History Museum leader rebuts canceled-forum claims

Frances Levine

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

In the past couple of weeks, Frances Levine, president of the Missouri History Museum, found herself caught in the maelstrom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

A program proposed by some Washington University students to discuss the upheaval in Ferguson and its implications, as well as the disappearance and murder last year of students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, was broadened to include the situation of Palestinians. The expanded program was to be titled “Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine: Solidarity and Collaborative Action.”

Levine said she did not cancel the event, but that is the impression many in the public may have. A statement from the museum says, in part: “It is not unusual for museumstaff to ask community partners to streamline a program. In this case, we simply asked our partners to go back to the program as originally proposed or find another venue. We never canceled the event.”

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Leigh Walters, museum spokesperson, emphasized that the museum and members of the formal Jewish community have no ties, nor does the museum receive any money from the organized Jewish community.

At the Light’s request, Levine explained her role in the event planning in a recorded interview. 

Do you feel you were caught unaware by this issue?

I thought this was only on Ayotzinapa and Ferguson, which seemed like an interesting dialogue — and timely.

As I understood [the program], it was to look at the relationship between youth and police. That’s the way it started. And it was timely because of the anniversary [of the Ayotzinapa massacre].

Ferguson made sense. I didn’t really pay that much attention to it as it was going together.  As I understood it, it was Washington University students working with the History Museum. We do a lot of these. This is what we are known for, these kinds of dialogues. Then, when I finally saw the poster for it, that’s when I had questions. It was on March 17.

Washington University’s name wasn’t on it. The Palestinian students had been added to it. And it said it was sponsored by us, which was a little different than I thought it was. I sat down with Melanie [Adams, events coordinator] and went through it and said, “You know, what is this? How did it go together? What does it look like?”

This was also what we call an off-calendar event. When our calendar goes together, the staff has months to talk with the participants, to shape programs, to reshape programs. An off-calendar event doesn’t get the same kind of discussion. 

A lot of things can change in the four to six weeks you’re putting a program together. When you come down to the wire on it, we look at who are the speakers, what’s the best format for it.

By the time I saw it on March 17, my concerns were: Have we lost that first message? Have we lost that message of community policing in Ferguson? And the student protests over Ayotzinapa. Those are two terrible tragedies. And, could we bring it back to that?

Were you surprised by how people reacted?

I was frankly really surprised at the emotional reaction. And that may be my naïveté. It was never my intent to silence students. It was my intent to try to keep a narrowly focused event. It looked like two events, some might say three events, all stuck together under a banner.

I could understand the timeliness of Ayotzinapa, but I felt like the Palestinian voices needed their own [forum, with a] plurality of voices. Frankly, I didn’t know who was speaking. I’m used to seeing a lot more detail.

It can be challenging to put on something like this.

It’s a very tough situation, and I think that all the issues are so tragic. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy.

What have you learned?

Going through our strategic planning process, one of the things we have asked ourselves is,  how do we retain the nimble responsiveness [so we can hear] the voices of the community? And how do we also stay true to our mission, which is the history of this area? 

With immigration, we’ve tried to bring in other groups to speak. I’m speaking with the Chinese-Americans, and they’re thrilled. We are working with the Bosnian community. We have had eight people at the table. We want to get different points of view.

How do we take our members on a tour of the Bosnian community and visit a mosque? How do we build understanding? 

I didn’t see all those stands there [in this case].

Do you think you can do that with the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

We are getting an exhibit on the history of the Holocaust. Some people are uncomfortable with conflating these issues. What happened on the piece of ground — Palestine — after World War II? That’s a historic event of unintended consequences. It’s a fascinating topic.

Is this a case of being damned either way?

We may be damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  I don’t know the answer to that, but I know it’s really hard. 

We are not the only museum and the only community struggling with the issue. We are not the only community of Jews struggling with the issue. I’ve seen synagogue communities really torn apart by it. My synagogue in Santa Fe was really torn apart by the passions that surround the resolution. 

It could be an interesting dialogue with many voices around what happened [regarding] those series of documents that centered on Palestine. They bring us to where we are. But I don’t know. What we have to do is get the documents. That’s what we do best.

You know, I think that if we were to do that, if we’d bring in other voices, we’d hear from different perspectives.

Do you think it can be difficult to have a calm discussion about this issue?

As we are finding out. 

What was the role of the Jewish Community Relations Council and its director in the way you handled this?

Batya Abramson-Goldstein never asked me to take any action whatsoever. I think that really is critical. But I did start looking at the event after that and asking, How did we get so many voices on so many topics?

It can be a little bit like the Tower of Babel. They’re talking, but they are not connecting. 

How can we keep this focused on this timely issue, Ayotzinapa and Ferguson? That was the original proposal, and it was a good one to look at. Adding any other voice, any other voice, would have diluted it from this timely issue.  

So you canceled the program?

We did not cancel. We did not cancel. The students did. They withdrew from the conversation and took it off the table. I think the students were surprised that we would have a voice about what it would look like.

For people on the outside, it looks very simple. They don’t realize the work it takes to produce those programs. To them, it looks like we open the doors and anybody walks in. Melanie herself was surprised that the students didn’t keep talking to her. 

I went out to talk with [the protesters] and the students. I said I never meant for this to happen this way. They told me to be quiet. I never intended to silence them. They asked if they could come in front of the museum and protest and I said, fine. It was absolutely their First Amendment right to say what they wanted to say at that point. 

It seems you may be wiser now in situations like this.

The teachable moment that came out of this is that in strategic planning, the questions we are asking are the right ones. How much can we do? We want to be nimble, and we want to be responsive. We want to be engaged with the community.

But we can’t do everything. We can’t do the quality of exhibitions and the research and community work. Some balance has to come here. How we go about working with communities? This is something we have to look at.  

Did you see that the pro-Palestinian protesters may have wanted to get their point of view out there?

That may be part of my naïveté, too, that I was not aware of that. It may be that I am still to unaware of the larger political messages. 

You know, there are protests at Hillel meetings on college campuses rather frequently,  where different Jews have different points of view.

You’re bringing up that there is not a single Palestinian voice. There’s not a single Jewish voice. It’s that plurality, and I didn’t see it. 

Have you decided how you will frame a program on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

No, not yet. I want to be able to do it with the kind of planning and forethought that will bring understanding. We may look at it and say: Can we do this?

I want [the public] to know more about the historical origins, and I want them to know about the documents. It’s not just emotional. It’s historical. For a lot of people, I don’t know that they know the historical origins.