As I noted the other day, I had strong objections to a practice at Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum described in the Times of Israel (click on screenshot below). When the Haredi schoolchildren (ultra-Orthodox Jews) visit, the Museum, which is funded by Israeli taxpayers, covers up its evolution exhibit, as evolution is contrary to their religious beliefs and would offend (and maybe enlighten!) them. Further, other people are in the Museum at that time, and they, too, don’t get to see the evolution exhibit.
This disturbs me on the grounds that Israel is a secular country (though not as secular as the U.S.); that no religious group can dictate, on the grounds of its beliefs, what is shown in a science museum; and that blocking the exhibit for non-Haredis is an unwarranted incursion on their rights.
I wrote to the head of the Museum (the letter is at the top link), and although I didn’t hear back from him, several Israeli newspapers and websites covered this fracas, mentioning my letter. And I did hear from the head of another museum, the non-publicly-funded and religious Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh.
At any rate, the ultra-left Israeli newspaper Haaretz covered the kerfuffle after the fact:
They mention my letter to the Museum director:
Biology Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago, who specializes in evolution, read about the affair and sent the museum a letter in which he criticized their decision to cover the exhibit. “As an evolutionary biologist of Jewish ancestry, I am deeply offended at your practice of covering up the human evolution exhibit lest it offend the Haredi Jews who go to your museum. Why would a museum hide the truth, even if it’s offensive to some religious believers? Is this proper in a largely secular state like Israel?”
He also published the letter on his blog “Evolution is True.” Coyne called on his readers to send their own letters to the museum. “I hope you realize that by literally hiding the evidence for human evolution, you are misleading people: in effect, lying by omission. The truth is the truth, regardless of whether some people are offended because it goes against their upbringing; and by catering to the false beliefs of creationists, you are, in effect, censoring whatever science that some people find unpleasant. This kind of behavior makes me ashamed of my Jewish background.”
but also gives the Museum’s defense of its practice (my emphasis):
. . . Since the beginning of the school year, 12 groups from Haredi schools have visited the Natural History Museum as part of the city’s “Jerusalem Advantage” educational program. This is the first year such visits to the museum have been subsidized by the city.
The museum’s educational director, Dr. Evgeny Roznitsky, says schools made their visits conditional on the exhibit being covered up, and he decided to agree to their request. “The agreement is that when such a group arrives we close the curtain and the guide does not explain about those parts. When they leave we open the curtain,” he told Haaretz.
“It has happened 12 times and we would be happy for more – before this year there were no Haredi groups at all, only in a few private frameworks. This year groups come from [Haredi] schools in an organized manner, so I still think this is an achievement,” said Roznitsky.
. . . It is preferable to expose the students to the rest of the worlds the museum has to offer than to refuse their request and have them cancel completely, he says. “My dilemma was either not to close [the curtain] and not agree to the request, and then not to receive this public and not to expose them to the beauty of the other exhibits, or to temporarily close something that is 0.3 percent of all the museum’s space and expose them to the rest: The environment, nature, environmental quality. We have animals in the garden zoo, a beautiful garden. These are children who have never seen an animal in their lives. So I expose them to an entire world. So on behalf of pluralism and education I close this curtain,” said Roznitsky. He completely denies that a visitor who criticized the curtain was told she could leave. [JAC: note that the exhibit is closed to all visitors when the Haredi visit; they don’t have exclusive access to the whole museum.]
. . .The Jerusalem municipality said: “The city’s Educational Administration initiated the ‘Jerusalem Advantage’ program in which all the city’s students from all communities are entitled to visit a wide variety of museums in the city within the framework of their studies. Within this program, thousands of students visited the Natural History Museum in the city and enjoyed the exhibitions and exhibits there. As opposed to what has been claimed, the aforementioned exhibit is open regularly to all groups visiting the museum.”
The city said that out of a desire to attract groups from the Haredi community, too, it was decided to agree to the request from Haredi schools and cover a specific exhibit during the visits. “So far, 12 groups from Haredi schools have visited the museum. The Educational Administration will continue to make cultural institutions and enrichment activities accessible to all the city’s students from a viewpoint of tolerance and equal opportunity for everyone.”
The same defense—that it’s better to give the Haredi kids some exposure to the outside world even if it means censoring evolution—was offered by Rabbi Nathan Slifkin, head of the Biblical Museum of Natural History on his website, in a post called “The skeleton in my closet.” Slifkin also wrote me personally along the same lines and posted a comment on my own site (here), to which you are welcome to respond (be civil!).
Finally, the Times of Israel published a second piece also mentioning my letter (click on screenshot):
This article reaffirms that the exhibit is covered when Haredis visit, even if other people are there at the same time, and the evolution exhibit was also covered twice by mistake when no Haredis are visiting, ostensibly due to “lack of manpower” (seriously; how hard is it to take down a curtain?). So everyone gets denied the science when Haredis are visiting; religious rights trump the right of non-Haredis to learn about human evolution.
The article also says that the Museum is sticking by its guns:
The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem has vowed to continue its policy of hiding an evolution exhibit from view, along with other displays on dinosaurs and the human body, during visits by ultra-Orthodox groups in order to avoid offending their religious beliefs. The announcement came despite an outrage caused in Israel and abroad by its decision to self-censor displays on evolution, dinosaurs and the human body.
“Of course,” the museum’s educational director, Dr. Evgeny Reznitsky, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday when asked whether he will carry on with the practice, citing the institution’s dire financial situation and saying it was better to have ultra-Orthodox schoolkids visit on their terms than have them not come at all.
As people protested outside the building with a megaphone and demanded that the museum reject the demands set by Haredi schools, Reznitsky said he would only reconsider his position if ordered to stop by municipal authorities.
Yes, there were protests!
Meanwhile, outside the museum, several protesters gathered Tuesday morning for a demonstration, carrying signs and shouting slogans such as “The curtain won’t hide the truth on the wall,” “Evolution is for all,” and “Don’t leave the skeletons in the closet.”
They argued heatedly with a museum employee who vehemently defended the practice as respecting the museum’s visitors and as a needed step in light of its financial woes.
“We don’t accept this,” said protester Yaki Hertz. “Science is not custom made. Whoever wants to learn science will do so using all the findings we have today.”
These pieces, plus a new one in Newsweek, also mention that the need for money keep the Natural History Museum catering to the Haredis:
Jerry Coyne, who is an evolution professor at the University of Chicago complained in an open letter that the museum was guilty of “lying by omission.”
“Your blatant censorship offends me…but of course you’d prefer to offend scientists and truth-seekers than those who harbor religious superstitions,” he wrote on his website.
But museum employee Uzi Danon told the Times of Israel that the lack of funds meant that it needed the revenue from Haredim visitors.
“We want the public to be here. Had the museum received funds we would immediately tell the Haredi groups ‘Bye-bye, go home, we don’t need you.’”
“We want to continue operating, they want to close the place down,” he added.
Finally, I received two private emails from Israelis, approving of the Museum’s practice and saying that I simply don’t understand the Haredi culture in Israel. But I think I know enough to weigh in. I know that this group doesn’t accept evolution and that they largely insulate themselves and their kids from secular society. And I know that this issue isn’t a no-brainer. On one side we have the hope that some exposure to science will enlighten the Haredi kids, and perhaps even get them to think for themselves and maybe, just maybe, accept evolution, even if it’s censored at the Museum. They might even abandon their smothering faith, instilled in them via indoctrination.
Against that we have to weigh the fact that Israeli taxpayers are funding an exhibit that gets covered up when it offends a particular religious group; that it may not help Haredi kids much to see a lion or plant if they don’t also learn how they got here; that Israel is a nominally secular state that still favors particular religions on occasions like this, and that the evolution exhibit gets censored when other people who are not Haredi, and who could learn from the evolution exhibit, can’t see it during Haredi visits. To my mind, this outweighs the small number of Haredi children who have been exposed to the non-evolution parts of the exhibit (12 groups in total). It would be lovely if readers would weigh in below with their own take on whether the evolution exhibit should be censored during Haredi visits, and why.
Museum of Natural History, take down that curtain!
A contribution from reader Pliny the in Between: