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Pieter Lastman, Hagar and the Angel in the Wilderness, ca.1625

Angels – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – gather in a room of the Israel Museum. In another, a contemporary Japanese artist reflects on the themes of home and travel in a multimedia piece. Another room is a perfect reconstruction of an 18th Century French salon. The entire place bespeaks a cosmopolitan sophistication, a love of diverse perspectives, and a connection between one’s interior life and the interior lives of others.

Some conservatives claim that critics hold Israel to a higher standard than the surrounding Arab dictatorships and monarchies, or than the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The Israel Museum shows why we might hold that higher standard, reflecting many beautiful and generous aspects of Israeli society. The tradition of philanthropy is remarkable, revealed in donations as small as a Yemeni bridal headdress and as large as entire wings of the museum. The architectural design is peaceful and unobtrusive, forming the perfect backdrop against which to view artworks. The commentary places each work in a broad context.

After a day in the Israel Museum, one would be stunned to see Hebron, read about home demolitions, or see the numbers of East Jerusalem children with nowhere to go to school. The disconnect between the long and deep Enlightenment traditions of Israel and some of its current policies is far more surprising than the behaviors of impoverished developing countries.

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