Museums can help combat antisemitism | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Museums can help combat antisemitism 

To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. In his 1790 letter of reply to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington echoed the words of first generation Jewish-American Moses Seixas who had penned them as part of a congratulations and query to the newly inaugurated first U.S. president with the aim of ensuring that American Jews would be afforded the fundamental rights spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. 

The letter, which has been described as the most important document in American Jewish history, represents two key springboard concepts highlighted at the summit, ‘Museums Respond: Strategies for Countering Antisemitism & Hate’ — the inherent link between antisemitism and democracy, and harnessing the power of primary resource collections. I was invited to join more than 100 leaders from American museums, libraries and archives, who convened to discuss this challenging, alarming moment in our country and our role in meeting it.  The summit was organized by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in partnership with the Council of American Jewish Museums, part of work for the White House’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. 

Along with libraries, museums are the most trusted sources for information. Their collections and exhibits represent and speak to heritage, hardship and resilience, and as storytellers, they inspire connection and empathy. For Jewish museums, furthering these unique abilities is tied to re-thinking our traditional narratives and approaches to addressing antisemitism. One of the oldest forms of prejudice, antisemitism has waxed and waned while remaining omnipresent in the U.S. for centuries. The distinguishing feature underlying hatred of and hostility toward Jews lies in its conspiracy theory origins.   

There is the notion of Jews being nefarious and subhuman, while simultaneously superhuman in their ability to infiltrate, manipulate, control and promote their own agenda to the detriment of others, like those set forth in the widely distributed “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” Jews have been used as a means of explaining and scapegoating societal problems. These age-old beliefs are regularly repackaged and recycled — a normalized process that has aided the resurgence of antisemitism.  

The dispelling of negative, fictitious ideas of who and what Jews and Judaism are not, requires education about who and what we are. This means the tenets, traditions and values at our core, combined with an accounting of Judaism in America, the origins of antisemitism, and how it has functioned historically in the U.S.  For museum visitors to care about antisemitism, they must be able to see themselves in the story – in the chronicles and artifacts which can connect people across space and time. This correlation of experiences and thoughts promotes the understanding that there is a Venn diagram between antisemitism and all forms of racism and hatred. In turn, this underscores the importance of allyship.  Antisemitism is a red flag indicator of an exclusionary society. It’s the kind of society which puts everyone’s freedoms and safety at risk. Finding ways in which diverse ethnic institutions and organizations can work together and help one another is key to combating it. 

Jewish museums have begun an important dialogue about strategies for affecting sustainable change. Through narrative modifications, using our collections to address and engage with current events, and continuing to inspire the trust our communities have instilled in us, we can meaningfully grow our role as essential resources and supporters of our communities. 

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Molly Dubin is chief curator of Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.