Our museum is not allergic to controversy — director explains Judis’s reinvitation

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John Judis by Christopher Parks
John Judis by Christopher Parks

David Marwell is the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and a scholar in his own right. Here’s his blog entry yesterday explaining the back and forth over John Judis’s invitation and disinvitation and reinvitation (confirming what we also reported yesterday morning from Judis). His piece is a model of official transparency and accountability.

I called John Judis Friday afternoon and invited him to join me at the Museum for a public discussion of his new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origin of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. Readers of the Forward, and some recent blogs, may very well be surprised by this statement. They might ask, didn’t you just disinvite him? What’s going on? Here is what happened: Our public programs department asked me to evaluate Judis’s book for a possible public program. I reviewed it and concluded that we should take a pass as we do with dozens of books that are pitched to us each season. My reading suggested that the book was less a thoughtful history of Truman’s actions in relation to the establishment of the State of Israel and more a book about what Judis suggests was, and is, the pernicious impact of American Zionist and pro-Israel influence on American policy (and policy-makers) up to the present day. The tone of the book (“The British and the Zionists had conspired to screw the Arabs out of a country….” p. 251) raised concerns as well, and my conclusion was that the proposed program would produce more heat than light. I told my staff that I thought we should skip this one. I later learned that my staff then rescinded an invitation to Mr. Judis, which they had, unfortunately, already extended without my knowledge.

Of course, rescinding an invitation (even one that I was unaware of) is a far different matter than simply not extending one in the first place. It naturally raises the ugly specter of succumbing to pressure and giving in to outside influence. I have worked very hard over the years to avoid precisely the kind of mess that we found ourselves in, and I am particularly concerned that the Museum should be accused of censorship or of being allergic to controversy. As a result, we decided to schedule (or reschedule) the program with Judis, this time with me as the interviewer. This format will give me an opportunity to raise with him the very questions that gave me pause in the first place, and I look forward to discussing these important issues with him. Please join us on June 1st.

I want to respond to Marwell’s negative review of Judis’s book: that he opened it thinking it would be a “thoughtful” book about Truman but it turned out to be about the “pernicious” influence of the Zionist lobby on US policy. Also its tone bothered him: Judis wrote that the British and the Zionists “screwed” the Palestinians out of a country.

Marwell’s first assertion is anti-intellectual. I’ve read 100 pages of Judis’s book and a lot of his articles over the years. He’s a thoughtful man; and what if thoughtful people conclude that the Zionist lobby compelled Truman to go against his own convictions and that it has had a pernicious influence on American policy since? These are actually very important issues. People have been trying to suppress discussion of them since Walt and Mearsheimer’s bombshell was censored inside the Jewish establishment on similarly captious grounds — the tone is wrong, it’s a clipjob, they didn’t do any reporting, they capitalized L in Lobby and spoke about Jewish blood — and still the ideas won’t go away.

As to the book’s tone, The Wall Street Journal reviewer latched on to the same thing: he didn’t like Judis saying Chaim Weizmann “charmed his way up the ladder of authority until he reached the top.” But I’ve read a good deal of the book and those citations don’t capture Judis’s tone. Wait till you see him on June 1. This guy is sober and thoughtful and mature.

And Judis is a journalist. Journalists use a different idiom than scholars, and they should. Arthur Carter, the former owner of the New York Observer, used to tell me to write with a sledgehammer (he found me too belletristic). That is a journalistic responsibility, to use forceful terms, so that a wide public can understand the argument. And really, is it true or not that the Palestinians got screwed out of a country? They were promised one by the UN in 1947; countless other peoples have gotten nations since then and the Israelis have a nation on 4/5 of the land that had been Palestine and occupy the rest. And as Judis’s book explains, from the time that Wilson honored the principle of “self-determination,” Palestinians took him at his word. They thought Palestine should be Palestinian, and that the west should affirm that. It did not.

Marwell’s rules remind me of the literacy tests used in the Jim Crow south to exclude blacks from the franchise. If you believe that the Zionist lobby has exercised a pernicious influence and you use a crude word to convey your point, you can’t play. So who ends up playing?

Still, hat’s off to Marwell for reversing the museum’s decision. I can’t wait for the discussion on June 1. They’ll sell a lot of tickets.

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“Of course, rescinding an invitation (even one that I was unaware of) is a far different matter than simply not extending one in the first place.”

How craven, and yet revealing: yes, killing a discussion silently and invisibly is much different from killing it publicly. But I’m not sure the difference is something I would boast about

This is a most elegant “weasel” if that is what it is, as it appears. Nevertheless, it is far better to allow something than to suppress it. It is exactly opposite to what happened in 1984 when the BSO (Boston Symphony Orchestra) hired and then fired Vanessa Redgrave w.r.t. a performance that was wholly independent of her support for the PLO. In that case the firing was not rescinded and a lawsuit followed. Here, at… Read more »

This article teaches about dysfunctional workplaces. The Museum of Jewish Heritage is not someplace you want to work. There is a lack of upward information flow (not informing about the invite and especially not informing about the un-invite). Lack of understanding about corporate priorities (“.. worked very hard over the years ..”) which is a downward communication failure. This lack of people talking to other people is often a result of some other pathology which… Read more »

So, first the director’s staff invited a speaker without telling him, then he and others went over the list of possible authors for speakers as they normally do, and then he decided they would not invite Judis because he was concerned it would produce more heat than light. Next, the staff canceled Judis’ speech without telling the director. However, he disagreed with the cancellation because the museum is not allergic to controversy and does not… Read more »

In the UK parliamentary system our lawmakers are not permitted to call a fellow lawmaker a liar, so they use the euphemism “stranger to the truth”. May I suggest that Mr Marwell’s explanation appears to fall short of a full familiarity with the truth. It certainly stretches credibility.