New York Jewish billionaire Michael Steinhardt, a pioneer of the hedge fund industry and among the founders of the Birthright Israel project, is one of the Israel Museum’s most prominent donors. His name adorns the entrance to the museum and other locations within it. The opulent Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Ramat Aviv, which is part of Tel Aviv University, is named after him.
Recently, at the conclusion of a four-year international investigation, Steinhardt was required to return 180 stolen artifacts worth 70 million dollars. The artifacts were looted from 11 countries around the world, including Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Syria and Israel. The New York County District Attorney, who conducted the investigation, wrote, “For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe.”
Writing in the magazine The Chronicle of Philanthropy, historian Lila Corwin Berman wrote that Steinhardt “played in the dirt and won, time and again. The spoils of his victories have lined his own pockets, while also enabling him to enrich investors and philanthropic organizations, which have, in turn, helped scrub him clean for the next round.”
Three of the 180 stolen artifacts are still on display at the Israel Museum. The captions next to them have not been changed, with Steinhardt still noted as the person who loaned them to the museum, without mentioning how he obtained them. Two of the artifacts are 9,000-year-old prehistoric masks.
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Europe and the United States have seen a trend in recent years of declining to cooperate with donors convicted or involved in problematic affairs. A little over a month ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Sackler family issued a joint statement announcing that the Sackler name will be removed from seven display spaces. The move follows a growing rage at the Sackler family’s role in the American opioid crisis. The Louvre decided to remove the Sackler family name following protests in the museum’s plaza. In 2019, the National Portrait Gallery in London rejected a donation by the family. In Israel, the name Sackler continues to adorn the Tel Aviv University medical school’s building, and university leadership persists in its refusal to remove it.
The Israel Museum and the Museum of Natural History have thus far either ignored such calls, or asserted that there is nothing wrong with the cooperation. It seems that significant protest by academics, artists, and archeologists will be renewed for the museums to take meaningful action and remove Steinhardt’s name from the museum walls, and for Tel Aviv University to remove the Sackler name from the medical school building.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.