Monday, March 25, 2002

A Time to be Silent

The dreckmeisters who are responsible for the shameful Jewish Museum exhibit are on a well-trodden cynical path that unites third-rate artists and museum officials who share the view that sensation is a far better drawing card than talent. In New York alone there are thousands of artists who receive little or no attention, although many are gifted. They lack an eye for self-promotion and the willingness to shock just for the sake of shocking.

There are also no-talent Andy Warhol wannabes – himself both gross and grossly overrated – whose goal is to achieve fifteen minutes of fame. They instinctively sense that all they need to do is to pass off sick art as the real thing. The stuff sells because the media play it up and because museums that are eager for paying customers exhibit it. The Jewish Museum is following an ignoble tradition.

Its exhibition is called “Mirroring Evil,” the incredible point being that certain artifacts of modern culture evoke Nazi imagery. This from a Jewish museum! The concept is inadvertently apt because if the museum would look in the mirror it might recognize that rather than the clich├ęd images of Coca Cola and Lego, the displays are themselves evil. Statements by several of the featured dreckmeisters add to the innate indecency of the exhibit.

The museum has made things worse by its own language. An ad placed in the Times deepens the pain and raises the question of whether museum officials are attempting a sick joke or just don’t get it. One question in the ad asks, “How has art helped to break the silence?” What silence?

There should be silence in the face of an evil that is too monstrous to describe. Instead, we have an ever-escalating array of Holocaust-related activity and advocacy, the result being that the destruction of European Jewry has been cheapened. It has become a political football, just another item on the stuffed agenda of public life and one of many unfortunate historic occurrences. We have eschewed silence, thereby eroding both the memory and spiritual dignity that should intensely inform our reaction to the Holocaust. Instead of prayer and meditation, we have noise.

There have been meaningful evocations of the Holocaust, such as Yad Vashem, Elie Wiesel’s Night and moving lamentations written by the Bobover Rebbe and Rav Shimon Schwab of blessed memory. But the tide has turned decisively against silence and therefore against memory. If there is anything to be said in favor of those who mounted this exhibit, it is that they are honest in their determination to banish silence.

We must face up to the truth that we are overwhelmed by Holocaust-related activities that involve ambulance chasing lawyers, greedy accountants, expensive experts and consultants, publicity hungry politicians, fundraisers, organizational machers and too many others to mention here. The Holocaust is now being represented by litigation, political activity, press releases, staged events and fundraising excesses. Along the way, some attention is paid to the survivors, although in the main they now serve as useful props for their exploiters.

If the Jewish Museum has sinned by imitating museums that have judged art by a sensation quotient, it is also the case that it is following in the footsteps of our recent communal life. For all of our claim to want to help the survivors and their families, they have received paltry sums.

It’s telling that we have to say that the Holocaust and its remembrance is not about lawsuits. I don’t care whether the Swiss, Germans, Poles, French, Austrians or any other European countries or corporations are compelled to hand over more funds. The murdered are no less murdered because their alleged representatives are appearing in courtrooms around the world or because the media carry hundreds of stories about activities to recover stolen funds or property. What the Swiss and others have stolen largely remains stolen because these were masterful thieves.

For all of its apparent good intentions, we do not need an organization of the children of Holocaust survivors two generations after 1945. If we continue on the present path, before long we’ll have a grandchildren’s organization. We do not need the backroom deals of the restitution agencies, some of which have been implicated in sealing the theft of Jewish property in Germany. We do not need self-important machers treating Holocaust funds as their personal play dough. We do not need the nasty politics and in-fighting that has from day one been the story of the Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington.

We do not need political hacks staging press conferences to announce that this or that 90-year old survivor has gotten a check for $392.50 or to announce such famous victories as banks allowing survivors to deposit their modest restitution checks without being charged the customary fee.

Individuals who want to pursue their claims should obviously do so without the raucousness and phony sincerity that have accompanied much of the recent litigation. If they prevail, with few exceptions their victory will be trivial, certainly in human terms but even in monetary terms.

It is right to denounce the Jewish Museum because of its shameful exhibit. The tawdry art on display may set a new low for Holocaust insensitivity but it is unlikely to be the last low, unless our community pulls back from the excesses and inanities that increasingly characterize our Holocaust-related activities.

There is, as Solomon wisely wrote, a time to speak and a time to be silent. Jews have come to believe that silence means weakness, that it is a surrendering to our enemies. We evoke as examples the unfolding Holocaust when too many Jews did or said nothing and also the long period when Soviet Jews were the Jews of silence. It remains that there is a time to be silent. After too much noise and too much activity that send a message that Holocaust remembrance is about litigation, politics and money, we need to be the Jews of silence.