Monday, September 10, 2007

Rabbi Joshua Chasan on Peter Schumann's "Independence Paintings"

Recent readers of my blog will note that I have been paying close attention to the events revolving around the exhibition in Burlington, Vermont of Independence Paintings, a collage of painting and text by Bread and Puppet Theater founder and artistic director, Peter Schumann. It was the content of this painting that caused me, someone who for a number of years had performed in Bread and Puppet's Boston area shows, to terminate my relationship with the group when it showed at the Boston Center for the Arts in February of this year. Rabbi Joshua Chasan, of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, as reported earlier, has been a public critic of the exhibition. Due to the on going nature of the dispute, and his lack of familiarity with blogging, Rabbi Chasan asked me to share the letters he has written to the community as the situation has been developing.

I have made minor editorial glosses for purposes of aiding readability on the web, mostly in terms of providing links to relevant web pages and clarifying the identify of the speakers. I have made one note in bracketed italics that references a report by Ric Kasani Kadour.

Ian Thal

Three Emails from a Rabbi in Vermont to Christian Colleagues Including an Email Exchange Between the Executive Director of the South End Art and Business Association and the Rabbi

By Rabbi Joshua Chasan

On Saturday morning, September 8, 2007, the South End Art & Business Association of Burlington, Vermont featured a presentation of a mural by Peter Schumann, founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater. The mural was created after a nine day visit by the artist to Palestine, a journey from Vermont on which he took along John Hersey's The Wall, a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto. The exhibit and talk by both the artist and his guest, Joseph Koval, author of Overcoming Zion, was sponsored by a local organization that broke away from the tri-partite sister-city program of Bethlehem, Arad, and Burlington, in order to be able to advocate exclusively on behalf of Palestinians. The program on that Saturday morning was attended by Vermonters with a variety of viewpoints, and it was not a civil exchange.

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, August 31st, 2007:

Shalom Chavayrim,

Chavayrim--remember President Clinton saying "shalom chavair" it at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral--chavayrim (the plural) has the sense of being members of each other's shared spiritual vision. I write to you about a deep concern amongst members of our Jewish community about an exhibit of paintings with accompanying talk by Peter Schumann.

A review of these paintings appeared in the Boston Phoenix (see link below).

Whatever your opinion of the fence/wall (it disrupts Palestinian lives; it saves Israeli lives; both), I would urge you to go see the paintings and listen to the talk by Peter Schumann, whose work many of us have respected for decades. I plan to look at the paintings and will go to hear Peter if he is talking at any time other than Shabbat morning when I plan to be in synagogue. I believe the talk will be on Saturday, September 8. You can contact the Art Hop for more information. I will place at the end of this email some links you may want to look at.

I urge you to experience the exhibit and consider why many of us Jews (not all by any means, but certainly many of us, including me and board member of Vermont Interfaith Action, Jeff Potash) are deeply troubled by what Deborah E. Lipstadt has called "'soft-core denial" of the Holocaust "which, rather than deny the Holocaust, equate[s] Israel's policies with those of the Third Reich, labeling Israelis as Nazis." (Lipstadt, History on Trial, p. 25)

I and many others in the Jewish community are ardent civil libertarians. Ideas artistically expressed need to be challenged in the public square. So I write to ask you to consider the possible consequences of this exhibit being seen by people of all ages. Perhaps you will feel moved to speak out about what this exhibit evidences of our community's acceptance of ideas which are essentially anti-Semitic.

I readily accept that not every criticism of the polices of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism. But attempts to de-legitimate the existence of a Jewish State within living memory of the Holocaust send shivers down the spine of many of us Jews who know that, for all the problems that we have with specific Israeli policies, we know in the sinews of our souls that we still live in the lifeboat that the State of Israel provided for the Jewish people in 1948. Clearly, with pronouncements such as those of the President of Iran and the anti-Semitism in the textbooks and media of many Arab countries, the waters about us still are not safe.

I ask for your support at this time.

With hope for just peace,


P.S. I suggest also going to the following web sites:

Vermonters for a Just Peace (VTJP)'s affiliation with Al-Awda:

Frank Levine's Letter to the Boston Phoenix about Schumann's Exhibit
(scroll down to "Imitating life?")

The original Boston Phoenix article:

I don't know if it is still up after complaints [weeks later it was], but the following cartoon comparing the Israelis' building the
fence/wall and an iconic image of Auschwitz was on the web site of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine earlier this week:, with the caption, "This political cartoon by Moroccan artist Abdullah Dourkawi won first prize in the Holocaust cartoon contest at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts," sponsored by the State of Iran.

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, September 7, 2007:

You may recall my email of August 31st (see below) Here is correspondence from and to the director of the South End Art and
Business Association. Some have called for SEABA to pull the one offending painting and to cancel the connected talk and film. I have been careful not to. My position I think speaks for itself below. We in the Jewish community are hopeful that our Christian sisters and brothers will see this for what it is-a hijacking of the Art Hop by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel who are one-sided in their support for Palestinians and hatred for Israel. See the cartoon below at the end of my first email. It is still on their web site as of five minutes ago. As you know, I am not afraid to criticize Israeli policies and have been side by side with Palestinians during a home destruction by the Israelis and protecting olive farmers near Nablus.

This is not about Israeli policies. This is about hatred for Israel the State which bleeds directly into hatred for Israel the people. The standard of public discourse in Burlington is being lowered. Please speak out publicly and to your members. This kind of hatred spreads easily.

Carlos Haase, Executive Director of the South End Art & Business Association to rabbi and representative of the Israel Center of Vermont with permission of the Executive Director, September 5, 2007:

I want to start off by thanking you for the very constructive phone conversations we've been able to have. Although the conversations have taken place at two different times in this process, both conversations have been very productive.

Below my signature, I am sharing with you our organization's immediate response to the controversy surrounding the Art Hop. I am also attaching it as a PDF.

From our conversations I conclude we have a lot of points in common. That in turn, provides us with the strength and common ground to pursue dialogue, discussion and understanding of this situation.

On that note, on behalf of SEABA, I want to be the first to let you know that we look forward to public response (your opinions of course, included), in order to assess how we can create a dialogue and safe space for discussion to take place in the near future, in whatever shape or that could be. For that, I look forward to directly working with you.

We have a great community here in Burlington. I wholeheartedly hope this whole experience and the dialogue to come from it will only strengthen us as a community.

Respectfully yours,

Carlos Haase,
Executive Director
South End Art & Business Association

The South End Arts and Business Association (SEABA), and by extension, the South End Art Hop, are strongly committed to Artistic Freedom of Expression. We don't pass judgment on any artwork, that is, we neither condone nor condemn any work. We encourage everyone to see the artwork on display and come to their own conclusions about the material. If any questions arise, we also encourage viewers to ask questions of the artist(s) who created the work. The Art Hop is a unique opportunity for creators and viewers to come together and create further dialogue, which furthers understanding. We at SEABA hope that you share our desires for intellectual inquiry and Artistic Freedom of Expression. We hope to see you at the Hop!

Rabbi to Executive Director of Arts and Business Association, September 5, 2007:


I tried to reach you by phone as you suggested.

I have to say that the statement that SEABA issued leaves me bewildered. In our previous conversation, I had assumed that the leadership of SEABA understood the dimensions of the mistake made in allowing Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel to use your organization for blatant political purposes. I had thought that you would be grappling with this problem. Instead, I heard you now using what happened to SEABA to define a policy of moral neutrality about expressions of hatred. If it were African-Americans or homosexuals who were victims of such abuse, I do not think you would be issuing statements of neutrality. I hear no soul-searching at SEABA about the risk created by allowing an expression of hatred. And recently I learned that the showing of Occupation 101 is also on your program. Carlos, it appears to me that SEABA has opened the door of mainstream Burlington culture to the expression of hatred. I fear for my community.


Rabbi Joshua Chasan

[Editor's note: Ric Kasini Kadour has noted that Art Hop organizers, while unwilling to withdraw any work due to content, had agreed to present Independence Paintings in a context that addressed the anti-Semitic nature of the work, but later "reneged" on this agreement.]

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, September 9, 2007:

Shalom again. You must be wondering how I have time to write these emails when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are approaching. The answer is that you are part of my soul searching at this time of year. I value your opinions, treasure our years of working together and, I suppose, I am triumphalist enough (God forbid!) to hope you join me in the soul searching of the first ten days of the Jewish year, beginning this Wednesday evening.

I realize I am missing some names, and have neglected to send these emails to all of our colleagues. I missed Gary Kowalski. I'm sorry. If you see a name missing, please pass this along. A deep hurt remains for many of us in the Jewish community and others about this expression of hatred.

Unfortunately, some of those hurt were as rude and hostile as supporters of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel at the Saturday morning talk by Peter and the fellow he invited, Joe Koval. This issue pushes a lot of buttons.

I write now to ask those of you who attended the Saturday morning program and/or saw the mural about the Warsaw Ghetto/Palestine, to send me your thoughts. Not everyone sees hatred, animus, in this work. Perhaps you didn't. Or you did. Either way, I want to create a conversation about this issue. Many of us in the Jewish community, with perspectives on Israel/Palestine which range across the spectrum, feel a little less safe in this community than we did before we got word of what we continue to believe was a hijacking of the Art Hop by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel which has associated itself on its web site with the State of Iran's Holocaust Cartoon Contest.

I hope together we can up the ante for a movement for peace which recognizes the threats to democracy from both within and without the United States; and sees the struggle of Israelis and Palestinians in the context of international relations over the past two hundred years. The world is in chaos now and we must examine carefully rhetoric about a just peace to see if its practitioners really want peace, or they are driving a hard bargain for one side or the other.

As clergy, we know that God knows no sides; God is beyond sides. Yet we also know that the level of violence in our world today--State-sponsored violence and violence sponsored by the ideologues of triumphalism, whether it be religious or national--the level of violence in our world today must be an affront to our conscience that calls us into action.

I ask you to join in conversations, public and private, that begin with honest, calm talk about issues of justice and peace in the Middle East. Once again, just as with Vietnam (at least in my opinion), the peace movement as constituted, has some but limited effect. Just as on other social issues--for example, abortion--our moral influence is limited by our differences of opinion, so too this can become a problem about differing takes about Israel and Palestine.

For the sake of helping to create an effective movement to end the violence, as well as for the sake of those of us Jews who feel threatened by a weakening of moral resolve in the world to protect the independent sovereignty of the State of Israel, can we talk to each other about these issues? Will those of you who resonate to our vulnerability as Jews speak out the public about this issue?


Jihadnews said...

I came across your site while researching Schumann. I am in the process of decrying the invitation of the Bread & Puppet theater "group" to participate in the quadracentenial celebration of lake champlain. The emails you posted from Rabbi Chasen have been helpful.

While raised in the Roman Catholic Tradition, I have long felt more Jewish than Christian for reasons unimportant to this commentary but for a Vermont based group to so audaciously procaim its anti-semitism is beyond acceptable. I will not tolerate it and am working to stop this nonsense.

Ian Thal said...

Part of the reason I have followed this schism from its inception is because I regard Peter Schumann to be a very important artist, worthy of study.

There is much that is very positive in the repertoire of Bread & Puppet Theater, however spirit that animates Schumann's work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not one that seeks peace, but one that rationalizes terrorist violence and uses the images of the Holocaust to do so. This, I regard as a form of antisemitsm and it cheapens anything positive about the Theater.

I am saddened that due to "Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories" and The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists I am unable to fully enjoy the memories of such uplifting work as Oratorio of the Possibilitarians and World on Fire.