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Standing Again in the Diaspora

A walk through The Museum of the Jewish Diaspora (Beit Ha’tefutsot) in Tel Aviv might lead one to believe that only men were taken from their homes in biblical Israel and scattered across the globe by the Assyrian, Greek and Roman conquests. Could it be that the Jewish community existed for 2,000 years without women? That is exactly how it appears on the walls of The Museum of the Jewish Diaspora.

The museum is a major tourist attraction as well as a required part of every Israeli’s education. In its many displays we hope to see a piece of our’ own history. We look at the photographs hoping to catch a glimpse of our own grandparents as they hurry along a street in Prague or Buenos Aires. We look to see how our synagogues looked in Istanbul and Alexandria. We want to know how we lived in Vienna and Addis Ababa. But if we’re women, we don’t see ourselves.

This absence was noted by Professor Dafna Izraeli of Bar-Ilan University in a paper “They Have Eyes But See Not” (Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1993, first published in the Israeli Journal Politico). She concluded that the display, “reinforces a stereotypical world in which women remain nameless, voiceless, and have no contribution to show for themselves. Far from being a reflection of historical reality, women’s marginalization is the erasure of women’s contribution to Jewish survival.”

Most of the men throughout the museum’s many exhibits are identified by name and achievement while the few women whose faces grace the walls are anonymous. The section on education claims that “The Jewish Family Put the Child’s Education Above Everything,” however the display itself shows only little boys studying with their male teachers. In the wedding ceremonies there are no pictures of women going to the mikvah or women having a henna ceremony; women are only shown circling the bridegroom. In the 14 slides depicting the mourning process there are only three women.

Not only have the museum’s curators simply left women out of their displays but they have gone to great lengths literally to erase their presence in the diaspora. A copy of a painting by 19th century artist, Mauricio Gottlieb, “Jews Praying in a Synagogue on Yom Kippur”—(the original of which hangs in the Tel Aviv museum just a few miles away)—was hung in the Diaspora Museum’s permanent “Family Section” exhibit. But before this painting was hung 15 years ago, it was altered to remove the women whom Gottlieb painted praying behind the mechitza. In the museum’s rendition there are only men praying, and a clear view of the synagogue’s rear wall is afforded through the now empty women’s gallery.

After Izraeli’s article was published, Israeli-born Boston University law professor Pnina Lahav assumed that the museum would immediately correct the problem. Lahav visited the museum a few months later to find that nothing had changed and immediately sought an explanation.

Chief curator Joel Cahen wrote her back saying that the deletion was “in order to accentuate the figures in the foreground, and the kavonah” or holiness and spirit, of their prayers.

Lahav and Sheila Decter of the New England Chapter of the American Jewish Congress drafted a petition, using Cahen’s own words, calling for a reproduction of the original painting to replace the altered one. Finally after political pressure from former Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat, Knesset member Naomi Chazan, Israel’s government comptroller Miriam Porat, Arts Minister Shulamit Aloni and hundreds of petitions and phone calls, the painting was taken down.

But the struggle does not end with the removal of one offensive painting. Lahav now chairs a project to identify and expose institutionalized displays of Jewish life which trivialize women. In the U.S. they plan to look at the representation of women in the Encyclopedia Judaica and at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Izraeli will form a similar public commission in Israel to research how the contribution of women is acknowledged in various Israeli museums.

To get involved, contact AJC, Commission on Women’s Equality, One Lincoln Plaza, Boston, MA 02111.