Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jewish history

UNESCO Fiasco Explains Why ME Talks Fail

Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

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Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

The UNESCO decision to avoid anything having to do with the history of the region might make sense if the world body refrained from endorsements of the Palestinian view of events. But this is the same United Nations that holds an annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (expanded now to a “Year of Solidarity” in 2014), an event that is nothing less than an Israel-bashing festival, replete with pseudo-historical displays aimed at walking back the UN’s 1947 decision to create a Jewish state in the then-British Mandate for Palestine alongside an Arab one.

As Wistrich says in an interview with the Times of Israel, given UNESCO’s history of anti-Israel bias, he was skeptical from the start of the process of creating the exhibit. But he is especially angry about the State Department’s refusal to endorse the exhibit and not unreasonably believes it may have set the stage for Bokova’s decision to bail on the project:

The State Department had been repeatedly asked to cosponsor the exhibition, and “after sitting on the fence for a long time they declined, using a very similar argument to that used by the Arab delegates,” Wistrich said.

Earlier this month, Kelly Siekman, the State Department’s director of UNESCO affairs, wrote to the Wiesenthal Center: “At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to cosponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters. As a rule, the United States does not cosponsor exhibits at UNESCO without oversight of content development from conception to final production.”

“That makes the U.S., passively at least, complicit in the UNESCO decision,” Wistrich charged. “Because in my view UNESCO would not have felt that it could, with impunity, act in this way if the U.S. had been a cosponsor.”

The reason that the exhibit was necessary in the first place was to correct the depiction of the state of Israel purveyed by the Palestinians and their international cheerleaders as a colonial error in which Jews were dumped on Arab territory in order to compensate for the Holocaust. If Jews are seen as having connections and a presence in historic Israel/Palestine millennia before 1948, it undermines the canard—a staple of Palestinian Authority propaganda and incitement—to delegitimize the notion that Jews have any right to sovereignty anywhere in the Middle East, making peace talks pointless.

That is exactly the sort of delusional perspective the State Department should be working hard to oppose. But the American decision to distance itself from the project sent an unmistakable message that the Obama administration views any talk about Jewish ties to the land as too controversial to warrant its involvement. So long as the Palestinians are enabled by both the UN and the U.S. to continue denying Jewish history, the peace process that both Bokova and the State Department claim to take so seriously  has no chance of success. 

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More Christmas Lies from Palestinians

It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

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It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

However one approaches the narrative about Christianity’s origins, there is no doubt that the historical Jesus was a Jew, not an Arab. The only point of transforming him into a Palestinian Arab is to hijack the history of biblical-era Judaism in order to burnish the myth that current-day Jews have no place in the land of Israel. That this is a transparent and gross falsehood has not prevented this assertion from being a staple of Palestinian propaganda.

Just as false is the other part of Abbas’s message:

Abbas took the occasion to decry Israel’s security policies, saying, “this Christmas Eve, our hearts and prayers will be with the millions who are being denied their right to worship in their homeland.”

“We are thinking of our people in Gaza, trapped under siege, and of those who are prevented from worshiping in Bethlehem,” he said. “Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Al Dbayeh Refugee Camp in Beirut, along with all of our Palestinian refugees — Christians and Muslims uprooted from their hometowns in 1948 and who, since that time, have suffered the vicissitudes of a forced exile.”

The persecution of Christians in the Arab and Muslim world is widespread and has become the subject of increasing concern on the part of Western Christians, such as Britain’s prince of Wales. But the Palestinians have attempted, with the complicity of local Christian authorities desperate to curry favor with the Muslim majority, to deflect responsibility for the way Islamists have marginalized or forced Christians to emigrate from the territories to Israel. Though Christians remain a small minority in Israel, they have full rights even if the Jewish majority is still uncomfortable with the display of Christian symbols, as the Knesset’s reluctance to display a Christmas tree illustrated.

But here again Abbas is playing the rejectionist card by alluding to the descendants of the 1948 refugees that he claims are being prevented from worshipping in “their homeland.” The point of bringing those refugees to Israel isn’t to worship but to attempt to reverse the verdict of history on the events of 1948, another sign that Abbas is too weak to sign a peace deal that would end the conflict, even if he continues to insist that he wants a state along the 1967 lines. Moreover, no one should be fooled into thinking that the Christian Arab minority among Palestinians are equal partners with the Sunni Muslim majority. To them they are nothing more than dhimmi–a protected but unequal minority. For all of the tension between Jews and Arabs, it is only in democratic Israel that Christians have complete religious freedom in the region. The video released by the PLO (that Abbas heads) in which a Christian figure, whether the pope or Jesus, travels the land witnessing supposed Israeli atrocities before smashing through Israel’s security fence is more fodder along these lines.

We can hope that one day Abbas or one of his successors will mean what they say about peace on earth during the Christmas season. We’ll know that they are serious when they stop pretending that Jesus was a Palestinian. Until then, it’s clear that for the Palestinians, Christmas is just another day on the calendar whose purpose is to delegitimize Israel and to deny Jewish history and rights.

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What Will Become of Iraqi Jewish Artifacts?

Operation Iraqi Freedom had many side stories, but one of the most important to historians and religious scholars was the discovery of a vast archive of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that had been seized and in some cases stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein and kept off-limits in the basement of Iraq’s secret police headquarters. When U.S. forces bombed the mukhabarat building, the basement flooded, soaking and in some cases submerging centuries-old manuscripts and other objects. The New York Times adds some detail to the initial discovery.

The Washington Post also has described the treasure trove:

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna. There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

In 2003, the U.S. government transferred much of the material to the United States in order to restore and conserve it:

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Operation Iraqi Freedom had many side stories, but one of the most important to historians and religious scholars was the discovery of a vast archive of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that had been seized and in some cases stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein and kept off-limits in the basement of Iraq’s secret police headquarters. When U.S. forces bombed the mukhabarat building, the basement flooded, soaking and in some cases submerging centuries-old manuscripts and other objects. The New York Times adds some detail to the initial discovery.

The Washington Post also has described the treasure trove:

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna. There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

In 2003, the U.S. government transferred much of the material to the United States in order to restore and conserve it:

The Jewish cache was originally found by a group of U.S. troops from a “mobile exploitation team” assigned to search for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons… After the befouled water was removed from the Baghdad basement, Hamburg said, the items were placed outside to dry. They were then stored in 27 metal trunks for safekeeping. But “between the heat and humidity, everything became quite moldy,” Hamburg said. The trunks were turned over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which asked the National Archives for help. The Archives urged that the materials be frozen; they were placed in the freezer truck of a local businessman. In June 2003, Hamburg and her colleague Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, director of conservation for the Archives, flew to Baghdad to assess the situation. Hamburg said an arrangement was made with Iraqi representatives to bring the items to the United States for preservation and exhibition, after which they would be returned to Iraq.

The National Archives has posted before-and-after photos of some of the documents. After the exhibit closes on January 5, 2014, the material will be returned to Iraq. This has rightly caused some consternation and, indeed, outrage among Iraqi Jews, whom successive Iraqi regimes forced into exile, confiscating property and communal heritage. What for the Iraqi government may a question of sovereignty, Iraqi Jews see as a question of justice. The State Department, not surprisingly, sided with Baghdad. Perhaps had they tried harder, they could have threaded the needle and assuaged both parties. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government will honor its commitments to safeguard the trove, there is no guarantee once there is a transition of power. Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr would like nothing better than to build a bonfire to eradicate the last of Iraq’s Jewish heritage.

While a more progressive Iraqi government might require school children to tour the repository to gain a better understanding of Iraq’s true heritage, the chance of that happening in the coming years is miniscule. Iraq might see its possession of the Jewish archive as confirmation of its sovereignty, but it should also see it as an opportunity to rebrand Iraq abroad, perhaps by keeping the Jewish archive as a traveling exhibit into the next decade. It could attract thousands of people across Europe, Asia, and the United States who see Iraq only as a nation of conflict, and educate them about other faces of Iraq. Let us hope that Iraq’s victory will not be Pyrrhic, because if anything happens to this treasure trove, that will cap a legacy already hard to live down.

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The Big Problem in Jerusalem Isn’t the Jews

In time for the Jewish calendar’s fall holiday season (Jews around the world are celebrating Sukkot—the feast of tabernacles—this week), today’s New York Times took up the delicate issue of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount where, we are told, troublemaking Jews are breaking the rules and making coexistence, if not peace, that much more difficult. Since some Jewish extremists do foolishly dream of replacing the mosques that are atop the Mount (which looks down on the Western Wall) with a rebuilt Third Temple, a scheme that would set off a religious war no sane person would want, Israel has always sought to keep the peace in the city by limiting Jewish visits and prohibiting Jewish prayer there. So with increasing numbers of Jews wanting to look around and perhaps even surreptitiously utter a prayer, the conceit of the Times piece appears to be that this is just one more instance in which Israelis are giving their Arab neighbors a hard time and pushing them out of a city that is sacred to the three monotheistic faiths.

But however dangerous any idea of endangering the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque might be to world peace, the Jews are not the problem in Jerusalem. That’s because the dispute in the city isn’t really so much about who controls the Temple Mount but the Muslim effort to deny the Jewish history that is literally under their feet. Were it just a question of sharing sacred space, reasonable compromises that would give full Muslim autonomy over their holy sites while allowing Jewish prayer at the spiritual center of Judaism would be possible since Jewish extremists who want to evict Islam from the place are a tiny minority. Yet as long as the official position of both the Muslim Wakf religious authority, which has been allowed by Israel to govern the place since the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Palestinian Authority is that the Temples never existed and that Jews have no rights to their ancient capital, that will constitute the real obstacle to peace.

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In time for the Jewish calendar’s fall holiday season (Jews around the world are celebrating Sukkot—the feast of tabernacles—this week), today’s New York Times took up the delicate issue of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount where, we are told, troublemaking Jews are breaking the rules and making coexistence, if not peace, that much more difficult. Since some Jewish extremists do foolishly dream of replacing the mosques that are atop the Mount (which looks down on the Western Wall) with a rebuilt Third Temple, a scheme that would set off a religious war no sane person would want, Israel has always sought to keep the peace in the city by limiting Jewish visits and prohibiting Jewish prayer there. So with increasing numbers of Jews wanting to look around and perhaps even surreptitiously utter a prayer, the conceit of the Times piece appears to be that this is just one more instance in which Israelis are giving their Arab neighbors a hard time and pushing them out of a city that is sacred to the three monotheistic faiths.

But however dangerous any idea of endangering the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque might be to world peace, the Jews are not the problem in Jerusalem. That’s because the dispute in the city isn’t really so much about who controls the Temple Mount but the Muslim effort to deny the Jewish history that is literally under their feet. Were it just a question of sharing sacred space, reasonable compromises that would give full Muslim autonomy over their holy sites while allowing Jewish prayer at the spiritual center of Judaism would be possible since Jewish extremists who want to evict Islam from the place are a tiny minority. Yet as long as the official position of both the Muslim Wakf religious authority, which has been allowed by Israel to govern the place since the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Palestinian Authority is that the Temples never existed and that Jews have no rights to their ancient capital, that will constitute the real obstacle to peace.

At the heart of this conundrum is an error in Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren’s story. In an effort to give some historical background to the dispute, she writes the following:

In 2000, a visit by Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, accompanied by 1,000 police officers, prompted a violent outbreak and, many argue, set off the second intifada.

Many may argue that, but it is a flat-out lie. As figures within the Palestinian Authority have long since publicly admitted, the intifada was planned by then leader Yasir Arafat long before Sharon took a stroll on the site of the Temples around the Jewish New Year. The intifada was a deliberate strategy in which Arafat answered Israel’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem that would have included the Temple Mount. The terrorist war of attrition was intended to beat down the Israelis and force them and the United States to offer even more concessions without forcing the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Sharon’s visit was merely a pretext that has long since been debunked.

Rudoren deserves to be roasted for passing along this piece of propaganda without even noting the proof to the contrary. But the problem here is more than just an error that shows the way she tends to swallow Palestinian lies hook, line, and sinker. That’s because the significance of the Sharon story lies in the way, Palestinian leaders have used the Temple Mount for generations to gin up hate against Israelis.

It bears pointing out that almost from the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise, those seeking to incite an Arab population that might regard the economic growth that came with the influx of immigrants as a good thing used the mosques on the Mount to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment. The pretext for the 1929 riots in which Jews were attacked across the country and the ancient community of Hebron was wiped out in a pogrom was a false rumor about the mosques being attacked. Arafat used the same theme to gain support for his otherwise inexplicable decision to tank the Palestinian economy in his terrorist war. Similarly, inflammatory sermons given in the mosques have often led to Muslim worshippers there raining down rocks on the Jewish worshippers in the Western Wall plaza below.

Israelis can argue about whether restoring even a minimal Jewish presence on the Temple Mount is wise. Some Orthodox authorities have always said that due to doubt about the presence of the Temple’s most sacred precincts no Jew should step foot on the plateau, although that is a point that seems less salient due to recent archeological discoveries. Others believe that any effort to contest Muslim ownership of the site converts a territorial dispute into a religious or spiritual one and should be avoided at all costs.

But, like so many internal Jewish and Israeli debates, these arguments miss the point about Arab opinion. As with other sacred sites to which Muslims lay claim, their position is not one in which they are prepared to share or guarantee equal access. The Muslim view of the Temple Mount is not one in which competing claims can be recognized, let alone respected. They want it Jew-free, the same way they envision a Palestinian state or those areas of Jerusalem which they say must be their capital.

It is in that same spirit that the Wakf has committed what many respected Israeli archeologists consider a program of vandalism on the Mount with unknown quantities of antiquities being trashed by their building program. Since they recognize no Jewish claim or even the history of the place, they have continued to act in this manner with, I might add, hardly a peep from the international community.

Thus while many friends of Israel will read Rudoren’s article and shake their heads about Israeli foolishness, the real story in Jerusalem remains the Palestinians’ unshakable determination to extinguish Jewish history as part of their effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. In the face of their intransigence and the fact that such intolerance is mainstream Palestinian opinion rather than the view of a few extremists, the desire of many Jews to visit a place that is the historic center of their faith (the Western Wall is, after all, merely the vestige of the Temple’s outer enclosure) doesn’t seem quite so crazy.

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David Gelernter on Judaism and Christian Art

Our valued contributor and friend David Gelernter, who is also a painter, has a splendid show up at the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street in Manhattan, which everyone in the New York area should go and see. This week, on Thursday, January 10, Gelernter will be delivering a characteristically provocative and original talk at 7 p.m. The talk is described thus:

Christian art, encompassing the architectural masterpieces of the Gothic era and much of the greatest painting and sculpture from the Renaissance through modern times, was molded in part by the genius of classical Greece, but ultimately owes its greatest debt, according to David Gelernter, to Judaism and the Jewish artistic sense. Join Gelernter for a discussion of the roots and nature of this debt, as well as of the duty of Jewish art and artists to help create worldwide recognition of the foundational role of Judaism in Western civilization. The program will be moderated by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum.

David’s show, Sh’ma, can be viewed there from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. before his talk. Tickets are $15. For reservations, go to www.smarttix.com or call 212‐868‐4444. The museum is located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street.

Our valued contributor and friend David Gelernter, who is also a painter, has a splendid show up at the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street in Manhattan, which everyone in the New York area should go and see. This week, on Thursday, January 10, Gelernter will be delivering a characteristically provocative and original talk at 7 p.m. The talk is described thus:

Christian art, encompassing the architectural masterpieces of the Gothic era and much of the greatest painting and sculpture from the Renaissance through modern times, was molded in part by the genius of classical Greece, but ultimately owes its greatest debt, according to David Gelernter, to Judaism and the Jewish artistic sense. Join Gelernter for a discussion of the roots and nature of this debt, as well as of the duty of Jewish art and artists to help create worldwide recognition of the foundational role of Judaism in Western civilization. The program will be moderated by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum.

David’s show, Sh’ma, can be viewed there from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. before his talk. Tickets are $15. For reservations, go to www.smarttix.com or call 212‐868‐4444. The museum is located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street.

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