Jews, Museums, and National Identities

By Greenberg, Reesa | Ethnologies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Jews, Museums, and National Identities


Greenberg, Reesa, Ethnologies


The antidote to hatred in the heart, the source of violence, is tolerance (The Dalai Lama).

The existence of a number of new European Jewish museums offers an opportunity to examine how tolerance for others -- Jews for different kinds of Jews, Jews for non-Jews, and non-Jews for Jews -- is enacted at particular historical moments. Tolerance has different meanings. The most common interpretation is recognition of the existence of the Other. A more active form of tolerance is inviting the Other into one's sphere, making literal and psychic space for the Other, in some way, consciously incorporating the Other. The more active form of tolerance involves an ongoing and ever-changing mixture of negotiation, co-habitation and integration. It also involves a willingness to abandon myths of self-representation and the construction of the Other as enemy, evil, or extraneous(1).

Three variables determine whether and how the presence of the Other manifests. The first is time or timing, a concept related to distress tolerance or the degree of distress people can bear in a given moment(2). An inter-related component is the relationship of tolerance to terror and trauma, two features of any post-war Jewish museum. A third aspect of tolerance is the role of culture -- national, religious, or political -- in setting or pushing limits. When a culture is unable to question its concepts of tolerance, its museums recreate dominant discourses or repeat the tropes of a seemingly known storyline.

Museums, particularly ethnographic museums, are paradigmatic sites for testing the limits of tolerance of, for and within, minority cultures. In my discussion of european Jewish museums in Europe, I examine four inter-related variables as indices of tolerance: 1) a museum's integration into the culture at large; 2) the inclusion of various Jewish ethnic and racial types; 3) the representation of women; and 4) the response to genocide. Although my examples are geographically specific, the model can be used for analyzing Jewish museums elsewhere and, with modifications, for non-Jewish museums as well.

Since the mid-1980s, important Jewish museums have opened or re-opened in capital cities of five European nations: The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam (1987), the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt (1988), The Jewish Museum in Vienna (1995), The Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris (1998) and, most recently, the Jewish Museum in Berlin (2001). With the exception of Paris, Jewish museums existed in each of these cities prior to World War II and were forcibly closed by the Nazis. Although none are Holocaust Museums, their existence, collections, story lines, and display aesthetics are inextricable from the events and aftermath of the Holocaust, a history of intolerance that resulted in six million murders and great pain for millions more. Post-war European Jewish museums usually contain two components, both inextricable from the Holocaust. The first is a collection of Judaic ritual objects reassembled or amassed after the Holocaust either as a form of commemoration for the dead or as testimony to the vibrancy of a lost Jewish culture. The second component is a representation of some form of Jewish history, biblical, religious, or local, usually one which gives prominence to the emancipation of Jews in the nineteenth century and the subsequent terror and trauma of the Holocaust.

The very existence of so many new Jewish museums in Europe can be seen as a sign of tolerance on the part of the countries in which they are located. Because of recent State and local government funding, Jewish museums have never been as large or as grand or as integrated into national museum or educational culture. Each of these ethnographic museums is part of a national, provincial or municipal museum network rather than private. The public performance of museal integration enacted by these museums, however, may be at the expense of Jewish participation or visibility in a wider sphere. …

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