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May 3, 2013 10:06 am

Surprise: ‘Jew in a Box’ Is Not in a Box

avatar by Bernard Starr

Email a copy of "Surprise: ‘Jew in a Box’ Is Not in a Box" to a friend

The notorious "Jew in a box" exhibit does not actually enclose its subjects. Photo: Martina Lüdicke.

When the media dubbed an innovative and informative exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin “Jew in a Box,” it drew outrage from around the globe. Jews, Jewish organizations and others rose up to condemn the exhibit, which the media likened to boxcars that transported Jews to the gas chambers and the glass cage that confined Adolph Eichman during his genocide trial in Jerusalem. Thus, a well-intentioned exhibit became a pariah.

Was that justified?

I didn’t think so and, therefore, wrote an article praising the exhibit, which actually was harmlessly titled, “The Whole Truth — everything you ever wanted to know about Jews.” In the exhibit a Jewish volunteer sits in a Plexiglas enclosure where he or she answers questions and engages in discussion with visitors. It seemed like many performance exhibits that have become popular in recent years. Nevertheless, I took a lot of heat from responses to my positive article for “not understanding,” as well as much harsher judgments.

Afterwards, in examining the Google images of “the box,” I began to suspect that the Plexiglas enclosure was not even a totally closed box. In one of the images I thought I detected a foot protruding outside the perimeter of the enclosure. But I couldn’t be sure. So I wrote to the Jewish Museum in Berlin asking for a detailed description of “the box.” I just received their response and, lo and behold, it isn’t a box. The Plexiglas enclosure is wide open in the front offering an intimate setting for Q&A with the volunteer discussant of the day. It is certainly a civilized arrangement that is far removed from the grim analogies of the headline writers seeking sensationalism.

Here’s the full response from Martina Lüdicke, one of the three curators of the exhibit. She included a clear photo of the actual box:

Thank you for the link to your article! I am one of three curators of the exhibition. We are happy to see that some of the misunderstandings about the exhibition ‘The Whole Truth’ are being clarified in the American press. The showcase is one of over thirty in our exhibition. Each one relates to a different question. For the question ‘Are there still Jews living in Germany?’ we decided to invite Jewish guests: six days a week, a Jewish person is present for two hours and is available to answer questions from the public. The form is a Plexiglas, rectangular showcase, raised up on a dais. It is closed on three sides and the front is open. Inside is a wide bench on which the Jewish guest sits. So far innumerable spontaneous interactions have taken place to promote dialogue and break down stereotypes. I will attach a picture. In the showcase you can see my colleague Signe Rossbach.

Lesson: Beware of inflammatory headlines. And for journalists, three musts: fact check, fact check, fact check.

Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, which is available at Amazon (grayscale and color edition), Barnes and Noble, and other major outlets.

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  • Dana Gordon

    It still looks like a Jew on display. And in fact that is what it is, “spontaneous interactions” notwithstanding. This would be an offensive exhibit in whatever country it would be placed. But in Germany it is reprehensible. How could the curators, whether they are Jews or not, be so stupid that they cannot see this? Well, there are too many complex reasons to go into here. But one is they wanted to be hip more than they wanted to be moral. This is not uncommon in the postmodern artworld of the last few decades. That “box” is just another iteration of the “vitrines” so overused to hype up the display of vapid, trendy conceptual and “installation” art.

    • Bernard Starr

      What if it were a Jew just sitting behind a desk or table discussing and informing visitors about Jews and Judaism? That too would be offensive from your sweeping definition of “display.” What about a Jew on a panel discussing Judaism, displaying him or herself as a Jew? What about an Israeli Ambassador on display at the United Nations, as a Jew, presenting a Jewish point of view? Think about I, what you are implying is that Jews should be invisible or go into hiding.

      • Dana Gordon

        No, this is not like any of those other “talk with a Jew” examples you propose, which are in toally different contexts–though they would be offensive if they were presented as “talk with a Jew”. This is at a museum where people look at exhibits; the Jew is on exhibition, like a specimen,or a sculpture, or a stuffed caveman, or a monkey in a cage at a zoo.