David Frum

04.10.13

'Jew in a Box' Puts Tilda Swinton to Shame

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An exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum entitled, “The Whole Truth … Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Jews …” has an installation that has been controversial to say the least. This particular part of the exhibit, commonly referred to as ‘Jew in a Box,’ features a Jewish man or woman sitting in an open glass box. Visitors can ask questions and the person in the box will answer based upon their experience.

From the Jewish Museum of Berlin’s press release on the installation:

The section devoted to the question "Are there still Jews in Germany?" presents a highly unusual "exhibit." At set times, a Jewish guest will take his or her seat in a real showcase and, if desired, respond to questions and comments from the visitors. With this idea, the organizers are taking up the gauntlet that critics of Jewish museums have thrown down at the feet of the museums’ founders. The substance of this criticism: Jewish museums could unethically use Jews as "exhibition objects" and subject them to voyeuristic curiosity. Others believe that the Jews in Germany, who have played a prominent role over the past few decades and are seen by many as a symbol of the millions murdered in the Holocaust, are already treated as specimens under glass.

Many have found the ‘Jew in a box’ portion of the exhibit rather insulting.

Stephan Kramer, a prominent figure in the Berlin Jewish community, asked, “Why don’t they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?” Kramer said he was approached to participate but turned the offer down. Others too have described the exhibition as “degrading” and not helpful to German-Jewish relations.

Dr. Ari Kohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska agrees with this sentiment.

I’ve been following the story of this Berlin museum exhibit that puts various Jews into a box so visitors can ask them questions. And, unsurprisingly, I don’t like the concept.

The short version is that it seems on the one hand zoological and on the other hand reductionist. In other words, it seems to suggest that Jewish people can be put on display like chimpanzees so we can learn about them in a more comfortable environment for us and also that we can reduce what being Jewish means down to whatever these people’s idiosyncratic answers might be to the questions of curious museum patrons.

I find both of these notions obviously wrong-headed.

Edward Jacobs, a principal at The Berenbaum Group and a concept designer of synagogues and Jewish exhibitions, thinks that the installation is meant to be provocative. “What struck me the most is that [given the size of the Jewish community in Germany] you could say that this is the museum of the extinct race.”

To Jacobs, the installation is an example of “how we as humans connect with the past.” While he applauds it, he does not think something like ‘Jew in a Box’ would work in another country, which like Germany, doesn’t have a large Jewish population. Most places, Jacobs feels, would use this to continue the stereotype that Jews are ‘monkeys’ that are best when on display. In Germany, however, “the level of consciousness” towards the Jewish people and the Holocaust is “profound.”

Even though ‘Jew in a Box’ is controversial, Jacobs is right that it helps the people of Germany connect even further to the Holocaust. He notes that upon leaving the exhibit, visitors will be interested in learning more. This thirst for knowledge and learning is truly how we make sure the world never forgets about the Holocaust.