Photo Credit: Alan Zeitlin
Politics Or Logistics? Museum Cancels Conference Featuring DeSantis.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage has drawn the ire of the Tikvah Fund and its supporters for allegedly stating that the museum would not host the fund’s Jewish Leadership Conference unless Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is off the agenda.

In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Tikvah Fund heads Elliott Abrams and Eric Cohen wrote that their planned event featuring DeSantis as well as a host of others was not welcome at the venue unless DeSantis was disinvited. In the article, titled “Ron DeSantis Is Persona Non Grata at a Holocaust Memorial” they wrote they were told by museum staff that DeSantis “didn’t align with the museum’s values and its message of inclusivity.”

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They wrote that the museum’s CEO, Jack Kliger, “adopted a common form of doublespeak: We don’t do politics, he told us, whether left or right.” They point out, however, that in August 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at the time was a Democratic candidate for Congress and who is a supporter of the BDS movement, was a featured speaker at an event at the museum.

The Jewish Leadership Conference will instead take place on June 12 at Pier 60 and feature DeSantis, whose speech is titled “The Florida Model – And Why it is Good for the Jews.” Other notables include former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, Bari Weiss and Israeli Knesset member Simcha Rothman.

In a response to the Op-Ed, Kliger wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal stating that the article “misstates the decision of the Museum of Jewish Heritage to decline to host Tikvah Fund’s conference. This was not about banning or canceling Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a proposed speaker at the event.”

The letter states that the plan would have been too disruptive and “would have required using more of our public space and resources – and requested additional police security – that presented logistical challenges on what is normally our busiest day. The museum must consider the safety of visitors and staff.” The letter also invites DeSantis to come to the museum to see exhibits but doesn’t mention anything about speaking.

Eric Cohen, however, explained in an email to The Jewish Press that after weeks of working out details of the event, the Museum of Jewish Heritage had sent Tikvah a carefully prepared contract. “We signed without requesting a single change,” he said. “The Museum’s staff then suddenly told us that Gov. DeSantis would not be allowed to speak because he ‘didn’t align with the Museum’s values’ and would undermine its mission of teaching tolerance. If DeSantis was in, Tikvah was out. (We were told this on two separate phone calls with museum, and have careful immediate written notes from those calls.)”

Cohen added that Tikvah is not a political organization but an educational and ideas institution, and that they had invited DeSantis to discuss the Jewish renaissance in Florida, a subject of great importance to American Jews who care about the Jewish future.

“After being told that the governor would not be permitted to speak,” he said, “we wrote to Mr. Kliger asking him to reconsider and allow us to hold our event as planned. His only response was a short phone call the next day saying his decision was final. His rationale had nothing to do with administrative matters; it was entirely a political decision.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.

In response to an e-mail to Museum of Jewish Heritage asking if DeSantis was welcome to speak at the museum in the future, and asking about city councilwoman Inna Vernikov’s stated intention to withhold $5,000 of discretionary funds she had planned to donate if the museum’s policy continues, museum spokesman Jeff Simmons would not comment. He responded with a charge that there were “fictionalized quotes” attributed to museum staff, but a question as to which quotes were fictionalized went unanswered. Calls to The Tikvah Fund also went unanswered at press time.

Vernikov, who represents the 48th District in Brooklyn, told The Jewish Press she was saddened and disappointed by the museum.

“I think [the museum’s statement] is just a boilerplate PR response,” she said. “If the museum wants to really rectify the situation, they need to specifically state that Governor DeSantis is allowed to come and speak at the museum, not just come and visit the museum. These are two very different things. They should invite him to speak there to right the wrong people perceive them to have made.”

“They should either not allow any politicians to speak at the museum or allow politicians from both sides of the aisle,” Vernikov said. “If they disagree with a policy, people at an event can ask questions.”

Former Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind told The Jewish Press that he was furious with the museum’s decision.

“They are the worst hypocrites in the world,” Hikind said of those at The Jewish Museum who decided not allow DeSantis to speak at the event. What they did was such a disaster. When it hit the fan, they ran for cover and said they never said ‘no.’ Be honest. If a mistake was made, say some staff made comments and a mistake was made. Don’t pretend that nothing happened and [that] everyone else is lying. They are a bunch of cowards. Admit you made a mistake for G-d’s sake. You can say this is not our policy. This is not who we are. The Tikvah Fund wanted to go there, but they had no choice to go to another organization. Have they responded to why AOC (Ocasio-Cortez) could be there? I am so angry about this. It’s shameful.”

DeSantis has been criticized on several fronts, including signing a bill called the Parental Rights in Education Act stripping Disney of its status as an “independent special district” where it operates like a county government. The bill was passed in response to Disney’s openly “woke” agenda that had tipped the corporation from family entertainment into the realm of politics, thus meriting to lose its special status. Some critics also felt DeSantis was lax regarding Covid regulations.

This volatile political context puts the museum in the unenviable position that allowing DeSantis could result in threats of boycott or cancelling of donations while not allowing him, as the museum has done, could have the same result.

Could the museum have come out and said publicly that it did not want to host DeSantis because they disagreed with his politics, if indeed that is the case?

“That would have been too much for them to do,” Hikind said. “You’re talking about the governor of one of the most important states in this country. In terms of his relationship to the Jewish community and his relationship to Israel, he is second to none of current politicians. People thought it would not be possible the museum would do something so stupid. Whatever it was, is anyone being reprimanded or brought out on the carpet? A museum of tolerance practiced the ultimate intolerance. As long as you’re a Democrat or a liberal Republican, you’re okay.”

An interesting test would be whether or not the museum would allow Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene to speak. But it is highly unlikely any Jewish group would want the Georgia Congresswoman to speak, as she has compared Covid safety measures like masking to what Jews experienced in the Holocaust.

Veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said that while “it’s impossible to know the exact truth of what took place” without evidence, the museum’s stance that their decision was due to logistics “doesn’t sound believable.”

Asked if the museum was right to be concerned about possible protests if it allowed DeSantis to speak, he said organizations can’t live in fear. “If people would protest him, that’s okay,” Sheinkopf told The Jewish Press. “Protests are an essential participatory element of a democracy.”

The Museum of Jewish Heritage opened in Battery Park in September of 1997 and is one of the most coveted buildings to hold an event, partly due to its much-heralded architectural design. Its theater, which was host to the Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” that took the world by storm, seats 375 people and is equipped with livestreaming capacity. The Events Hall accommodates 350 sitting or 400 standing guests. It has featured countless riveting exhibits and is a favorite destination for school rips as part of Holocaust education.

Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who served as director of the Anti-Defamation League from 1987 to 2015 and a former board member of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal expressing his displeasure over the museum’s move.

“The decision to ban Mr. DeSantis from speaking at the museum for a conference is a sad mistake that borders on cancel culture,” Foxman wrote. “Providing a platform to an organization doesn’t mean you endorse the speakers to the event or their views. And even if you think it does, Mr. DeSantis – whatever you make of his other views or actions – is no antisemite or Holocaust denier. Sadly, this politicizes a precious institution dedicated to remembering and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust.”

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Alan has written for many papers, including The Jewish Week, The Journal News, The New York Post, Tablet and others.