The bland, rectangular exterior of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage is deceptive: it contains a well-designed and sometimes stunning interior. My traveling companions and I expected it would take about an hour to go through, yet we emerged two and half hours later and could’ve gone longer. The first thing one sees upon entering is a roomy lobby that connects three different exhibits, two permanent, one temporary.
Of these we chose to start with “Israel: Then & Now,” which gives an overview of the history of modern Israel. The State of Israel traces its origins to the rise of Zionism, the desire to create an independent Jewish state in Palestine as a way to protect Jews from persecution. Popularized and promoted by Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl in the nineteenth century, it became a real possibility on November 2, 1917, when British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild (Lionel Walter) stating his government’s intention of supporting a Jewish state in Palestine so long as it preserved the civil and religious rights of those already living there. Balfour wanted a solid ally in that region of the world and thought a Jewish state would be just the thing.
But times changed and so did British policy. As caretakers of Palestine, the British decided to throttle back the emigration of Jews into it in an effort to placate the Arab population, who rejected the idea of having two states. In 1947 British colonial authorities in Palestine forcibly stopped 4,500 Jewish refugees from disembarking from the SS Exodus, a ship that had sailed from France. For the British it was a public relations disaster. It helped turn world opinion towards supporting a Jewish state in Palestine, and when one was declared on May 14, 1948, the United States and Soviet Union immediately recognized it.
While a technical and stylist marvel packed full of information, “Israel: Then & Now” has a major flaw: it presents an Israel-centric version of events that whitewashes the negative effect the creation of this nation-state had has on Palestinians. No mention of their displacement during the War of Independence or the hardships suffered by those living in the territories conquered during the 1967 and 1973 wars is made. Nor is there a hint of United Nations Resolution 181, which proposed a two-state solution way back in 1947 but has so been rejected by Israeli mainly due to internal politics. The only controversy the exhibit is interested in is whether or not Jews living outside of Israel should have a say in its policies and future.
The strongest and most powerful exhibit in the museum is the permanent “An American Story,” which delves into the history of the Jews who settled in the Cleveland area. The earliest settlers came from the Bavarian village of Unsleben in the 1830s when Ohio was still more wilderness than not. Cleveland at this time was nothing more than a sparsely populated settlement. It did not begin its growth until the 1830s when canals and stagecoaches brought in new immigrant settlers. And it was not until 1880, according to an information sign, that “a flood of nearly 600,000 mainly Eastern European immigrants—including some 70,000 Jews—fueled the region’s growth as an industrial powerhouse in metals, motors and machine tools.”
Most immigrants from Eastern Europe had one thing in common: extreme poverty. With no savings, they were forced to live in numbers too great for the squalid tenement rooms they rented. Fortunately enlightened locals with the money to pay for their ideals decided to give this influx of immigrants aid. In 1886, for example, Hiram House