Woody Allen once said that sex is dirty only if it's done right. Something similar can be said about political art: It creates controversy only when it's done right.
For more than 40 years, Peter Schumann has been creating controversial art. His Glover-based Bread and Puppet Theater, which he founded in New York City in the early 1960s, has long been a fixture at antiwar protests and other massive public demonstrations. His papier-mâché puppets, with their evocative and often eerie visages, challenge the status quo, mock the powers-that-be and take aim at the instruments of violence - whoever perpetrates it.
But some members of Vermont's Jewish community are accusing the German-born dancer, musician and puppeteer of crossing the line with his mural featured in this year's South End Art Hop. The 70-foot connected series of latex-on-cardboard paintings will be on display each weekend in September at the former Maynard Auto Supply building.
"Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories" was pro-mpted by Schumann's recent trip to the Palestinian West Bank, as well as his reading of John Hersey's The Wall, about the Warsaw Ghetto. In the paintings, Schumann compares the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israel Defense Force to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews of Warsaw during the Holocaust.
The day after Friday night's Art Hop opening, the activist group Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel sponsored a talk by longtime B&P puppeteer Joel Kovel. Kovel is also the author of a book entitled Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine.
But even before Schumann's painting had been seen in Burlington, local pro-Israel activists were already decrying it as a "soft-core denial of the Holocaust." According to several people who attended Saturday's event, about a dozen of the 100 or so people in attendance tried to disrupt the event by handing out leaflets, waving Israeli flags and badgering the speaker. One protester reportedly carried a sign that read, "Puppets lynch Jews," with a drawing of a Jew being hanged.
Rabbi Joshua Chasen of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue urged his congregants to see the exhibit before passing judgment on it. Chasen says he hasn't asked that the exhibit be taken down, but he does find it deeply troubling and offensive.
"I readily accept that not every criticism of the policies of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism," Chasen writes. "But attempts to de-legitimate the existence of a Jewish State within living memory of the Holocaust send shivers down the spine of many of us Jews who . . . know in the sinews of our souls that we still live in the lifeboat that the State of Israel provided for the Jewish people in 1948."
Neither Schumann nor a spokesperson for the South End Art Hop could be reached for comment as of press time.