Retrospective on the Museum of the Jewish Heritage – Tikvah Dispute

Now that some time has passed since the Museum of the Jewish Heritage’s (MOJH) decision to deny the Tikvah Foundation the right to use their facility for Tikvah’s Jewish Leadership Conference was publicized, it is worthwhile to look back at the reactions and the takeaways from those.

The decision by the MOJH to deny Tikvah the use of their space was, as they tell it, because Tikvah had invited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to be one of the featured speakers.   As the press has noted, there were a number of members of the museum’s staff uncomfortable having the Governor on the Tikvah program so the museum management withdrew their permission for the event.

Very soon after that decision was made Elliott Abrams and Eric Cohen, representing the leadership of the Tikvah Foundation, published a scathing condemnation of MOJH in the form of an op ed in the Wall Street Journal.  The comments from every corner of the Jewish world then began to flow, overwhelmingly in support of the Foundation and critical of the decision of MOJH.  An earlier blog of mine, which was featured in the Times of Israel, was actually the only one I read that supported the MOJH decision.

Nevertheless, it is instructive to examine the thrust of the comments, and what they tell us about how the Jewish community looks at such situations in the political climate of 2022.

The Museum’s Right to Make This Decision

I had taken the position that MOJH is not a hotel or a public event space, but rather an institution with its own mission and perspective on how it sees that mission.  Given that, it would seem to have the right to deny use by any renter whose speaker line up does not align, in the opinion of the management of MOJH, with the museum’s interpretation of their mission.  One can disagree with the decision, but it seems obvious that the right to make that decision is theirs and theirs alone.  Very few pundits even took the time to address this obvious fact.

The Museum’s Prior Speakers

Many people zeroed in on the fact that previously, the MOJH did, in fact, host politically controversial speakers, even some who were often anti-Israel, such as US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others.  She did, in fact, speak there early in her tenure as a Congressperson.  In retrospect, it is possible that today she would not be given an opportunity to speak there.  Nevertheless, even if most of us feel that it was a mistake for her to have been given that opportunity then, is MOJH now obligated to make that same mistake again if that’s the way they see it?  It seems to this writer that they, like all the rest of us, have the right to re-evaluate their position and apply a new standard should situations change, as well they have since three years ago.

The Wall Street Journal Op Ed

For me, one of the most shameful aspects of this entire episode was the fact that the leadership of the Tikvah Foundation chose to take what would seem to be a Jewish community issue and bring it into the worldwide public sphere by placing an op ed in the Wall Street Journal. We, as a people, have often tried to observe the maxim that we do not wash our dirty linen in public.  This particular dispute between MOJH and Tikvah was, at its core, just that, at least in my opinion, and not an issue that speaks to freedom of speech as a general topic.   That would have been the case had a public venue like a hotel or Pier 60 where the conference will be held, would tell Tikvah that they are not welcome because one of their speakers is unacceptable.  I believe that placing an op ed in a world renowned publication like the Wall Street Journal was an irresponsible act on the part of Tikvah’s leadership.

The Defense of Gov. Ron DeSantis

Finally, what truly amazed me over the last week, is that almost everyone stepped away from the issue of whether a mission-driven institution has a right to decide who does and does not speak, to an effusive defense of Gov. DeSantis and what he has done for Florida and, specifically, the Jewish community of Florida.  If comments could be measured it would seem that at least 75% of the verbiage was devoted to a defense of Gov. DeSantis rather than a discussion of the more critical issue of what rights an institution has to make decisions regarding invited speakers.

In a way using the strong defense of Gov. DeSantis as a lever to criticize the museum, raised the influence of the museum’s approbation quotient to a much higher level than even their management believed they possessed.

To be sure, both MOJH and the Tikvah Foundation do great work.  I am a Tikvah Foundation supporter; I participated in their 2018 leadership conference in New York the day after the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and listen regularly to their podcasts by luminaries such as Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik and Dr. Ruth Wisse.  So it pains me personally to watch this become yet another wedge that divides the Jewish community rather than unites us.

I hope that there have been some lessons learned from this brouhaha. If not, we will all be the worse for the experience.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 29 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Immediate Past Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.