Interactive Museum Marred by Hesitation to Confront Apartheid

CAPE TOWN - A hesitation to confront organized Jewry's complicity with apartheid, a pandering political correctness wall and a bizarre exhibit extolling South African Jews' desire to leave the country are some of the more jarring flaws that mar the otherwise informative, attractive and interactive Jewish museum in this city.

The South African Jewish Museum uses short films on the lives of three influential Jewish businessmen to help tell the tale of Jewish immigration from Lithuania - to which most South African Jews can trace their ancestry - and describe the roles that ostrich farming in Oudtshoorn (at one time known as "the Jerusalem of Africa") and the 1860s discovery of diamonds in Kimberly played in the establishment of Jewish communities in different parts of the country. The discovery of gold in the 1880s spurred Jewish immigration to the area around Johannesburg, which is today the South African city with the largest Jewish population.

Interactive features include a touch screen that lets the museumgoer select various "dorps" (Afrikaans for small towns) to find out about the small Jewish communities that at one point were scattered throughout the country, and another screen that lets visitors view famous South African Jews by name or profession. Downstairs is a "discovery center" that provides information on the European background of South African Jews and on Jewish life in Cape Town.

While these media generally add to the quality of the museum, which opened in 2000, in one egregious instance the way in which the technology is used ends up obscuring important information and can mislead visitors.

The section on the relationship between apartheid and the organized Jewish community, as represented by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, does not live up to its title, "Facing Reality." By relying too heavily on the expectation that visitors will stand under the "sound dome" to hear a recorded narrative, and stay there from beginning to end, the museum ends up failing to address adequately the reality of the Board's de facto tolerance of apartheid.

The recording notes that the Board of Deputies did not take an official stance against apartheid until 1985, opting not to take responsibility for the actions of individual Jews who fought apartheid (the subjects of the neighboring exhibit). But the recording can be heard well by only one person at a time, and the visitor must stand directly under what looks like a small plastic umbrella attached to the ceiling, which can be hard to spot if you're not looking for it.

Indeed, the most obvious element of this exhibit is the visual one, the text on the wall that can be observed with a casual glance, and the visual element makes no mention of the Board's official stance - even going so far as to imply its opposite.

The biblical injunction "Tzedek tzedek tirdof" ("Justice, justice shalt thou pursue") is printed in large letters next to excerpts from speeches, including one that called for the creation of a consensus that "race relations are not exclusively a matter of politics but concern human values." The quotes are attributed to speeches made between 1963 and 1965 by Arthur Suzman, chairman of the Board's public relations committee. There is no indication, however, that the Board as an organization spent 20 more years responding in the negative to what the museum calls "the apartheid dilemma: to 'speak out' or not to 'speak out.'"

Perhaps in an effort to show how Jews are part of the "new South Africa," a term used to refer to the post-1994 era, the museum dedicates nine video screens to the cause of multiculturalism, showing constantly shifting images that include a Jewish wedding, an African tribal ritual, a traditional Indian wedding, a modern black wedding, a brit milah (circumcision) and a baptism. According to the museum, this demonstrates that South African cultures "all celebrate a common cycle of life, as part of the vast human family." This paean to political correctness would appear to indicate a tension between the museum's focus on a single ethnicity and its desire not to be labeled as ethnocentric, but it is ultimately out of place, if not devoid of meaning.

In addition, there is a lack of correlation between the museum's stated theme and its displays. The museum purports to structure its exhibits around the theme of reality ("life in South Africa"), memory ("roots in Baltic Europe") and dreams ("visions of the future"). But this theme is not wholly evident in the exhibits or in their layout, seeming to be more of an afterthought than a blueprint.

The museum does look at immigration from Lithuania, and has even built a mock wooden shtetl meant to evoke the "memory" of how Jews typically lived in the 1800s (a project the museum workers seem particularly keen to make sure their visitors see). The history of South African Jewish "reality" as it used to exist in cities and dorps throughout the country is also presented well. But while the museum shows that about 40,000 Jews immigrated to South Africa between 1881 and 1910, it shies away from the present reality, whereby 50,000 Jews have emigrated from South Africa since 1970, according to the World Jewish Congress. The WJC puts the number of Jews in South Africa today at 92,000.

Instead of discussing emigration head-on, the museum displays several video interviews with South Africans who have left the country, in a section that, inexplicably, is meant to represent the "dreams" introduced in the theme. One of the interviewees says he moved to the United States because he likes adventure and has "always wanted to live in the center." Unless the museum organizers dream of a future South Africa without Jews, it is difficult to understand the purpose of this exhibit or the reason for its name.

One final point may seem incidental, but touches on the museum's intended audience. If it is meant to be accessible to the local Jewish community as well as to visitors from abroad, the museum would do well to consider lowering its 50 rand (NIS 34) entrance fee.

In all, the South African Jewish Museum does a good job of involving its visitors in the history of the country's Jewry. But in only partially addressing modern reality, the museum does not ultimately fulfill the promise of its theme or the potential of the media it utilizes.