By Sara Lehmann
It’s been almost two weeks since a nasty dust-up between two Jewish institutions spilled over onto the pages of The Wall Street Journal. And the fallout continues to reverberate in political circles and the larger Jewish community.
The story of the Museum of Jewish Heritage canceling Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as a speaker at the upcoming Tikvah Jewish Leadership Conference broke on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal on May 6. And the ensuing confrontation from the cancel culture skirmish quickly turned into a case of he-said-he-said.
On May 6, Elliot Abrams, a former Deputy National Security Adviser and the Chairman of Tikvah, and Eric Cohen, CEO of Tikvah, co-authored a WSJ op-ed entitled “Persona Non Grata at a Holocaust Memorial.” In it, the co-chairmen of the upcoming Tikvah conference detailed the sudden ultimatum given them by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which had been the planned location of the conference.
“We were working closely with the museum on the details for the June 12 event,” wrote Abrams and Cohen, “until, out of the blue, we were told by the museum staff that Mr. DeSantis didn’t ‘align with the museum’s values and its message of inclusivity.’ Either we disinvite the Governor, they said, or our event was unwelcome.”
Abrams and Cohen explained that when they pressed the museum’s CEO, Jack Kliger, for further explanation they were told that the museum doesn’t “do politics.” It was an explanation the chairmen found puzzling, since the museum had featured speakers in the past, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others.
The museum’s attitude led Abrams and Cohen to conclude, “We know things are bad when a Jewish institution — in this case, a museum whose purpose is to keep Jewish heritage alive by remembering the Holocaust — turns on its own and tries to make a virtue of its own intolerance.”
Tikvah was forced to reschedule the event at a different location.
The following day, the museum issued a statement claiming that the WSJ op-ed was “factually inaccurate” and blamed the incident on “simply a contractual and logistical decision.” And they extended an invitation to Governor DeSantis to visit the museum.
The saga continued with back-to-back Letters to the Editor in the WSJ. On May 10, Kliger charged Tikvah with dragging their feet with event details, again citing “logistical challenges,” and adding “security concerns.”
On May 11, the volley resumed with a WSJ response by Abrams and Cohen, who pushed back against Kliger’s assertions and accused Kliger of attempting “to obfuscate those simple facts, presumably because he knows the museum’s position is indefensible.”
The backlash to the cancellation was immediate. Public officials spoke out, including a letter of condemnation against the museum by NYC Councilmembers Inna Vernikov and Joe Borelli. Councilwoman Vernikov took it once step further by announcing that she is revoking $5,000 in previously planned funding for the museum.
Public reaction against the museum has also been fast and furious. In the pages of the WSJ, in the museum’s own social media pages by guests and members, and on other platforms, people largely reject the museum’s stance and express dismay at a Holocaust museum playing politics and canceling speakers in the name of inclusivity.
For his part, the Governor released a statement through his office, in an effort to stay above the fray. “We hope that this is all a misunderstanding, and the museum leadership will rectify the situation, because a Holocaust memorial should never be politicized,” DeSantis’ office said.
And the Governor’s office reiterated its support for the Jewish community and Israel. Governor DeSantis’ first international trip was to the State of Israel. He combated BDS by placing companies that target Israel on Florida’s List of Scrutinized Companies That Boycott Israel, including Airbnb and Ben and Jerry’s. He pushed for the U.S. Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem and for U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty of the Golan Heights, worked to guarantee U.S. military assistance to Israel, and signed legislation to combat antisemitism.
Regardless, the damage is done and exposes the ugly underbelly of Jewish institutions falling prey to political hostilities.
In an attempt to piece together the facts, focus on the fallout, and consider steps going forward, I conducted a series of interviews with various individuals associated with this fracas. The process began with numerous unsuccessful attempts to reach the Museum of Jewish Heritage and CEO Jack Kliger.
As of today, neither Mr. Kliger nor a museum representative responded to multiple requests, both by phone and email, for comment. I did reach Museum Chairman Bruce Ratner by phone, but he declined to comment and instead referred me to Mr. Kliger, again without success.
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CEO of Tikvah, a non-profit organization
In email correspondence, Eric Cohen, CEO of Tikvah, a non-profit organization, detailed for me the sequence of events that led to the museum’s cancellation of the conference. Cohen specified that Tikvah had held many conferences at the Museum of Jewish Heritage over the years and wrote, “In no instance, in all of our previous conferences, did the museum ever raise an issue about our speakers.”
He substantiated the planning of the event, which began late in January and involved working with the museum. The conference was publicly announced in March, and on April 5, the museum sent Tikvah a final version of the event contract, which Cohen says was signed and returned after a brief delay due to the signatory on Tikvah’s behalf being out sick.
Cohen notes, “In the course of planning out the run of show, we sent them an updated program schedule. The only significant addition was Gov. DeSantis.” After that, Tikvah received a cryptic email stating, “We would need to ascertain if there are any potential conflicts with your invited speakers.”
In conversation the following day with Events Services Consultant Trudy Chan and the Executive VP Elyse Buxbaum, Cohen writes, “Their message was very clear: that our event could not go forward as planned, because Gov. DeSantis does not ‘align with the museum’s values and its message of inclusivity.’” Chan and Buxbaum made specific negative reference to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill and “expressed explicit concern that an event at the museum that included Gov. DeSantis would undermine the marketing of their upcoming exhibit on ‘What Hate Could Do.’”
Cohen was told by Kliger, “The museum does not welcome political speakers, whether left or right.” Kliger’s claim was quickly disproved when Cohen discovered “a long list of prominent progressive political figures who have spoken recently at the museum.”
As to the museum’s subsequent claims of logistics and security concerns, Cohen points to an earlier email “delineating every detail of our space and time of day needs” and museum claims that they are “quite familiar” with high-level security needs.
Kliger’s move to deny Governor DeSantis the right to speak pushed Cohen and Abrams to write their op-ed for the WSJ. “Sadly, we are living in a society where powerful institutions have created a climate of fear, where young students, where employees, where citizens are afraid to express their views, especially if those views are more traditional or more conservative. Our strong hope was that they would reverse their initial decision. But they did not, and we felt that we had an obligation to speak up.”
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Councilwoman Inna Vernikov
Minority Whip of the City Council and Member of the New York City Council for the 48th District
When the story involving Tikvah and the Museum of Jewish Heritage broke, you immediately co-authored a letter with Councilman Joe Borelli denouncing the museum. Then you announced that you’re pulling $5,000 in previously planned funding for the museum. What effect do you think this will have?
I’m hoping this will send a message to other donors and encourage others to pull their funding, at least for now, until the museum makes a change about this. And I hope it will put pressure on the museum because what they’re doing is very hypocritical and unfair. A museum that teaches the whole world about the atrocities of the Holocaust should not be engaged in politics. And that is exactly what they are doing when they allow politicians from one aisle, one political spectrum, to come in and speak, and bar other politicians.
The museum has denied Tikvah’s claims and they have tried to walk back the story. Do you believe them?
I do not. They didn’t make comments to anyone who reached out to them, not to the Post or to me. They issued a boilerplate statement. Their PR agency did it and it’s extremely unbelievable. If they really want to rectify the situation or want us to believe that this didn’t happen, what they need to say is they will allow Governor DeSantis to come in and address an audience. Just saying he’s welcome to visit the museum is completely insufficient.
Do you think the museum’s board and its staff are on the same page?
From what I know, and I can’t cite any sources, there is a lot of internal fighting going on at the museum. Because I do know that there are many individuals on the board of the museum who are very conservative and donate to a lot of conservative causes and [they] would not be happy with this decision.
But if you look at the story, the only side that makes sense is the side of the event organizers. Basically, the museum is saying that this is a contractual and logistical issue. But the other side, which includes respectable individuals, says that they were already planning the logistics and that only when Governor DeSantis was brought up as one of the speakers, did the museum say you either pull the speaker or we will not sign the contract. Which actually makes sense, because they’re saying the contract was never signed. Well, it was never signed because they didn’t want the speaker and so didn’t sign the contract on their end.
With all this infighting, do you think we can expect an apology?
I sure hope there’s an apology, but not only an apology. I hope that not only will the museum issue a statement that Governor DeSantis or any other Republican is welcome in their museum, but that he or she is invited to speak at the museum.
That’s what they need to do at this point to really rectify the situation in my opinion. The museum either needs to have no politician come whatsoever or they need to allow all politicians to come. Otherwise, they are playing politics and risking their 501(c)(3) [tax-]exempt status as a nonprofit.
Besides Councilman Joe Borelli, are there other people siding with you on this issue or are you more of a lone voice?
I definitely hope more people join with me. I’ve reached out to the Jewish Caucus, which I’m a part of. I’m the only Republican in the Jewish Caucus, but we’re all Jewish and no one else has yet signed the letter. But it doesn’t really matter to me. I am quite often a lone wolf in situations where I have to stand up and be a lone voice.
This issue is an example of the extreme polarization between right and left, but it’s also pitting Jew against Jew in a very public manner. How does this affect the Jewish community?
Unfortunately, we’re faced with a situation in which I believe left-wing Jews are actually harming our community. It’s unfortunate that other Jews have to speak against Jews but somebody has to say it. Someone has to call it for what it is. The Jewish people at the head of this museum gladly give a platform to politicians like AOC, who are openly anti-Israel, but ban a Governor who is a rare breed of a politician, who unapologetically stands with the Jewish people and Israel and actually puts forth a lot of policies that benefit the Jewish people. And this is caused by our own people; Jews are doing it.
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Councilman Joseph C. Borelli
Minority Leader of the City Council and Member of the New York City Council representing the 51st District
You co-authored a letter with Councilwoman Inna Vernikov denouncing the Museum of Jewish Heritage. What led you to write that letter?
The museum is an institution that receives public funds and if they’re not going to apply their policies on speakers and events equally across the political spectrum, then they don’t deserve public money.
Can you comment on the museum being called out for doublespeak by saying they don’t platform politicians yet give a voice to Democratic politicians?
I think a fair question to them would be, which Republican politicians have you had featured at an event? I think the answer is none.
Do you think the museum’s attempts to castigate Tikvah and blame the episode on “logistics” and “security issues” reveal their fear of a public backlash?
There’s no question that they got more negative attention from trying to keep Ron DeSantis out than they would have gotten had they just allowed the Tikvah organization to have their event as planned. Unfortunately, they now have to pay the consequences in terms of the public perception of their museum.
Do you believe the museum’s statement that Abrams’ and Cohen’s WSJ op-ed “contains many factual inaccuracies”?
No. They said they were fictionalized quotes and that no agreement was signed. And that was never alleged in the op-ed. The mere fact that the museum didn’t sign their portion of the agreement, reneged on verbal commitments, and don’t deny that Governor DeSantis is not allowed to speak there speaks volumes. They attempted a strawman argument by saying that Ron DeSantis can walk through the front door and take a tour of the museum, but that wasn’t the question.
Do you concur with Councilwoman Vernikov pulling $5,000 in previously planned funding for the museum?
Yes, I concur with it. But the much larger allocation is $200,000 from the Council as a body, and we’ll be speaking with our colleagues about that.
Would you agree that while the museum hasn’t stated its own politics, this act to deny a conservative Governor exposes it?
In all fairness, there are a lot of Republicans and Republican donors on the museum’s board. I think there’s a disconnect between the board and the directors of the museum. And clearly, I believe there’s one between the directors of the museum and the public at large. I believe most of the American public and the Jewish public would be proud of the fact that people from across the board of the political spectrum occasionally speak at this museum to highlight the tremendous work of the Jewish Diaspora after the Holocaust and the measures that they’ve taken to underscore and remember what happened in Nazi Germany.
That should be something we celebrate. The museum should be boasting that politicians from all parties put aside their disagreements and come to remember the Holocaust and highlight the work of great Jewish leaders around the country.
Do you think an apology from the museum might be forthcoming?
I think the museum should take a dose of its own medicine. The museum directors should actually take a tour of Florida’s Jewish community and learn about the wide political spectrum and diverse opinions that are accepted in that state.
Do you see the fallout from this incident playing a role in pushing back against cancel culture?
This is another episode that will go down in the annals of bad calls in woke cancel culture. DeSantis is someone who many Americans might disagree with politically. It’s okay to disagree with people politically. But if you’re a public institution celebrating inclusivity and the triumph of a broad global diverse people, then this incident only serves to demonstrate how silly you look. This is the Museum of Jewish Heritage, not the museum of Jewish monoculture and groupthink. The best part of Yad Vashem is when you’re at the end of the tour and you’re on the balcony looking at how the Jewish population has grown and spread and developed, not just in Jerusalem but in the world. And the museum’s act essentially goes against this principle by saying we don’t want to have this global diverse set of opinions.
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National director of the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) from 1987-2015 and currently the ADL’s National Director Emeritus
Can you share your thoughts on the incident between the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Tikvah?
It’s somewhere between a mistake and an outrage. I don’t think it serves the museum or serves civility. I don’t think a museum dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust should engage in politics and [it] shouldn’t decide who someone else decides to invite as a speaker once it provides and rents a space. I think it undermines what the museum is about because it politicizes the Shoah, which is contrary to what it should be doing. And I think it’s also a violation of freedom of speech.
How do you respond to the museum’s accusations of fictionalizing events and attributing the conflict to “logistics” and “security issues”?
Let’s assume that’s true. So, then you stand up and say you made a mistake. You can reverse. And regarding security, with all due respect, I was at the museum when the Secretary General of the U.N. was there. He had security. When the Governor comes, there’s security.
I don’t understand how that becomes an excuse. Because if it is, then the museum can be intimidated from inviting anyone even to visit the museum because of security. The standards should be what serves the interests of the memory of the Holocaust and the victims. And this certainly doesn’t. I’ve spoken to some members of the board. There are some members who are not happy.
Do you think the fallout from this will damage the museum’s reputation?
I hope it doesn’t because then it will hurt what to me is a sacred institution in New York. I hope it will pass, but it’s usually easy to pass when people who make a mistake say we made a mistake.
This is one example of cancel culture that has run amok. But sadly, it’s between two Jewish institutions, Jew vs. Jew.
I agree with you. We’re not immune to what America lives through. Jews are not immune. I think cancel culture is counterproductive. It makes people into martyrs; it intimidates others from speaking out.
At a time when we’re struggling to maintain truth, we’ve lost truth in the last couple of years in our society. Cancel culture is damaging to civility, society, and the Jewish community.
How does this affect the Jewish community now, at a time of reported record-high antisemitism?
I’m not sure this plays on the issue of antisemitism, but I think the Jewish community should stand for openness, education, civility, and dialogue, because these are the elements that answer antisemitism. Antisemitism is the big lie. If you lose the truth, you don’t have the vehicle and a tool and a weapon to fight antisemitism or other bigotry. All bigotries are big lies.
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Councilman Kalman Yeger
Member of the New York City Council representing the 44th District
As a NYC councilman, do you agree with pulling funding from the Museum of Jewish Heritage as a result of their recent actions?
Every councilman has to decide how to spend their funds the way they best help their community. I don’t give money to Manhattan museums b’shittah. I never did. I don’t think that it’s a good use of the money that belongs to my community. It’s tax dollars. But what the museum did is disgusting. So I agree with Councilwoman Inna Vernikov for pulling funds.
How do you react to the backtracking statements the museum has put out?
They actually put out a lawyerly statement that is, as we say in my neighborhood, “Nisht ahin un nisht aher.” Sort of denying what they’re not accused of so as to not have to deny what they are actually accused of. They’re claiming they never cancelled an event, which is probably true. The reason they never cancelled the event is because the event wasn’t scheduled, and the reason the event wasn’t scheduled is because they refused to do a contract with the organization.
This fracas has politicized a museum promoting awareness of the Holocaust. What kind of message does this send?
It’s beyond the idea of the Holocaust. It’s the idea that it’s a publicly funded museum in the city of New York, and they apparently have a list of who is not allowed to come there. That is something that should offend everybody. Particularly when we know about AOC [speaking] there.
How would you advise the museum going forward?
I think that the museum designed to provide an education to New Yorkers about the Holocaust ought not to be picking favors when it comes to elected officials who can and can’t appear in the museum.
The safest place for the Museum of Jewish Heritage to be is to focus on Jewish heritage and leave politics to others. They are clearly choosing who is welcome in the museum and that is not proper. They receive hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in taxpayer funds. They are a non-profit and don’t pay property taxes. If they want to be a political organization they should register as one. But if they’re going to hold themselves out as a museum focused on Jewish heritage and remembering the Holocaust, then they ought to remember that focus.
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New York-based Jewish community leader
Can you comment on the dispute between Tikvah and the museum?
Governor DeSantis has shown very strong leadership on issues of concern to the Jewish community, ranging from religious liberties, Israel, School Choice, Hatzalah, and a myriad of other pro-Jewish and pro-family-values causes that are in line with the Orthodox Jewish community. For the Museum of Jewish Heritage to deny a platform to someone like Governor DeSantis, because he doesn’t align with their “values,” and yet give opportunities to people like Ocasio-Cortez and Andrew Cuomo, sounds more like politics than principles.
I think that it will be very difficult for the museum to undo this damage with a very large segment of people who feel that DeSantis speaks to their issues. And as a Holocaust museum, this is the last thing in the world that should be political.
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