WASHINGTON (Jan. 6)
The Smithsonian Institution has canceled a controversial “Israel at 50” series that was slated to take a critical look at the Jewish state.
Bowing to pressure from some American Jewish groups and threats of congressional hearings, the Smithsonian pulled the plug on a seven-week speaker series scheduled for this spring.
The program was proposed by the New Israel Fund, which was to be a co-sponsor with the prestigious national museum.
Instead the Smithsonian Associates, the museum’s research and outreach arm, will run its own program in the late spring or early summer.
The New Israel Fund, a liberal fund-raising organization that gives money to Israeli groups that promote civil rights and social change, lambasted the organizations that had led a campaign against the program.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Smithsonian has been forced by a fringe group of Jewish McCarthyites, led by Americans for a Safe Israel, to back out of the lecture series,” said the NIF’s executive director, Norman Rosenberg.
During the past week, the Smithsonian came under fire from the editorial pages of the Washington Times, New York Post and Boston Herald for the program.
U.S. Rep. Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.) joined the fray, calling on Congress to hold hearings.
The program, which was tentatively titled, “Israel at 50: Yesterday’s Dreams, Today’s Realities,” was billed as a look at the “difficult challenges that Israel must meet if it is to fulfill its founders’ vision of a nation based on the concepts of `freedom, justice and peace,'” according to a program provided by the New Israel Fund.
Program topics were scheduled to include: “Peace: The Price of Occupation”; “Full and Equal Citizenship? The Place of Israel’s Palestinian Citizens”; and “The End of the Zionist Dream? The Rise of Post-Zionism.”
But after groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel, B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League voiced opposition to the program because they believed it was biased, the New Israel Fund backtracked and said it was still working on the final program. In fact, some Likud Party speakers were added to the series in recent days.
But that was not enough for the Smithsonian, which pulled out of the program on Tuesday.
“It is our intention to highlight Israel’s achievements in its stunning 50-year history, to consider some of the key issues it faces, and to examine its hopes for the years ahead,” the Smithsonian wrote in a letter to Forbes.
“To that end, we are developing a program that will be fair and appropriate.”
In a telephone interview, Forbes hailed the Smithsonian’s decision.
“It was clearly a one-sided approach and was not going to be a celebration of the 50 years of the Jewish state, but a critique by the left of the Jewish state,” Forbes said.
The Smithsonian rejected a proposal by the Anti-Defamation League to join as a co-sponsor with New Israel Fund and revamp the program.
New Israel Fund officials, who only last week were relishing their success in convincing the Smithsonian to sponsor their program, defended its intent.
“It was designed to take an in-depth look at Israel’s prodigious accomplishments in its first half-century and some of the challenges facing this vibrant young democracy as it enters its next half-century,” Rosenberg said.
For his part, the executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel defended his group and hailed the Smithsonian’s decision.
“The program should be fair and without any bias to one side,” Herb Zweibon said.
Many others welcomed the Smithsonian’s decision as well.
“While I do not expect the Smithsonian to have a birthday party, there was very little they were celebrating,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director.
“It was a shopping bag of all the flaws and anxieties. It was skewed,” he said.
For its part, the Israeli Embassy said it had no problem with the original program.
According to an Israeli official, the Smithsonian plans to invite the Israeli ambassador to participate in its new program, now in the planning stages.