(JNS) At a time when partisan divisions are at an all-time high, there aren’t many places that are politics-free zones anymore. Many, if not most, of our cultural institutions and media outlets have lined up on one side or the other. That is just as true, if not truer, of the American Jewish world since the vast majority of non-Orthodox Jews identify as politically liberal with a large plurality being among the most loyal and determinedly partisan supporters of the Democratic Party.
One has come to expect knee-jerk partisanship from many Jewish religious institutions, the major denominations, national organizations and even the formerly nonpartisan Anti-Defamation League—the one group specifically tasked with defending Jews against anti-Semitism. But it’s likely that few people thought this would also be true of one of the country’s leading Holocaust museums. Yet the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, has just made clear that it, too, is done with any pretense of nonpartisanship or openness to those who might dissent from left-wing dictates.
By refusing to host a conference where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was one of the invited speakers, the museum hasn’t just indicated that it can no longer be considered a nonpartisan institution. Its decision also illustrates the way many on the Jewish left have come to view the Holocaust as only meaningful as a metaphor to be employed in backing a political agenda designed to label anyone they don’t like as a bigot.
The incident involves the Jewish Leadership Conference being hosted by the Tikvah Fund. Tikvah is a well-known nonprofit philanthropic organization focused on promoting Jewish programs in both Israel and the United States, as well as elsewhere. The Museum of Jewish Heritage had agreed to host its June 12 conference, as it has welcomed a wide variety of other events with a broad array of speakers. But as Tikvah Fund chairman Elliott Abrams and CEO Eric Cohen said in a Wall Street Journal article this week, they were told by museum staff that one of their scheduled speakers, Gov. DeSantis, “didn’t align with the museum’s values and its message of inclusivity.” They were given an ultimatum. Either ditch him or the conference would not longer be welcome at the museum.
Not unsurprisingly, Tikvah chose not to insult the Florida governor and quickly found another venue for its event. But the museum’s effort to silence DeSantis is noteworthy because it shows that the virus of cancel culture has spread from academia—where refusals of colleges and universities to allow speakers deemed controversial for one reason or another to be heard—to a leading Jewish institution.
In and of itself, that is deeply troubling since Jewish tradition has always been rooted in notions of open debate and a willingness to hear different points of view. Many leading secular institutions of higher learning have ditched the principle of free speech in favor of ideas in which some opinions—almost always those identified as conservative or at least opposed to the latest woke leftist trends—must be proscribed lest they cause those who disagree to feel “unsafe” or “triggered.” The museum seems to be reading from the same script.
That’s a disgrace wherever it occurs, and it’s symptomatic of the growing intolerance for open discourse that characterizes 21st-century American politics. But for this sort of behavior to find a foothold in a leading Jewish institution—much less one dedicated as a “living memorial to the Holocaust”—is a sign of the abandonment of its Jewish responsibilities in favor of a partisan cause.
The meaning behind the message given to Tikvah’s leaders by museum staff was crystal-clear.
DeSantis has been embroiled in a controversy over a parental rights bill he recently signed into law. It upholds the right of parents to be involved in public-school decisions regarding their children’s well-being and to limit discussions of gender and sexuality issues in classrooms from kindergarten to third grade. His leftist opponents in their bully media and pop culture pulpits mislabeled it as a “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Reasonable people may disagree about this law. However, the effort to characterize DeSantis as opposed to the Jewish values embodied by the museum’s mission or as an opponent of inclusion is nothing more than a partisan talking point aimed at smearing someone who is considered one of the leading figures in the Republican Party and a likely future presidential candidate.
DeSantis is one of the most ardent supporters of Israel within an already pro-Israel GOP. He was the founding chair of the “Israel Victory Caucus” in Congress organized by the Middle East Forum think tank. He is also close to conservative-leaning Jews. His conference topic will be the flowering of the growing Jewish community in Florida and the policies he thinks have helped that happen.
You can agree or disagree with everything the governor does or stands for. But the notion that a Holocaust museum should be off-limits for any leading voice in mainstream American politics, let alone a figure that has been as closely aligned with the Jewish community on many important issues as DeSantis, isn’t so much ill-advised as it is absurd.
The museum’s decision only makes sense if one is prepared to view Jewish institutions as the moral equivalent of a cable news outlet like MSNBC, where only liberal or leftist voices are heard and conservatives are treated as not so much wrong as evil. That reflects the current atmosphere inside the Democratic Party, where even a supposedly moderate figure like President Joe Biden referred this week to supporters of former President Donald Trump by the term “MAGA world” and said they were “the most extreme political organization in American history.” In other words, Republicans like the Florida governor are not fellow citizens, neighbors or relatives, but extremist insurrectionists to be shunned if not targeted as bigots and potential terrorists.
Perhaps that’s not surprising to hear from anyone involved in today’s no-holds-barred political combat in which DeSantis is himself a notable pugilist.
But for a Holocaust museum to say, in effect, that anyone like him is to be treated as unfit to set foot in their building is both outrageous and an indication that such an institution is, like an MSNBC studio segment, a place where only a certain sort of person may be heard.
Subsequently, the museum claimed that it opposed DeSantis because it didn’t host political events. But as Abrams and Cohen pointed out, the same museum welcomed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—the leading voice of the leftist “Squad” that is deeply hostile to Israel—in 2018. Equally controversial politicians like former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who spearheaded the Biden administration’s re-entry into the anti-Semitic U.N. Human Rights Council, have also appeared there.
The museum’s hypocrisy in canceling DeSantis while welcoming controversial liberal or left-wing Democrats demonstrates its shameless embrace of partisanship. But it also shows that for those involved in this institution, remembering the Holocaust isn’t a sacred Jewish duty but just another way of manipulating history to back up the political agendas of its staff and funders.
This ought to be a wake-up call for those of this museum’s backers who don’t want an important Jewish institution exploited by woke ideologues. This should also be true for anyone else who wishes to hold the line against the toxic influence of cancel culture elsewhere in the Jewish world.
Jewish venues should remain places where open discourse is possible, and friends of Israel and the Jews are welcomed, even if some disagree with them. The alternative is to stand by and watch as Jewish interests are sacrificed on the altar of leftist dogma.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.