01 October 2016

Silences that are Hardly Golden

by Ori Z Soltes
edited by Marc Masurovsky

With the untimely passing of Elie Wiesel, my mind wanders back to issues that, over the years, I discussed with him, and things that I wrote about him. A consistent subject of both processes was the kind of responsibility Jews have to make the world a better, more justice-ridden place—in general, given the rabbinic and particularly Lurianic mystical imperative of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), and in particular given what we as a group endured during the Holocaust. I confess that I confessed to him my disappointments at times in the failure of the Israeli or American Jewish communities to do this or that where they might have responded more positively or aggressively to a given situation. 

In one conversation with Mr. Wiesel I mused over what it is that too often prevented Jews from doing what I thought was the right thing. On the other hand, in one article that I was asked to write on “Who Speaks for the Jews?”—in which one of the figures I discussed was Elie Wiesel—the assertion that I offered was that there is nobody, per se, who plays that role in the Jewish world—there is no Pope or universally embraced political leader. One of the things that has historically prevented Jews from engaging in religious or political wars with each other on anything approaching the scale of the Crusades or the age of Religious Wars in Europe was the widespread diaspora—a thirteenth-century Jew in Germany would have been unlikely to know much about the gastronomy on Passover of Jews in Morocco, and therefore to have objected to it, much less spilled blood over it.

We remain a fractious community of communities today. Depending upon whom you ask and his/her spiritual and/or political affiliations, a given Jew may see his rabbi or his rebbe or the Prime Minister of Israel or the President of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) or the American Jewish Congress (AJC) —or a charismatic speaker, writer and Nobel Prize winner like Elie Wiesel—as the most appropriate figure to whom to turn for guidance regarding how to think, speak and act as a Jew. Non-Jews might think it’s the President of B’nai B’rith where few Jews are likely to think so. So it would be a surprise if we all agreed on what constitutes the “right thing” in a given situation.

There is some irony that one of Elie Wiesel’s first divergences, (following his memoir, Night), from writing novels, was his work—a personal journalistic reportage—regarding the plight of Soviet Jewry, called “The Jews of Silence.” Published in 1966, it was one of those important literary sources for inspiring Jews in America to speak up and speak out, because their oppressed co-religionists in the USSR could not. American Jews have not always been afraid to speak up, it seems.

The questions of contemporary Jewish silence in the face of injustice reminds me of another signal instance, more than fifteen years ago, when the same queries might be proffered. I refer to the attempt by the then District Attorney of Manhattan, Robert Morgenthau, to hold back two Egon Schiele paintings—“Dead City III” and “Portrait of Wally”—that had been on display at MOMA as part of a loan exhibition from the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Morgenthau sought to keep them from immediately heading back out of New York with the rest of the collection when the exhibit ended so that the claims put in by two Jewish families that these two paintings had been plundered from them by the Nazis—and that Dr. Kurt Leopold had acquired them with full knowledge of that fact—could be explored and adjudicated.

The museum community was up in arms: amicus briefs, both formal and informal flew fast and furiously. The museums challenged the validity of government interference in cultural matters. They argued the threat that the economic base of New York City would be deleteriously affected by this: that base, the assertion went, was heavily dependent on culture, specifically large-scale tourist visitation to New York’s art museums, and if the government was successful at holding back these two works, museums across the world would cease and desist from lending objects to New York museums, causing a dynamic shrinkage in loan exhibition quantity and quality, and thus of museum visitation and thus of the New York City economy.

All the museums joined this doleful chorus. My colleagues, Willi Korte and Marc Masurovsky and I, who had joined together to create the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) in September 1997, were on the other side of the fence. Willi had done and continued to do an enormous amount of research to validate the two families’ claims. Marc and I met with Robert Morgenthau to explain it—and to argue that the very assertion of the museum community was the proof of its fallaciousness: that art is big business, and that, unless one is pretty certain that one’s painting or sculpture is an ill-gotten good, one will not to hesitate to lend it to the Met or MOMA or the Guggenheim, knowing that art that has been on display in such places will exponentially increase in value.

All of the museums joined the chorus, including, of course, the doyenne of Jewish museums, the Jewish Museum of New York. Moreover, nobody among the “leadership” of the New York Jewish cultural and political communities spoke up on behalf of the claimants. The WJC really couldn’t, since its then vice-president—who in establishing the Committee on Art Recovery, announced that they would be “taking paintings off museum walls,” and might have been expected to speak up but could not—was the vice-president of MOMA’s Board and had put half a million of his own dollars into the project of bringing the Leopold Museum exhibition to MOMA. His quadruple conflict of interest—his role at MOMA vs his role at CAR vs his role in the WJC vs his earlier ambassadorship to Austria, shortened by the Austrians’ objections to his purchasing and carrying away the likes of Schiele paintings that they considered part of the Austrian patrimony, by diplomatic pouch—certainly explains his silence.

But why the Jewish Museum? What of the rest of the Jewish world? It was clear that, having spent so many decades trying to define itself as both a museum of Jewish history and culture and of art, and closer than ever since the 1960s to being accepted as part of the art museum world without alienating the Jewish world (in the 1960s it had managed the first but not the second), the Jewish Museum did not want to oppose that art world and re-isolate itself—two paintings and two Jewish family claimants seemed a small price to pay for amicus brief acquiescence. (I am not even going to raise the question of provenance in the museum’s own collections).

And the Jewish community in general?

A pundit well over a century once observed—as Emancipation was gradually breaking down ghetto walls throughout Western and Central Europe and Jews found themselves more welcome into the mainstream of culture, socio-economics and even, almost, politics, between 1780 or so and World War I—that “you can take the Jew out of the ghetto, but you cannot take the ghetto out of the Jew.”

He meant the extreme care with which a Jew feels he must operate, in words and actions, not because a riot might sweep through the now-gone ghetto, but because full acceptance into the larger community and all of the advantages of being mainstream might be denied or retracted. Is that what the Jewish “leaders” of New York City were and still are afraid of, in an America whose principles of eschewing anti-Christian sentiment have always been under assault from some quarters? Where Jews could not run for political office in some places (the state of New Hampshire) until late into the nineteenth century? Are we still faced with fear of what the non-Jews will think about us—or has it resurfaced after a period, in the 1960s and 1970s when Jews marched in Selma, Alabama on behalf of Blacks and marched in New York City on behalf of Soviet Jews?

The question is not who speaks for the Jews these days, but how many and which Jews speak up when the situation is potentially awkward but when silence is acquiescence to the miscarriage of justice. We have justifiably become fond of pointing out—it was one of Elie Wiesel’s important contributions to our thinking about the Holocaust, and the specific subject of his third novel, The Town Beyond the Wall—that silent acquiescence is a form of passive collaboration. There is a particular irony when this issue falls into the context of Nazi-plundered art, when one considers the disturbing datum that Jewish dealers like Georges Wildenstein were often more than willing to see harm done to other Jewish dealers, like Paul Rosenberg, if it served art-dealing business needs—or that perhaps the key dealer on behalf of Hitler, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, was half-Jewish.

If the Jewish role in history and art history is a complex one, and if the role of art within the context of the Holocaust was complex (another long story for another time), then the failure of Jews to speak now, so many decades later, in too many contexts where the matter of restituting Nazi-plundered art to victims’ heirs is also complex, perhaps. Or perhaps simple: fear. Whatever the reasons, that failure would have rabbis like Isaac Luria—and no doubt Elie Wiesel—rolling in their graves.