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Not the 'Whole Truth'

In a new exhibition at Berlin's Jewish Museum entitled "The Whole Truth," Jewish people sit in a glass box and talk to visitors. Correspondent Alexa Dvorson is not amused.

You know how sometimes a concept might seem like a good idea on paper but then it just doesn't work? Bingo. And in this case, oy vey.

The exhibit that's been cynically dubbed "Jew in the Box" has been a real eye-opener, and not just because it appears to take the prevailing culture of provocation in Germany to a new low.

I can't wrap my mind around the fact that a Jewish institution that should know better - even in a city famous for its edgy sarcasm - finds it appropriate to stage an exhibit that showcases banal, racist questions about Jews and Judaism as though we're members of a uniform species who all think and act alike.

'Living specimens'

Don't the curators know the timeless joke about Jewish plurality that says for every three Jews, there are at least four opinions? If not, it's a sad statement on the void of Jewish humor in this country after the Holocaust. But that's another story - sort of. In any case, there's nothing funny about this exhibit. It's degrading.

Granted, Jewish volunteers are free to answer visitors' questions however they please if they take a seat in that glass box for two hours at a stretch, one per day. But this kind of objectifying - even if it IS voluntary - is in terrible taste: that's what the Nazis did to ridicule and stigmatize Jews before the worst was to come.

Even if the idea here is to turn that notion on its head, the unsettling subtext is that the onus is on these living specimens - which is how they appear - to cure Germans of their ignorance by sitting in the hot seat - a hot pink one, no less.

A view of the new glass roof of the Jewish museum in Berlin by architect Daniel Libeskind (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Franka Bruns)

The Jewish Museum in Berlin puts on lots of exhibitions, but its idea of putting people in a glass box has caused controversy

'Insulting display'

What ever happened to picking up a book to expand one's knowledge? That might sound terribly old-fashioned, but last time I checked, which was a few minutes ago, there were thousands of titles on Jewish subjects available in Berlin's major bookstores.

And as far as dialogue is concerned, a level playing field is far preferable to this zoo-like setup.

It turns out this whole balagan - that's Hebrew for fiasco - is actually an adaptation of an exhibition from a Jewish museum in Austria. But even with the added irony that supposedly makes it more Berlinesque, I'm amazed that curators can get away with this insulting display that has less to do with Judaism than with age-old prejudice.

It's one thing to poke fun at the perception of stereotypes through a brand of satire that's in-your-face. But this is just plain embarrassing, because none of the questions beamed by a projector on the floor, such as "do Jews control the media?" are refuted. Instead, they play right into bigoted mentalities. There's even a printed section titled: "the top 10 anti-Semitic clichés and why they are true."

An ariel view of the Jewish museum in Berlin. (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Miguel Villagran)

The exhibition "The Whole Truth" runs until September 2013

Exhibit is superficial, lacks sensibility

To be fair, some of the commentary is harmless, if trivial. But the whole display amounts to a superficial mishmash that equates opinions on faith with facts, which is misleading. There's no mention of tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase that means to heal or repair the world, which is a widespread Jewish philosophy dating back to the early rabbinical period in the second century.

In this society not exactly known for nuance, I'm still left with jaw-dropping disappointment at the lack of sensibility where the portrayal of Jews is concerned at this exhibit. Given Germany's past, you'd think the curators would be falling over themselves to get it right. Well, not this time.

No wonder there are petitions circulating that demand the exhibition be shut down. But I'm not holding my breath.

This commentary by Jewish correspondent Alexa Dvorson ran as a companion piece to David Levitz's feature, which includes the exhibition's curator and museum visitors. You will find a link to that story below.

Berlin's Jewish Museum's exhibition, "The Whole Truth - Everything you always wanted to know about Jews" runs until September 1, 2013.

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