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The Motion Picture Academy Museum Erased Jews, So Did The Smithsonian

Editor’s note: Last month, the Motion Picture Academy Museum added an exhibit on the Jewish founders of Hollywood after they had been conspicuously left out at the museum’s founding in 2021. While several reports indicate that the addition of the Jewish exhibit is steeped in antisemitism, Jews being excluded from recent museum exhibits seems to be a larger problem. In fact, the new AMPAS museum Director previously worked at the Smithsonian.

This past spring, I visited my daughter in Washington, D.C.. We were excited to visit the Smithsonian American History Museum because it celebrates “who we are” as Americans. The Smithsonian is one of the largest and most widely renowned museum complexes worldwide. It is dedicated to preserving and presenting a broad spectrum of American history, culture, and scientific knowledge. What we found was that “who we are” included far fewer Jews than any other minority. And so, while I am proud to be American, I sense that America is not proud of us.

To be fair the Smithsonian has always included Jewish history and culture in its exhibits. For example, it has been known to host wonderful exhibits about Jewish contributions to American culture, music, science, politics, and business. The museum’s collection contains numerous artifacts related to Jewish life and history in America. But we had trouble finding it in the new collections. There was clearly a shift in priorities.

The most glaring example was the giant exhibition about entertainment. It took up an entire floor, with bright lights and videos and interactive displays. The first stop when you enter is a video of comedians who challenge stereotypes. They really are hilarious. Asian, Native American, Hispanic and others make fun of how they are depicted in entertainment. We kept waiting for the Jewish comedian to show up. (I mean, for people like Sarah Silverman and others, poking fun of how Jews are depicted is kind of their “thing.”) Before moving on the rest of the floor, I looked at my daughter and said, “brace yourself.”

In the rest of the extravaganza, we saw contributions to American entertainment from every walk of American life. But in the inclusion, it included a lot about Hollywood, but not why and how it came to be. Also absent were mentions of the Jewish composers of the classic American song book, and the overt Jewishness in the acts of the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks to the Borscht Belt. Finally, in a glass display case, next to Muhammed Ali’s robe (which everyone took pictures of ) was a mannequin wearing Tevye’s costume and a picture of Sandy Koufax. Beside it was a sign describing how eventually Jews stopped hiding their identities and started to openly identify themselves as Jewish. Of all the areas of American life, Jews are over-represented in the world of entertainment. If we’re not included there, just imagine how we’re thought of elsewhere.

The visit was right after Purim. We noted how the story of Esther repeated itself. In our nation’s capital, as in Shusan, we were considered interlopers. Haman says to King Ahashverosh, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm…”

In D.C., the whole point of the American History Museum is to, of course, embrace American History. The scarcity of references to Jewish life told me that we are scarcely American. I was hurt, angry and desperately sad. We must not sit back and allow ourselves to be erased. There will only be accountability when we call this out and fight back.

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  • Avatar photo Melanie Cohn says on June 7, 2024

    I have nothing important to add, but but I wanted to state that I appreciate the article as we Jews start to document our devaluation by this country that has given us so much yet many mixed messages. Maybe reading the writing on the walls and start our exodus to place our efforts and talents on the growth of Israel, our only true Home.

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  • Avatar photo David Streusand says on June 7, 2024

    Love what you do. There is an episode of The Goldbergs which is subliminally yet obviously anti semitic.
    Hulu. Originally aired 10/5/22. Titled “Jenkintown After Dark” B story depicts a money grubbing law firm with a Jewish name and a lawyer who “looks” Jewish. Writers could have used any name for the law firm. Yet chose a Jewish sounding firm. Epstein Dybner and Finkleman. I have reached out to the writer/ director Mike Sikowitz on social media with no response.
    PLEASE watch the episode and use your clout to hopefully get this episode off Hulu and hopefully reduce future negative stereotyping of our faith.
    As this does not appear anywhere on social media, you would be the first to bring this particular negative stereotype to light.
    Please call write with questions or comments.
    David
    713-201-4927

    Reply

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