Museum discussed panel with outside Jewish group
AltaVoz says museum was ‘pressured’ to change event, museum says emails show nothing new
A series of emails relating to the “Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine” event reveal that the Missouri History Museum’s cancellation of the panel followed a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis (JCRC) bringing the event to the attention of Frances Levine, the museum’s president.
The emails, obtained through a Sunshine Request by activist group St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace and shared with Student Life, show that Batya Abramson-Goldstein, the JCRC’s executive director, was in contact with leaders at the museum before the panel was canceled, but a museum spokesperson said the emails aren’t “a smoking gun.”
AltaVoz, a student political engagement group at Washington University, planned to put on the panel comparing the social movements in Ferguson, Ayotzinapa and Palestine on March 19 at the Missouri History Museum, but the museum informed the group on March 17 that it would need either to remove the Palestinian panelists or change the venue.
AltaVoz started a social media campaign with the hashtag #SelectiveHistory and planned a demonstration outside the museum, which was held during the time the event was initially scheduled. In response, the museum released a statement claiming that the event was challenged because it had changed from its initial form.
In a press release following the release of the emails on Thursday, AltaVoz said that the emails “revealed that pressure from a Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Director Batya Abramson-Goldstein lead [sic] to the museum’s last minute demand to exclude Palestine from a public dialogue on activism including Ferguson and Ayotzinapa.”
Though the Missouri History Museum’s actions did follow Abramson-Goldstein’s email, Leigh Walters, the museum’s assistant director of communications, stressed that the released emails do not reveal anything new.
“To us, this is nothing new. Fran [Levine] was made aware of the event, she approached our community education staff to review the program and in no point in any of the emails does Fran say anything else to the staff than to look into it. She even mentions bringing the focus back more to Ferguson. To us, this is not a smoking gun; this is nothing new,” Walters said.
According to Walters, the JCRC is not a donor to the museum, nor is a member of its board on the museum’s board, and it has been more than a year since the two bodies planned a panel together.
In her initial email to the museum on March 17, Abramson-Goldstein brought the event to the attention of Levine.
“I am writing because I have been receiving emails and phone calls expressing dismay at the upcoming History Museum Program: Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine: Solidarity and Collaborative Action. I can understand the dismay. How should I reply to those asking why this event is being sponsored by the History Museum?” the email read.
Levine responded to the email minutes later, saying, “I will have to check with the programming staff. I don’t know about this.”
About an hour later, Abramson-Goldstein sent another email to Levine: “Thank you, Fran. I had an excellent conversation with Melanie [Adams, managing director of community education and events at the museum]. When you and I eventually have our breakfast/lunch/coffee we can look back at this incident as an illustration of a potentially damaging incident defused.”
Later that day, Adams informed AltaVoz that it would need to remove the Palestinian panelists or change venues. Abramson-Goldstein wrote to Levine to thank her for the museum’s swift response.
Members of the AltaVoz group stated that they were not surprised by the results of the emails but were disappointed nonetheless.
“We knew that something was up. We knew that they were being dishonest with us…they changed their statement I think a total three times, from it was a communication error to it was an internal decision to they just didn’t know at all,” AltaVoz member and senior Sourik Beltran said.
Walters stressed that the museum wanted the event to go back to its basis with Ferguson, which is why they asked for the Palestinian portion of the panel to be cut.
Beltran, however, noted that this was not the case for his group.
“It was never a Ferguson basis…it was just a dialogue about social movements about organizing for social justice and stuff like that…It was never just Ferguson; it was always all three events,” Beltran said. “We were not comfortable taking them out because that would undermine the entire point of the event, which was to draw connections between these different movements.”
He stressed that there was, in fact, a strong connection between the Ferguson protests and the events in Palestine.
“[The museum] claim[s] that there are no connections, when it was Palestinians who sent over via Twitter how to make makeshift gas masks during the Ferguson protests. It was Palestinian activists who were sending over images claiming solidarity with the Ferguson activists, and it was Palestinian voices in St. Louis who came to Ferguson protests and who made their presence seen,” Beltran said.
Abramson-Goldstein and Levine did not respond to requests for comment.