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

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.

Read more at Tablet

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

The Possible Death of Mohammad Deif, and What It Means

On Saturday, Israeli jets destroyed a building in southern Gaza, killing a Hamas brigade commander named Rafa Salameh. Salameh is one of the most important figures in the Hamas hierarchy, but he was not the primary target. Rather it was Mohammad Deif, who is Yahya Sinwar’s number-two and is thought to be the architect and planner of numerous terrorist attacks, of Hamas’s tunnel network, and of the October 7 invasion itself. Deif has survived at least five Israeli attempts on his life, and the IDF has consequently been especially reluctant to confirm that he had been killed. Yet it seems that it is possible, and perhaps likely, that he was.

Kobi Michael notes that Deif’s demise would have major symbolic value and, moreover, deprive Hamas of important operational know-how. But he also has some words of caution:

The elimination of Deif becomes even more significant given the current reality of severe damage to Hamas’s military wing and its transition to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. However, it is important to remember that organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah are more than the sum of their components or commanders. Israel has previously eliminated the leaders of these organizations and other very senior military figures, and yet the organizations continued to grow, develop, and become more significant security threats to Israel, while establishing their status as political players in the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas.

As for the possibility that Deif’s death will harden Hamas’s position in the hostage negotiations, Tamir Hayman writes:

In my opinion, even if there is a bump in the road now, it is not a strategic one. The reasons that Hamas decided to compromise its demands in the [hostage] deal stem from the operational pressure it is under [and] the fear that the pressure exerted by the IDF will increase.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas