Smithsonian downsizes its Israel at 50 programming

It will highlight Israel's "extraordinary achievements" while looking ahead to another half-century of "accomplishments and challenges," according to a description of the seminar.

Titled "Israel at 50: Looking Back/Looking Ahead," the new program features eight speakers, seven of them less controversial than those in the original lineup.

David Gergen, the well-known pundit and presidential adviser, will moderate the program, which will include speeches by Howard Sachar, a professor at George Washington University; Shoshana Cardin, a longtime Jewish community activist; Stef Wertheimer, a leading Israeli businessman; Ori Soltes, the former director of B'nai B'rith's Klutznick National Jewish Museum who now teaches at Georgetown University; Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and the lone Arab panelist; and Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University.

It will also include New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who was invited to speak at the original program. The columnist's writing on Israel has drawn the ire of right-wing American Jewish activists.

The original lecture series, which was supposed to run for seven weeks between April and June, was planned with the New Israel Fund, a Washington-based group that promotes social justice and Israeli-Arab coexistence in the Jewish state. The focus was on the difficult social and political issues facing Israel.

The program was harshly criticized by conservatives for having too many speakers associated with the left-wing in Israel, and for planning to discuss such issues as "the price of occupation" and the place of Palestinians in Israeli society during a program intended to celebrate Israel's 50th anniversary.

Critics were particularly dismayed that one of the proposed speakers, Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Knesset, had placed flowers at the grave of terrorist leader Fathi Shikaki while on a trip to Syria. Shikaki, the head of Islamic Jihad, was assassinated, most likely by Israeli agents, in Malta in 1995.

Under the weight of intense criticism, the Smithsonian Associates, the education and outreach arm of the museum organizing the lecture series, dropped its participation and said it would put on its own program with no outside sponsorship.

"We really thought it was important for the Smithsonian to be clearly responsible and that meant we not have a partner," said Mara Mayor, Associates director.

Concerned about the focus of the original series, the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith offered museum officials assistance in designing a more balanced program. The ADL also offered to co-sponsor the event with the New Israel Fund.

While Smithsonian officials did not take up the ADL's offer to be a sponsor, Mayor did consult with the two Jewish groups, in addition to other individuals, during the development of the new program. She stressed that decisions on the topics and speakers for the Nov. 8 seminar were made solely by representatives of the museum.

Jess Hordes, the ADL's Washington representative, said he conveyed to Smithsonian officials that if the seminar was to be a "celebration and commemoration" of Israel's birth, "an effective program would focus on the achievements while not disregarding the challenges" the country faces.

Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval, who was invited to participate in the original program before he was ambassador, also is scheduled to speak.

The new program will focus on the Jewish state's achievements, including the ingathering of Jews from around the world and Israel's contributions to the arts and the technological explosion currently taking place, while also looking ahead to Israel's next 50 years.

The original program, "Israel at 50: Yesterday's Dreams, Today's Realities," planned to look at such controversial issues as the place of Israel's Arab citizens; the growing social, religious and economic gaps; and the debate over the continued relevance of Zionism, according to various drafts of the lecture series. Those who raised concerns about the original program welcomed the lineup for the one-day seminar.

"We have no problems with it," said Harvey Berk, B'nai B'rith's director of communication. "We think it's a much more balanced program now, and we look forward to the program being a successful and interesting one."

Rep. Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.), who attacked Friedman, Hebrew University Professor Ehud Sprinzak and others slated to speak at the scrapped lecture series "as extremist critics of Israel and its leaders," was "pleased" that the Smithsonian has "taken control of the events themselves," according to spokesman Tony Howard. Distressed about the original series, he had asked two House committees responsible for Smithsonian oversight to hold hearings on the matter.

Leo Samet, the co-chair of the Washington chapter of Americans for a Safe Israel, a hawkish group based in New York that criticized Smithsonian's decision to co-sponsor an event with the New Israel Fund, said he had not seen the details of the new program and did not want to comment.

For its part, the New Israel Fund was "glad to see the Smithsonian finally getting around to doing its 50th-anniversary program," said media relations director Gil Kulick, who added that the cancellation was a "mixed blessing."

He said his group, which criticized the Smithsonian for caving in to the pressure of "a fringe group of Jewish McCarthyites," was able to expand the lecture series to 23 programs in nine cities throughout North America and England, thus allowing a wider audience to hear and think about the social issues facing Israel.

"We still feel the original design was something that needed to be done," he said, "and we were glad to do it without the Smithsonian."