack, was "a rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday!'" to Israel. And in so doing, they called on the museum to abandon its historic mission of increasing knowledge.

Unfortunately, it appears those accusations have worked.

In a pattern disconcertingly reminiscent of the controversies over its Enola Gay/Hiroshima, Vietnam and Science in American Life exhibits, the institution's commitment to thoughtful, serious inquiry has collapsed.

Instead of welcoming intellectual debate, Smithsonian administrator/fund-raisers - not its scholarly/educational or curatorial staff - have chosen politically motivated accommodation to some of the opponents of Arab-Israeli peace (including the Committee for a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America) and their congressional backers.

When Rep. Michael P. Forbes, a New York Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which approves 70 percent of the museum's budget, complained in a letter, the Smithsonian's secretary, I. Michael Heyman, immediately surrendered. The New Israel Fund was summarily dropped from participation, and Heyman made the soothing announcement that the seven-part lecture series would be re-examined with the intention of highlighting "Israel's achievements in its stunning 50-year history."

The sad reality is that serious U.S. discourse on the Middle East and Israel continues to pay the price for this kind of capitulation. The reluctance of U.S. research and educational institutions to participate in, and the hesitation of the U.S. news media to cover, the far richer debates going on among Israelis about their nation's founding and democratic trajectory, the links between Israel's creation and the Holocaust, and the effect of Israeli statehood on the indigenous Palestinian population, all deny American scholars and, more importantly, the American people, access to those new ideas. Instead, approaches challenging the long-standing heroic and benign mythology of Israel's narrative are often dismissed from history and historiography with the false claim that Israel was a "land without people."

It is ironic that the planned Smithsonian series, while still incomplete, would have brought to Americans, many for the first time, those new ideas and discussions currently under way in Israel. Many Israelis themselves are now questioning why, in "the only democracy in the Middle East," citizenship provides only certain limited rights, while nationality rights restrict access to full political, economic and social participation in Israeli life to Jews only.

Israel's 50th anniversary should provide an opportunity for the Smithsonian to examine how American and British anti-Semitism, during and after World War II, encouraged widespread official support for settling hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors in then-Arab Palestine to prevent their entry to the United States or Great Britain.

And the American people's premier intellectual center should take the lead in examining the consequences on the existing population when that refuge for European Jews was created in an overwhelmingly Arab land.

To give some sense of how far from the mainstream are the Smithsonian's critics, they present long-time supporter of Israel's Labor Party and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and the coolly analytical Israeli historian Ehud Sprinzak as part of a "narrow and hate-filled ... highly partisan selection of socialist ideologues and Hamas cheerleaders." At least two leaders of the right-wing Likud bloc, including former Likud spokesman Zalman Shoval and rightist Knesset member Ze'ev Begin, were scheduled to speak during the lecture series.

Ironically, the real voices that are missing are those of many of the victims of Israel's creation and rise to power. Azmi Bishara, a brilliant professor of philosophy and member of the Knesset, also was scheduled to speak. But Dr. Bishara is a Palestinian from inside Israel, whose vantage point, though crucial, is very different from those living in the still-occupied Palestinian territories, or even more voiceless, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homeland during Israel's creation and still living in forced exile 50 years later.

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