What Should Be in the Glass Box

Israeli Ido Porat is the first person acting as the “Jew in a Glass Box” at the first day of the exhibition "The Whole Truth … Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Jews" at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. In the installation “Jew in a Glass Box,” a Jewish person sits in the box every day for two hours, and visitors can ask all kinds of questions about Jews and Jewish things. The exhibition will run until Sept. 1, 2013. Words at bottom of the box read: “Are there still Jews in Germany?” (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Israeli Ido Porat is the first person acting as the “Jew in a Glass Box” at the first day of the exhibition “The Whole Truth … Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Jews” at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. In the installation “Jew in a Glass Box,” a Jewish person sits in the box every day for two hours, and visitors can ask all kinds of questions about Jews and Jewish things. The exhibition will run until Sept. 1, 2013. Words at bottom of the box read: “Are there still Jews in Germany?” (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The title is certainly intriguing.

“The Whole Truth: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jews,” is the name of an exhibit now being featured at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany.

There is one particular aspect of the exhibit which has proven to be extremely controversial and has elicited harsh condemnation from members of the local Jewish community. This display features a Jewish man or woman seated inside a glass box for two hours a day, through August, to answer visitors’ questions about Jews and Jewish life. At the base of the box a question is printed: “Are there still Jews in Germany?”

“We wanted to provoke, that’s true, and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable,” museum curator Miriam Goldmann said. “But that’s fine by us.”

According to critics of this display, the notion of putting a human in a box evokes memories of, and comparisons with, Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann sitting in a glass booth during the 1961 trial in Israel which led to his execution. It is also downright degrading.

James Kirchick, a writer and fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wanted to find out for himself whether sitting inside the box would make him feel like “a caged monkey or like a Fabergé egg.” He emailed the museum asking if he would be allowed to spend an hour in the display, and only days later he received the dubious honor of sitting in the coveted seat.

Kirchik appeared to be enthralled by the experience. “To me, the ‘Jew in a Box’ is an ironic, meta-commentary on what it is like to live as a Jew in contemporary Germany,” he wrote. “You feel sometimes that you are an endangered species — or, as the museum commentary puts it, ‘a living exhibition object.’”

Berlin is most infamously known as the city in which the “Final Solution” was drafted. It is also considered the birthplace of the Haskalah movement. Germany was a center of assimilation where Jews tried via every conceivable means to gain acceptance among the gentiles of their time, and for a while it looked as if they would succeed. In the decades prior to Hitler’s coming to power, Germany was widely perceived as a symbol of humanism, liberalism and culture.

It was only when the Nazis unleashed their wave of terror, culminating in the systematic annihilation of the Six Million, that it become clear to all that their attempts at assimilation were to no avail. According to the Nuremberg Laws, Jews were classified as a racial rather than religious group, and neither conversion nor intermarriage would help them.

In contemporary Germany, Jews are a tiny minority — there are only 200,000 Jews among Germany’s 82 million people. Only seven decades after the Holocaust, being Jewish in the city where Nazis planned and directed the slaughter of 6 million Jews is a very sensitive affair.

Kirchik and many of the others who have defended the exhibit see it as a way to deal with the most uncomfortable notion of being viewed as an “endangered species.” But the exhibit totally misses the point.

Lack of communication or basic knowledge about Jews is the least of the problems plaguing the German-Jewish relationship. To think that all it takes is some open conversations — a few attempts to satisfy the inherent curiosity of the German population — and all the walls of distrust will come tumbling down, is, at best, severely misguided.

Putting a Jew in a glass box is a good gimmick to help draw Germans to the museum, but will do nothing to help the Jews of Germany feel more comfortable about the past or more secure about the future. Instead of trying to teach Germans about Jews, a much wiser and more productive undertaking would be to teach Jews about Judaism. The more Jews know about their glorious heritage, the more they will realize that being viewed as an “endangered species” should be a source of pride and strength.

While we must certainly make every effort to be on good terms with our host countries, and as much as possible with all the other nations of the world, the greatest threat to our people is assimilation and ignorance. The secret to our survival lies solely in our adherence to the Torah and mitzvos.

This latter point is the real “Whole Truth” that would make an ideal topic for an exhibition.