The Field Museum and the Palestinians

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Approximately ten years ago, the Field Museum's leadership made a far-reaching decision. Most people viewed the Museum as the harbinger of relics and history that had little relationship to today's realities. Anthropology, a major element in any natural history museum, was seen as the study of ancient and so called contemporary "primitive" peoples and cultures. The Field Museum lived on its own island - separate and aloof from daily life as it is lived in today's Chicago.

Embarking upon a new path dubbed urban anthropology, the Museum established the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change to investigate the interplay of the inner city and to contribute toward better understanding and appreciation of various cultures and ethnicities represented in the tapestry that is the population of Chicago. Having been involved in other projects at the Museum I was asked to serve as a Community Advisor to this new and exciting project.

The Community Advisors met to develop a plan for various activities that would fall under the stated purpose of the Center "to promote the tool of cultural diversity as a powerful asset in our communities." As a Jew, a member of a minority group in the United States, I welcomed such an effort as a validation of the fact that America is not, nor ever was, a "melting pot," where all cultures and traditions blend into a tasteless soup with a significant element being Western European culture, but rather it is a "tossed salad," in which each culture is still clearly defined but nevertheless compliments other cultures to create a unique and vital society filled with many tastes and textures and yet as a whole totally American.

There was much discussion among the Community Advisors as to the best programs to employ to reach the Center's goal. We, for example, picked a number of different communities assigning a graduate student in Anthropology to assist each of them in assessing the success of their particular work. I worked with a young woman from Germany, a doctoral student in Anthropology, to assess the impact of my Congregation upon the large Russian Jewish population in Uptown. (An article I wrote at the time analyzing her work may be found on the web under my name.) In each case the results of the study were enlightening and helpful to the participating groups.

Various ethnic institutions and museums were as well co-opted into this program. Initially each museum would provide an offering of a program of interest to the general community featuring their own particular ethnicity. I am proud to state that Spertus Museum plays an integral role in this program.

Due to my own medical issues, I have not been as involved with the Center as I was in the past. In a call I received two weeks ago from the Center, I was told that they were faced with a contentious issue involving the Jewish community. In an effort to create greater understanding and cooperation between various groups the Center has embarked upon a new approach. Groups were asked to pair up so to speak to collectively offer a program that had relevance to them. The Cambodians and Palestinians decided upon a joint effort entitled "Broken lands, Unyielding spirit - Cambodian and Palestinian Perspectives." I was told that an element in this program would be the impact upon the young who were forced out of their ancestral lands.

A number of questions can rightly be asked of the Center - Don't you understand the conflict that has raged between the so called Palestinian People and Israel for more than half a century? Does the Field Museum ascribe to the false notion that Palestinians have been forced out of "their land" and tortured in a manner similar to the horrors endured by Cambodians? How can a natural history museum believe such absolute falsehood given the historical facts and allow a program to be advanced on its behalf that embraces such a notion?

Having worked with the staff of the Center for a number of years, I can rule out as a cause their lack of sensitivity or worse yet an underlying anti-Israel, anti-Semitic posture. After giving this matter a great deal of thought, I have come to the conclusion that a possible source for their support of this program, now postponed indefinitely, may have been the mixed messages we as Jews and the State of Israel have been stating to the world during these more than fifty years of Israel's existence. Let me explain by listing briefly the various positions we have taken regarding the Palestinians and their aspirations.

Position 1: There was a time when the message we sent to the world was that there is no such entity as the Palestinian People. We brought all kinds of statistical and historical data to support this claim. I myself, on many occasions, referred individuals to a rather neutral observer of the late 1800s, Mark Twain, who, in his work, "Innocence Abroad," describes his visit to the Holy Land but a few years prior to the first waive of European Zionists arriving in Ottoman Palestine. His book, actually a day-to-day diary of his world tour, describes his various experiences across the globe. In his description of Bethlehem, which according to Arafat was a bustling Palestinian metropolis in the 1800s, Twain finds an oasis of sorts with a few palm trees and some Bedouin tents. No Palestinians. In his visit to Jerusalem he finds Jews. He waxes poetic about his visit to the home of "that miscreant, the wandering Jew" who, according to Christian folklore, told the Nazarene carrying his cross to Calgary to move on when he stopped for but a moment in front of his home. This states Christian folklore, brought upon the Jews the curse of a nomadic life, forced from their homes in country after country. Surely no card-carrying Zionist, nor for that matter a great lover of Jews and their national aspirations, Twain paints a picture of a desolate and ignored land, a backwater of the Ottoman Empire inhabited by Jews, some Christians and nomadic Bedouins but, for the most part, a barren wasteland.

Position 2: This position was then followed by a de facto acceptance of the Palestinians as a specific ethnicity. The majority position of Jewry, at this juncture, was that the "Palestinians" rightly were residents of The Kingdom of Jordan, which, in considering its population, was a Palestinian State under the authority of the Hashemites. This family, no residents of Jordan, traced their family tree to Mohamed himself and for centuries served as the Sheriffs of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. It was none other than the British who presented Abdullah, the descendant of the sheriffs of Mecca with his own country, which he carved into his own Kingly realm - Jordan. Today, Abdullah II, his great-grandson, reigns as King over the Palestinians.

Position 3: Facing the big lies skillfully developed and put forward by Arafat, our next position, post the '67 war, was to enable the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza to have home rule. Israel would represent them internationally. To secure the area the Labor Party came up with the Yaffe plan, which established the now controversial settlements in strategic areas of Judea, Samaria and Gaza connected by semi-military roadways. We maintained that Arafat was a terrorist who should not be given any diplomatic status and influenced the United States to declare the PLO a terrorist organization.

Position 4: But our position changed again. This time, Israel began talking with the PLO while the United States, in support of Israel, still viewed the PLO as a terrorist organization and would not deal with them.

I could go on and on and on. The relinquishing of authority over the Holy City of Hebron once described as forever part of the State of Israel to the Palestinians is another example of a complete change of policy by the State of Israel. Today, at one time, one of the most ardent supporters of the settlements and their valiant residents, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is unilaterally willing to destroy some of these self-same settlements and relinquish territory to the Palestinians without any counter move on their part. Israel has stated that it accepts the establishment of a Palestinian State.

And what of the Palestinian position during all these many years? It has remained the same. It is encapsulated in the picture of "Palestine" at the top of the PLO stationery, which looks remarkably like the totality of the State of Israel.

Any follower of the progression of Israeli and Jewish positions these fifty odd years can easily be confused. From a non-existent People, from terrorists, the Palestinians have now become a People deserving of its own State according to current Israeli policy and a greater portion of the Jews in the Diaspora.

How much of a leap is it to have a program in which young Palestinians, based upon the ever-fluid position of Israel and the Jewish People, express their sense of anxiety over being forcefully pushed out of their land? Even if the reality on the ground today does not bear out this assertion, their sense of the situation, again based upon the vagaries of Israeli politics and world Jewish opinion, surely does.

I am saddened by the flip-flop of Israeli and Jewish policy regarding the Palestinians over this half century. It sends mixed messages to those who are not deeply involved in the politic of this war torn area of the world. It confuses me. I am sure it confuses others. Are the Palestinians really a People? I donít think so. Is Israel their ancestral home? History does not bear this out. Are they terrorists? Read the newspaper. Is the Palestinian State they want, Judea, Samaria and Gaza? Remember Prime Minister Barak's offer including half of Jerusalem itself to serve as the capital of the State of Palestine was summarily rejected by Arafat.

In conclusion, I would hope that our Jewish community does not judge too harshly the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change solely upon this singular and unfortunate event. The programs of the Field Museum's Center for Cultural Understanding and Change have already made a meaningful and positive impact upon the Chicago scene. I am confident that the Center will continue to contribute to the growth of our City in the future.