Crucifix in Magnes souvenir exhibit sparks dispute

The crucifix "just seems to me like a pretty non-kosher thing to put in a Jewish museum. It's not a souvenir. It has such a powerful meaning…It's what Christians want the Jews to bow to," said Mitzi Rachleff Cahn, who with her husband, Dr. Micha'el Cahn, had lent the 70 items.

Cahn and her husband requested that the crucifix at least be moved to an area where museum visitors wouldn't be forced to walk by it.

As the predicament played out over the past 2-1/2 weeks, museum officials decided they needed to keep the crucifix in the display to acknowledge the significance of Christian tourism to Israel.

Susan Morris, the museum's acting director, said Monday that rearranging the exhibit's layout was impossible so close to the opening date. In addition, she said, simply removing the crucifix "would negate the broad concept of the show" and wouldn't reflect the reality of Israeli tourism.

Likewise, curator Michal Friedlander considers the crucifix "intrinsic" to the exhibit of Israel souvenirs.

"It's part of the story. The land of Israel is holy to more than just the Jewish faith," Friedlander said.

To fill in the exhibit's sudden gap, Friedlander scrambled and managed to track down replacements for the Cahns' souvenirs, which accounted for more than a quarter of the display's approximately 250 pieces.

The olive wood crucifix, which portrays Jesus on the cross, rests in a small wooden box, along with two small vials of Jordan River water.

Even as museum officials defended the exhibit, however, they wondered how such a whimsical display suddenly became problematic.

"It was a surprise to us that this would cause a concern," Morris said. Still, Morris added, she respects the Cahns' beliefs.

"They loaned [their souvenirs] with the best of intentions…I am extremely appreciative of that."

Despite an air of calm over the matter, museum officials would neither let the crucifix be photographed before the exhibit opens nor identify its owner.

The exhibit wasn't set up until a few days ago, but the inclusion of the crucifix came up in a conversation between Cahn and Friedlander in late June.

Cahn mentioned that a relative lived in "Simcha Cruz," her reference to avoid using the name "Santa Cruz" — Spanish for "Holy Cross." Friedlander then decided she needed to mention that the exhibit included a crucifix.

At first, Cahn said she was nonplused. But then, she woke up three times that night feeling that the issue was unresolved.

"It seems to me they are trying to make the Christians feel good. I don't think it's necessary in a Jewish museum," Cahn said.

"If it were a public museum [exhibit] on souvenirs from the Holy Land, they'd have a perfect right to hang whatever they like."

The Cahns, who describe themselves as observant Jews, attend services and study sessions with modern Orthodox and Lubavitch Chassidic groups in Berkeley and San Francisco. Their souvenirs came from three extended trips to Israel taken over the past decade.

Part of their reason for opposing the inclusion of the crucifix is religious. Most Orthodox Jews won't even enter a church, Cahn noted.

But Cahn said she wanted the crucifix moved as a sensitivity issue for "all the Jews who have suffered at the hands of Christians who are not of good will."

Cahn also emphasized that she wasn't acting like an upset child taking back her toys. She and her husband simply didn't want it to appear that they were condoning the inclusion of the crucifix at a Jewish institution.

"They're choosing the cross over the Jewish items," she said.

However, Friedlander said that as the curator, she was trying to create an exhibit sensitive to everyone.

"Souvenirs from Israel" is set in the Reutlinger Gallery at the back of the museum. At the beginning of the exhibit, there are shelves with several mementos of three religions found in Israel — Baha'i, Christian and Muslim. Those objects include the crucifix, a rosary and Muslim prayer beads. An introduction notes that 88 percent of Bay Area tourists to Israel are non-Jews.

From there, the museum visitor walks through a doorway with a mezuzah into the main section of the exhibit, designed to represent a Jewish home. All of the objects in the home are either secular or Jewish.

Friedlander said she included so few non-Jewish objects in the exhibit that she actually had her own worries about visitors' reactions.

"My concern was that the Christian people would be upset. I wanted to make sure they didn't feel we were minimizing how important Israel is to them," she said.

A patrons' committee, chaired by Golda Kaufman, is sponsoring the exhibit. After viewing the exhibit site and crucifix last week with several museum staff members and lay leaders, Kaufman was satisfied with the decision to include the crucifix. To Kaufman, Christian travel to Israel is significant and must be acknowledged.

"Israel needs those tourists," she said.