A New Exhibit Rescues America’s Religious History from Curatorial Oblivion

Aug. 21 2017

Although the Smithsonian has for a century held one of the most impressive collections of religious artifacts anywhere, only now, for the first time, has it created an exhibition dedicated solely to religion. Jenna Weissman Joselit writes in her review:

[The curator, Peter] Manseau has populated Religion in Early America with objects that range in scale and variety as well as religious affiliation. From a miniature Noah’s Ark, a child’s toy of the 1820s, to a mighty church bell from Paul Revere’s foundry (yes, that Paul Revere), the exhibition also contains the restrained bonnet of a Quaker woman, an early edition of the Book of Mormon, a thirteen-page handwritten text in Arabic that outlines the basic teachings of Islam, and a hand-woven basket used to “pass the plate” in a Baptist church in Virginia.

There’s something for everyone. Even the early republic’s tiny Jewish community—all but invisible amid the thousands of churches then thick on the ground—is present and accounted for, especially within the catalog, whose pages are flanked by images of a Torah scroll and a beribboned Torah mantle. I suspect that those with a penchant for quantifying—how many objects in the show represent the Jews? how many in the catalog?—are apt to be disappointed. But they shouldn’t be. Presence, not metrics, is the point.

As for why the Smithsonian has until now refrained from exhibits on religion per se, choosing instead to keep these and other artifacts in storage, part of the reason, writes Joselit, is that the Smithsonian’s “categories of classification kept one religion at arm’s length, boxed off (quite literally), from another.” But that’s not all:

[T]he American religious experience . . . didn’t fit the mold. Too new, too untried, too porous, too numerous, the American religious scene defied categorization. A blend of tradition and improvisation, its motley ceremonial objects were deemed unworthy of either study or display. More damning still, American religion lacked the supreme pedigree: historicity, the patina of old age.

Funny how things change. It’s those very disqualifications of yesteryear that render Religion in Early America a visual delight, a stimulating intellectual encounter as well as a necessary, if belated, corrective.

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More about: American Jewish History, American Religion, Arts & Culture, Museums, Religion

Yasir Arafat’s Decades-Long Alliance with Iran and Its Consequences for Both Palestinians and Iranians

Jan. 18 2019

In 2002—at the height of the second intifada—the Israeli navy intercepted the Karina A, a Lebanese vessel carrying 50 tons of Iranian arms to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Yasir Arafat’s relationship with the Islamic Republic goes much farther back, to before its founding in 1979. The terrorist leader had forged ties with followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that grew especially strong in the years when Lebanon became a base of operations both for Iranian opponents of the shah and for the PLO itself. Tony Badran writes:

The relationship between the Iranian revolutionary factions and the Palestinians began in the late 1960s, in parallel with Arafat’s own rise in preeminence within the PLO. . . . [D]uring the 1970s, Lebanon became the site where the major part of the Iranian revolutionaries’ encounter with the Palestinians played out. . . .

The number of guerrillas that trained in Lebanon with the Palestinians was not particularly large. But the Iranian cadres in Lebanon learned useful skills and procured weapons and equipment, which they smuggled back into Iran. . . . The PLO established close working ties with the Khomeinist faction. . . . [W]orking [especially] closely with the PLO [was] Mohammad Montazeri, son of the senior cleric Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and a militant who had a leading role in developing the idea of establishing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) once the revolution was won.

The Lebanese terrorist and PLO operative Anis Naccache, who coordinated with [the] Iranian revolutionaries, . . . takes personal credit for the idea. Naccache claims that Jalaleddin Farsi, [a leading Iranian revolutionary]. approached him specifically and asked him directly to draft the plan to form the main pillar of the Khomeinist regime. The formation of the IRGC may well be the greatest single contribution that the PLO made to the Iranian revolution. . . .

Arafat’s fantasy of pulling the strings and balancing the Iranians and the Arabs in a grand anti-Israel camp of regional states never stood much of a chance. However, his wish to see Iran back the Palestinian armed struggle is now a fact, as Tehran has effectively become the principal, if not the only, sponsor of the Palestinian military option though its direct sponsorship of Islamic Jihad and its sustaining strategic and organizational ties with Hamas. By forging ties with the Khomeinists, Arafat unwittingly helped to achieve the very opposite of his dream. Iran has turned [two] Palestinian factions into its proxies, and the PLO has been relegated to the regional sidelines.

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More about: Hamas, History & Ideas, Iran, Lebanon, PLO, Yasir Arafat