Lessons in Hate

"Love each other or perish" -- W.H. Auden

When the Jewish Museum of Florida's current exhibition, "The Art of Hatred: Images of Intolerance in Florida Culture," opened back in May, the institution's founding executive director, Marcia Zerivitz, knew how important it was. What she didn't know: how horribly prescient it would be. Curated by Florida Atlantic University professor Henry M. Abramson, the dense, intense display is split into three sections: the Historical Background of Anti-Semitism, Anti-Semitism in Florida, and the Fight Against Hatred. And though largely devoted to documenting both anti-Semitism and cults of hate in our own state, the collection's content and impact reaches far beyond its proscribed subtitles. Letters, newspaper clippings, cartoons, postcards, and other depictions demonstrate the universality of both institutionalized and fragmented symbols of bigotry, stereotyping, and violence against "the other." A demeaning and dangerous xenophobia spreads funguslike along the museum's walls, reaching from ancient times to the present day.

Some images are subtle, almost subliminal. Others are blatantly shocking, and some are just plain strange. Bits of humor also are present, such as in contributing collector Burnett Roth's early letter to a colleague explaining how a decorator and his Jewish partner put one over on a prominent hotel manager with "discriminating" taste by supplying him and his exclusive (i.e., restricted) Surf Club with a roomful of menorah-shaped sconces, for which he was none the wiser. But much hits close to home, like a 1993 invitation to a Ku Klux Klan rally at Hollywood's Young Circle ("Public is cordially invited!") and a snapshot from a 1999 Fort Pierce, Florida, rally ("Welcome to Klan country").

(In addition to the exhibition, Communicating and Perpetuating Hatred, an all-day symposium Sunday copresented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, will examine hatred in art, literature, on the Internet, and in the lives of young people.)

Speaking of the young and curious, have those who create the art of hatred, like racist skinheads, come to admire their work? Amazingly yes. "The [skinheads] that have come have been okay," Zerivitz says. "If they come in angry and militant, we're not going to let them in; we'll just call the police right away. But if they're coming to just see, there are some advantages, I think, if you can get them at a place where maybe you can make some impact."

Despite the overall potential to educate people of all ages, Zerivitz claims the initial response from her peers was cool: "When I was in Tallahassee trying to promote this exhibit to travel to my colleagues around the state, their response was, “Oh, we only do pretty, happy things.' I was so astounded by that. I mean, I feel a social responsibility to address issues like this. It's historical; it's a social commentary...." And, as of September 11, it's what we live with every day.