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Two lost battles this week: Spertus Museum and Pluto Press

We’ve been following the distressing story about the powerful show on display at Chicago’s Jewish Spertus Museum on maps and the Holyland which featured Palestinian and Israeli artists. First it opened, then suddenly closed, then opened. In a follow up post about how the exhibit ruffled feathers in the institutional Jewish world (read: funders), we pointed to a Chicago Reader story about changes the museum was forced to make when the exhibit re-opened. Hat tip to Richard Silverstein and Google Alerts for the devastating news from the Chicago Tribune tonight that the exhibit was forced to close down altogether by upset funders.

Under intense pressure from angry Jewish patrons, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Friday abruptly closed the controversial “Imaginary Coordinates” exhibition, which explored Israeli and Palestinian concepts of homeland and how that is defined both historically and in the present day.

Critics charged that the combination of historical Holy Land maps and contemporary artwork cast Israel in a negative light.

“Aspects of it were clearly anti-Israel,” said Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “I was very surprised that a Jewish institution would put forward this exhibition. I was surprised and saddened by it.”

Jewish Voice for Peace’s own Lynn Pollack is quoted concerning the critically well received exhibit:

“These were not fringe Palestinian and Israeli artists,” she said. “These were mainstream artists who are able to display in their own country,” she said. “Why can’t this art be seen by American Jews?

Yet again, what’s the take home message here? That Jewish institutions can be counted on to be no-independent-thinking zones? For shame. Spertus deserves our support for having mounted such an important show.

Meanwhile, thanks to a tip from a reader, we learned from Inside Higher Ed that the University of Michigan finally, as many had long anticipated, severed its relationship with left publisher Pluto Press after pressure from right-wing pro-Israel groups.

In September, the University of Michigan Press faced intense criticism from pro-Israel groups–and questions from some regents–over its distribution of a book called Overcoming Zionism, which argues that the creation of Israel was a mistake and urges adoption of the one state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians would form a
new country, without a Jewish character. Michigan wasn’t the publisher, but it distributed the book under a deal with Pluto Press, a leftist British publisher with extensive lists on the Middle East and international affairs.

Some critics of the book demanded that Michigan stop distributing the book, which it briefly did, and cut ties to Pluto immediately. The university declined to do so, and resumed distributing the book, citing both contractual obligations to Pluto and concerns that halting distribution because of content would raise issues of academic freedom. By the end of this year, however, Michigan will no longer be distributing the book or have any ties to Pluto Press.

This is a sad week.

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