(RNS) — Last summer, Princeton University agreed to organize an exhibit of works by American Jewish artists in the second half of the 19th century.
The exhibit would feature 50 pieces including a life-size marble sculpture called “Faith” by the the most renowned Jewish American sculptor of the period, Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917).
In July, the university flew in an art historian to tour the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery in the Firestone Library and signed a contract to have that historian curate the exhibit, which was set to open in September. The exhibit, funded by Leonard Milberg, would also highlight a new collection of essays about American Jews in the Gilded Age, published by Princeton University Press.
But by the fall, problems began to emerge, and by Dec. 14, the show was canceled.
The reason? At least two of the artists featured in the show served in the Confederate army. Ezekiel, probably best known for his 32-foot Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, was unrepentant in his devotion to the Lost Cause. He was known for hanging the rebel flag in his studio four decades after the war. The other, painter Theodore Moise, attained the rank of major in the Confederate Army.
Now, some Jewish scholars are calling out Princeton, saying that the works chosen for the exhibit did not relate to the Confederacy and that by canceling the show the university was in effect censoring the works.
“One approach is that we have faith in the audience; we display in full complexity the material and talk about it,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “The other approach is that we cancel it. I’m very reluctant to be part of the woke, cancel everything that doesn’t conform to present-day moral standards.”
Sarna is co-editor of the book of essays tentatively titled “Jews in Gilded Age America” that inspired the exhibit. The book, co-edited with historian Adam Mendelsohn, is expected to be published this year.
A university spokesman said the library has the right to decide how to exhibit its work.
“The ultimate editorial authority over scholarly exhibitions resides with the Library, university spokesperson Ben Chang said in an email. “It is the Library that speaks through its galleries, and the Library is responsible for the messages conveyed there.”
Neither Sarna nor the show’s curator, Samantha Baskind, a professor of art history at Cleveland State University, denies that two of the most important artists of the period were Southern Jews who abetted the Confederate cause.
Baskind, who is writing a book on Ezekiel, said the artists’ views on the Confederacy are offensive but must be studied and put in context.