Despite outrage, Jerusalem museum vows to keep censoring evolution exhibit

Natural History Museum justifies covering up displays during visits by ultra-Orthodox groups, as many in Israel and abroad slam institution as betraying science

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Dr. Evgeny Reznitsky, educational director of the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, standing next to a dinosaur statue in the museum's outer garden on May 1, 2018. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)
Dr. Evgeny Reznitsky, educational director of the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, standing next to a dinosaur statue in the museum's outer garden on May 1, 2018. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)

The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem has vowed to continue its policy of hiding an evolution exhibit from view, along with other displays on dinosaurs and the human body, during visits by ultra-Orthodox groups in order to avoid offending their religious beliefs. The announcement came despite an outrage caused in Israel and abroad by its decision to self-censor displays on evolution, dinosaurs and the human body.

“Of course,” the museum’s educational director, Dr. Evgeny Reznitsky, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday when asked whether he will carry on with the practice, citing the institution’s dire financial situation and saying it was better to have ultra-Orthodox schoolkids visit on their terms than have them not come at all.

As people protested outside the building with a megaphone and demanded that the museum reject the demands set by Haredi schools, Reznitsky said he would only reconsider his position if ordered to stop by municipal authorities.

The Hebrew-language display on evolution, titled “The beginning of human evolution and culture,” details the stages of the gradual transformation from apes to the modern homo sapiens, complete with various skulls, models and ancient hunting tools along with written explanations.

When ultra-Orthodox groups visit it is kept under a pink sheet that blocks it from view. The exhibit has been found hidden on at least two occasions even when no ultra-Orthodox groups were present. The museum has said those were mistakes caused by a shortage of manpower. It apologized to a visitor, Chaya David, who was asked to leave by a staff member after complaining that the exhibit was covered.

The Times of Israel’s story about the museum prompted angry protests on social media and was followed up by major Hebrew-language news outlets. Many Facebook users called for a boycott of the museum and contacted its staff in protest.

An exhibit on evolution at the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, blocked from view with a pink sheet, in April 2018. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)

“Science and knowledge are not a joke,” said Uri Keidar, Executive Director of Be Free Israel, a non-profit which aims to promote religious pluralism in Israel. “The museum should decide whether it is a scientific museum presenting the truth or an institution with self-censorship that seeks to tell its visitors half-truths and complete lies.”

“If the latter is true, they should at least change their name, because it is not a scientific museum,” Keidar charged on Facebook.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews reject the scientific theory of evolution since, according to the Bible, humans were created separately from all other animals. According to the traditional reading of the Bible, the world was created 5,778 years ago, as opposed to the 13.8 billion years cited by modern science. Evolutionary science says human evolution occurred over hundreds of thousands of years.

Skulls and models of humans in early stages of evolution in an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, which has been blocked from view with a pink sheet, in April 2018. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)

Some ultra-Orthodox reject the existence of dinosaurs and generally do not teach their children about reproductive organs, and would thus consider exhibits on those topics, too, to be inappropriate.

In recent days Prof. Jerry Coyne of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago published an open letter addressed to the museum, saying he was deeply offended by the practice, which amounted to effectively “lying by omission.”

“This kind of behavior makes me ashamed of my Jewish background,” Coyne wrote, calling the museum’s explanations that it wanted to attract as many visitors as possible “pathetic.”

“That’s [no] excuse for a state that’s modern, science-friendly, and largely secular. Scientific truth is scientific truth, and shouldn’t be hidden from the public by the government because it offends religion. Such censorship would never stand in the US,” he added.

But the museum welcomed the attention, saying that the number of visitors had only risen, and justified its policy.

Dr. Evgeny Reznitsky, educational director of the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, in the museum’s outer garden on May 1, 2018. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)

Going around the museum’s various exhibits on Tuesday, Reznitsky pointed out many references to evolution and pictures of dinosaurs that are never covered up, saying a biodiversity exhibit and other displays of various animals were in fact all about evolution.

“The ultra-Orthodox have never come to the museum in my 25 years of working here,” he told The Times of Israel. “Never.” He said that the museum made an agreement last September with the Jerusalem Haredi Education Division — a joint body which is part of both the Jerusalem Municipality and the Education Ministry — to bring groups, with the subject being “animals in the bible.”

“The goal is to reveal to them the splitting of species. What bothers them on the way is this exhibit,” he said, pointing to the human evolution display, which was not covered up this time. “I agreed to cover it during the visits, it’s my decision.

“Now, who does this offend?” he charged. “There isn’t anyone else in the museum when a group is here since there is no room for that. We are hiding something from an audience that doesn’t want to see it.”

“When I see the twinkle in the eyes of ultra-Orthodox kids who see our exhibits, for me it is worth [receiving] all the curses in the world,” he said.

Meanwhile, outside the museum, several protesters gathered Tuesday morning for a demonstration, carrying signs and shouting slogans such as “The curtain won’t hide the truth on the wall,” “Evolution is for all,” and “Don’t leave the skeletons in the closet.”

Protesters arguing with an employee (R) of the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, over covering up an exhibit on evolution, on May 1, 2018. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)

They argued heatedly with a museum employee who vehemently defended the practice as respecting the museum’s visitors and as a needed step in light of its financial woes.

“We don’t accept this,” said protester Yaki Hertz. “Science is not custom made. Whoever wants to learn science will do so using all the findings we have today.”

“We want the public to be here,” retorted museum employee Uzi Danon. “Had the museum received funds we would immediately tell the Haredi groups ‘Bye-bye, go home, we don’t need you.'”

After Hertz accused him of giving up his ideals for money, Danon exclaimed, “Not at all. We want to continue operating, they want to close the place down.”

Both Reznitsky and Danon complained that there was no media coverage when a private contractor several years ago destroyed a 120-year-old wall in the compound’s outer garden.

The museum is located near the upscale German Colony neighborhood, not far from Jerusalem’s city center. Its outer garden attracts many visitors, but the indoor museum is old and the exhibits, many of which are neglected and no longer functional, haven’t been updated in many years.

The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem in April 2018. (Michael Bachner/Times of Israel)

Over its decades of existence, the museum said, it has replaced only 30 percent of its original exhibits, and the human evolution exhibit has remained unchanged.

The museum and its exhibits were funded by taxpayers’ money. The museum says it has continued operating for the last 25 years despite receiving no funds, relying solely on revenue garnered from visiting groups and by hosting various activities. The Jerusalem Municipality has disputed this in previous media statements, claiming it still funds the museum.

The municipality said on Monday that it started a program this year to bring schoolchildren from “all the city’s populations” to visit various museums, including the Natural History Museum.

It said that “contrary to what has been claimed, the exhibit is permanently open to all groups visiting the museum.

“Out of a will to also attract groups from the Haredi sector, it was decided to accept requests by ultra-Orthodox education institutions and cover the exhibit specifically during their visit,” it said.

“So far, 12 groups from ultra-Orthodox schools have visited the museum,” the municipality added. “The Education Division will continue making culture institutions and activities accessible to all the city’s students, out of a viewpoint of tolerance and equal opportunities for all.”

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