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ARTICLE Speaking Up: How the Museum of Jewish Heritage Teaches Visitors to Live Our Values in Real Time

“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives…” said Maira Kalman, Israeli-born illustrator, artist, writer and designer.

But can a visit to a museum be an act of civic engagement, as well? To the staff of educators at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the third largest Holocaust museum in the world, it can and it must be so.

“Part of ensuring that [an event like the Holocaust] doesn’t happen again is actively creating the world you want to live in,” said Miriam Haier, Senior Director for External Affairs at the Museum. “It’s an ongoing civil project, to understand in a constant way that you’re responsible for being active in the world.”

As a primary resource in North America for teaching and learning about the Holocaust, educators at the Museum think very carefully about how to engage visitors and student groups and more specifically, how the facts of the Holocaust connect to contemporary issues.

“Rather than drawing comparisons,” Haier explains, “we want people to understand that what they learn here can be relevant to their own lives.”

With that charge, Haier and her colleagues recently hosted “After Charlottesville: With Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn,” a special presentation by two of America’s leading litigators who are currently representing the plaintiffs from Charlottesville, Virginia who were “targeted on the basis of their race, religion, and ethnicity or because they stood up for the safety and civil rights of others.”

“The rally was rife with anti Semitic language and neo Nazi participation at a higher rate than any other event in recent U.S. history,” Haier said. “That’s relevant to our student groups and our visitors because they come to this museum to try and understand the Holocaust—and part of that is acknowledging that some of these very same ideas are still present in communities in this country.

“Our intention isn’t to instill this idea in a fearful way, but rather, to help people confront the issues and access the legal tools and the civil rights tools that we have, to address them here, in a respectful space,” she said.

According to Michael Glickman, President and CEO of the Museum, when the doors to the building opened in 1997, it sent a powerful message that “mere decades after the tragedies of the Holocaust, the Jewish communities of New York claimed the right to speak for themselves.”

“At the museum,” Gilckman said, “our daily work of responsibly documenting history and honoring Holocaust victims and survivors is inspiring us to be honest about our present moment in this country. We have work to do.”

The Museum recognizes the work of Kaplan and Dunn as contributing in a major way to that imperative. As literature on their website explains, ‘Kaplan and Dunn’s groundbreaking lawsuit against white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and affiliated hate groups is designed to make it clear that inciting and engaging in violence based on racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism has no place in this country.’

They argue that the rally was not a free speech issue, as many have claimed. Rather, this was a conspiracy to commit violence, and someone died, and many others were injured. Kaplan and Dunn are taking a look at those acts of violence and working with precedents set after the Civil War, including the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which aimed to protect the civil rights of black Americans and fight against the KKK’s “reign of terror” in the South at that time.

Kaplan and Dunn are making headway. Their suit is in progress and they’ve completed the first part of argumentation against a motion to dismiss the case.

During their October 10th presentation at the Museum, they lawyers told the crowd about the complaint they filed which put their suit into motion. That complaint happens to be the most comprehensive catalogue detailing what happened at that rally in August of 2017 and by circulating it and making it public (anyone can read it, here) people can begin understand what truly happened. There’s also a website hosted by the organization Integrity First for America, which shares all of the details of the case.

The Charlottesville program, which was moderated by Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate magazine who writes primarily about law and politics, gave audience members the chance to ask their own questions and “talk back,” a priority and goal of all the educational programming that happens at the Museum. Audience members who attended live as well as those who were watching the live stream were able to dig deeply into the issues and have their opinions shared and responded to. (Haier shared that within about 24 hours of the event’s live stream, there were more than 15,700 online views of the video.)

Over 60,000 students come through the doors of the Museum each year, from across the socioeconomic, racial and religious spectrum. As Haier explains, the Museum aims to show all visitors that a space devoted to Holocaust education can be the site of “meaningful conversation.”

Programs for students are designed to ask them to reflect on their own place in history; the Museum curriculum focuses on heritage and students are encouraged to consider their own. The lessons are not exclusive to Jewish students, either, but rather, every student who visits is asked to think about what makes them a meaningful member of their own community.

“In our work, we are constantly modeling respectful conversation,” Haier said, “and we do this for all of our visitors.

“If we want them to understand the lessons that can be taken, implicitly or explicitly, from the events of the Holocaust, then we must live our values, in real time.”

Toward the end of the program, an audience member asked Dunn and Kaplan if they feared that by bringing this suit before the courts, they would potentially further anger and incite violence amongst those who rallied in the first place. Would this lawsuit only serve to grow their bigotry?

Kaplan’s response was unequivocal.

“We live in a morally difficult world,” she said. “But what’s the alternative? To not fight back? To not speak up? To not apply the rule of law against what these people did? To me, to me that’s an unacceptable thing to do.”

By Adina Kay-Gross for The Covenant Foundation

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