Thursday, December 9, 2021

Flashback 2008: Cowardly retreat

The Great Pyramid, Giza, by Adrien Dauzats
(Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
     The United States Congress is trying to decide whether it has the institutional integrity to push back against the loathsome anti-Muslim rhetoric of several members. About time. For some reason, this particular bigotry is too often not seen as being as completely unacceptable as, say, racism or anti-Semitism. It should be. I wrote this 13 years ago, when the Spertus Museum realized it had put on an exhibit that was too fair for its donors' tastes. It also is a reminder why Barack Obama never warmed to me. This ran when the column was a full page and ended with a joke and, as the joke is not half bad, I've left it in.

     Cultural institutions in the Arab world are not known for their political balance. Which is what makes it so disappointing that the Spertus Museum would bow to pressure from donors and yank an exhibit about the borders of Israel. I didn't go to the show—the Jewish museum isn't exactly on the must-see museum circuit—but the specifics hardly matter. However offensive a particular display may have been, however starkly it demonstrated an opposing view, assuming it was incorporated within a halfway balanced exhibit, the show should have stayed, as testament to the ideal that you should at least be aware of what the other guy is saying.
     Spertus's shameful capitulation is nothing exceptional. Museums have a long history of cowardice, between the Smithsonian caving in over World War II controversies to our own local institutions being so in the thrall of corporations that they never mount anything controversial in the first place. But if the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock teaches us anything, it is the limited benefit of bulldozing forward without regard to conflicting viewpoints. We condemn the Palestinians for feeding their children a narrow view of the world. And then we take a page from them and spike an exhibit because some aspect makes the check-writers uneasy. Shonda fur di goyim. From a Jewish museum, we expect better.


     People are giddy over Barack Obama, and not without reason. He represents a real opportunity for our nation to get back to being the kind of nation we fancy ourselves to be— thoughtful, competent, respected.
     Myself, I'm disappointed in Obama, at least in one regard. Every time he explains his Christian upbringing, every time he emphasizes that he is not a Muslim—to counteract the right-wing fanatics trying to twist his multicultural heritage into something it is not—he misses a wonderful opportunity.
     At one point—just once—between now and November, he should ask, "And what if I were a Muslim? Would that bar me from being elected president, the way being black barred millions of Americans from being president for hundreds of years? Is that the American way? Do you not realize that there are millions of United States citizens who are Muslim? Can you think of one ever committing a terrorist act against this country? Don't you realize that the entire notion of a war between the West and Islam is a major part of the Osama bin Laden philosophy, that it is only true to the degree that we let it be true? When I am president, I will show the Islamic world that we are not natural enemies, but inevitable friends. Americans have shown that they are willing to judge a man, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Surely, were I Muslim, I would be judged by what I have done, myself, and by what I have said, myself, and not condemned at the start because of crimes committed by others who claimed they were done in the name of faith."
     I'm not a politician—perhaps that paragraph would lose him Florida. I'm always surprised by the number of Jews who do not feel a moral obligation to support other embattled minority groups, to extend to them the same humanity we were so often denied ourselves.
     America thrives only to the degree that it refuses to submit to the tribalism and hatreds that so poison the world. When is Barack Obama going to say that?


A well-dressed man called on a rabbi and told him a distressing story of poverty and misery in their very own neighborhood.

"This poor widow," he said, "with four hungry children to feed, is sick in bed with no money for the doctor and, besides, she owes $1,000 rent for three months and is about to be evicted. I'm trying to help her raise the rent money so she won't be thrown into the street. I wonder if you can help?"

"Of course I can," said the rabbi. "That's what rabbis are for. But tell me, we haven't met before -- who are you, to be so kind to this poor woman?"

"I'm her landlord," he said.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 23, 2008


  1. Your column is another way of saying that history is written by the victors.
    To find the rest of the story requires effort.
    Good joke. Sort of like like doctors endorsing fund raisers for critically ill patients who won’t survive unless an expensive procedure is done.

  2. I see a real-life version of your joke every time I pay my gas bill and Nicor invites me to add money to my bill as a "charitable donation to Sharing." Sharing apparently is what they call their practice of inviting people to pay more than they owe so Nicor won't be forced, forced I tell you, to shut off someone else's gas.

  3. Good joke, Mr. S, as so much ethnic humor is, particularly Jewish humor. Jews seem to possess a special talent...the ability to keep on laughing at onself.

    I worked on the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Doing so was among the high points of my life. In the orange light of what followed, I miss him more and more.

    I'm definitely not a praying man, but if there's a Higher Power, I pray that he/she/it looks with favor upon Our Joe. If there's a Judaic blessing for the Current Occupant, I'll gladly say it, and repeat it every goddamn day. Hopefully for seven more years. Whatever it takes. Every little bit helps.


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