June 2nd, 2024

Regarding the Brooklyn Museum

My wife and I just made a donation to the Brooklyn Museum, to support the institution generally, and for conservation work on Deborah Kass’ “OY/YO” sculpture that sits in the plaza in front of the Museum. Unfortunately, that conservation is now necessary because the sculpture was vandalized by activists who support the Palestinian liberation movement. As ABC News reported about the May 31 incident: “Organizers, including the group Within Our Lifetime, called on supporters to ‘flood’ and ‘de-occupy’ the museum, saying they wanted to take over the building until officials ‘disclose and divest’ from any investments linked to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

My perspective on the role of art museums and other institutions in the face of this conflict does not need to be restated here; I made those clear previously in pieces for Artnet and The Forward. But the “protest” that took place and that resulted in the defacing of Kass’ artwork, is an altogether different situation.

While activists have a right to protest in public spaces, they do not have the right to assault people (in this case, the Museum’s public safety officers) in the name of protesting. That isn’t called activism, it’s called assault.

Likewise, protesters have a right to carry signs and banners, but they do not have the right to graffiti those messages on other people’s property. That’s not called civil disobedience—it is destruction of property.

None of this is to be celebrated.

Back in March, I wrote in The Forward that “I am appalled by Israel’s actions in Gaza — just as I am appalled by the Hamas attack that precipitated them. I am equally appalled by Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank, including the expansion of settlements and violence against Palestinian civilians.” All of that remains true.

But I am also appalled by the actions of people who claim to support the cause of Palestinian liberation and in that see themselves as justified in their illiberalism. History is littered with morally self-righteous people and movements that fail because there is, in fact, a difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. This so-called movement continues to feel like it is only the latter, which deeply diminishes the cause they are trying to serve.

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March 13th, 2024

Silenced No More

Much as the term “flatten” has some new (and challenging) currency of late, so too has the concept of being “silenced,” as a quick search of art-world news demonstrates. But if you live in the United States, please do not say you are being silenced. Unless, of course, you are being actively prosecuted for your utterances by some local, state, or federal authority, in which case you are in that rare category. 

Claiming you are being silenced in a society as free as ours devalues those who really are being silenced. For example: Alexei Navalny, the late Russian opposition leader, killed to prevent him from further rabble-rousing against Putin’s regime. Or: the American satirist and playwright living in Germany, prosecuted because of a (satirical) use of a banned symbol to make a point, as satire is intended to do. Or: the publisher of Apple Daily, in Hong Kong, arrested on “national security” charges by the Chinese government in order to shut down his pro-democracy newspaper. Or: the dissident blogger in Shanghai, who was sentenced to seven years in prison—for the kind of speech that Americans take for granted. (Indeed, for anyone concerned about the silencing of viewpoints, including of Chinese expats in the U.S., the reports of Chinese repression are many, varied, and consistent.)

However, for those of us in the United States…

If you have access to social media, you are not being silenced. If you have access to platforms like this one—websites, blogs, etc.—you are not being silenced.

If you have access to social media or websites and choose not to post, you might be self-censoring, but that is not the same thing as being silenced. If you choose not to post because you are concerned that sharing your views may have consequences—for your job, or how your colleagues, friends, or family feel about you—that does not mean you are being silenced. It means you have weighed the risks and decided the potential consequences outweigh the benefits.

If your employer declines to share a message—internally or externally—about something you believe, you are not being silenced. Your employer may have different views, either on the substance of the message or on the appropriateness of them sharing it for you, or both. That does not mean you have been silenced.

If your message—literally your message, a quote from you, with your name attached to it—winds up in press coverage about the issue of your concern, then you have not been silenced. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Are there Americans who are being silenced? It’s likely, no doubt. But if you are not incarcerated, and you are able to stand on a corner and speak, or join a protest or picket line and carry a sign, or post to the internet, or to see yourself or your friends and your messages reflected in some piece of news coverage: you are not being silenced. You are being heard.

Whether people agree with what you have to say is an entirely different matter. Whether they acquiesce to your demands is also a different issue. And, again: just because they may not agree with you does not mean you are being silenced. In fact, fighting against silencing means protecting dissenting views—even the ones you disagree with.

March 11th, 2024

The Flat Worlders Might Be Winning

The term “flatten” has been gaining currency in the last few years and it has been rattling around in my head for a number of reasons, several of which relate to my recent piece in The Forward.

The obvious application here is how the Israel/Hamas conflict has for too many people flattened an understanding of Israel as a diverse and multicultural and multi-ethnic society. It is instead framed as a country founded and inhabited by white former-Europeans, thus flattening the fact that 50% of Israel’s Jewish population has roots in the Middle East and Africa and, transported to a different context, would not be considered white.

This also flattens the fact that 20% of Israel’s population are Arab Israeli. And it likewise flattens an understanding of Palestinians, especially Gazans, the majority of whom identify with a conservative Sunni branch of Islam, but do not necessarily support Hamas. To consider most Gazans either Hamas supporters on the one hand, or in alignment with the values of the American progressives who have adopted them as a cause on the other hand, is to take away Gazan’s their own identity.

But there is another, equally important set of “flattening” actions taking place.

The first flattening seems to be built around the concept that “the personal is the political.” From the idea that one’s personal experiences can be seen as connected to larger political issues, this concept has been flattened such that now, for too many people, everything about one’s workplace has to align with one’s personal and political goals and values. Never mind that for most entities there are multiple employees. This flattening creates unnecessary conflict with colleagues where there isn’t political alignment, and introduces contemporary politics into workplaces that in all likelihood should be focused on other issues.

This feeds directly into the flattening and eventual loss of “neutrality.” Recognizing that political and intellectual diversity are valid forms of diversity is part and parcel of my original argument against organizations like colleges and museums making statements about the Israel/Gaza conflict. “Neutrality” is not a cop-out but is in fact its own, very valid position–one predicated on recognizing that diverse views can and do (and should) exist, and that diversity of viewpoints is an essential part of the larger set of diversity goals that everyone espouses as important for the workplace.

Monocultures are unhealthy—whether in agriculture or higher education or museums—and leadership should resist them.

March 6th, 2024

BringThemHome

Yesterday, The Forward published something I wrote about my dear alma mater, Hampshire College, and a push by some students to get the College to issue a statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. There are a few other ideas and points that did not fit in the published piece but which I think are important to address, so I will do that over the next few days. Here’s the first.

The statement that was shared with me for support (text below) had three critical flaws from my perspective. I still would not have signed this petition for all the reasons I outlined. Nonetheless, the students gained no sympathy from me for their omissions, and it is worth noting them:

  1. Their statement notes the day this most recent conflict began–but does not mention the brutal Hamas attack on Israel, the murder of Israeli civilians, rape of Israeli women, or the taking of 200+ hostages. That is clearly an intentional omission, and it speaks volumes. It is difficult to take as seriously someone’s concern about civilians on one side of a conflict if they cannot also acknowledge the civilians on the other side.
  2. Their statement says that civilian casualties in the conflict “reach over 30,000,” but that is inaccurate–the Health Ministry in Gaza (which is controlled by Hamas) intentionally does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. It may be that more than 30,000 people have died, but it is important to acknowledge the distinction between civilians and combatants. Simply identifying all of these Palestinian dead as civilians is another kind of omission, seeking to downplay the reality of Hamas terrorism–and the number of people known to be fighting for and with Hamas.
  3. #BringThemHome. That’s my third problem with this statement: there is no mention of the hostages being held by Hamas. My perspective is: if you cannot acknowledge the evil of hostage-taking and the need to release these people, then your moral compass is malfunctioning. If you can explain away the hostages because you think Hamas is justified in using them as human shields, then do not talk to me about international war crimes.


The statement from Hampshire SJP:

Since October 7th, 2023, Israel has drastically escalated violence against all Palestinians. We have seen catastrophic destruction in Palestine as civilian casualties reach over 30,000, a direct result of Israeli military bombing campaigns that destroy entire neighborhoods, including schools, hospitals, and refugee camps. Israel continues to weaponize white phosphorus on Palestine’s civilian population and withhold humanitarian aid, food, water, and access to energy. These are international war crimes. The bare minimum we can do as the Hampshire College community to help show our support in ending the genocide. Until a ceasefire is enacted, civilians will continue to die, horrifically and often.


We stand against all racism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and any form of bigotry as a result of this violence. We stand for a future of safety and liberation for all. As a community, we support those on the Hampshire College campus affected by the violence, and as we continue to grieve, we are calling on our mayors, state representatives, governors, senators, Congressmen, and military leaders to enact an immediate ceasefire and a meaningful, long-term cessation of all aggression against civilians across Israel and Palestine.