‘1917: How One Year Changed the World’ exhibition on view until July at National Museum of American Jewish History

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PHILADELPHIA >> One of the last things guests see on their way out of the latest exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History is the well-known and ever-relevant final line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

Leslie’s Weekly with illustration, “I Want You For The U.S. Army,” February 15, 1917.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It’s a fitting parting line for “1917: How One Year Changed the World,” an exhibition providing a richly detailed snapshot of the world during the early 20th century — a snapshot that feels strikingly relevant to current events.

An examination of three world events from 1917 — the United States’ entry into World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and Great Britain’s issuing of the Balfour Declaration — the exhibition offers insight into the sort of global tumult that can stir up national panic and potentially result in more nativist U.S. policy shifts.

Indeed, those events did inspire increasingly restrictive U.S. immigration policies during the 1920s, culminating with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (a copy of which is on display in the exhibit), legislation designed to limit the number immigrants entering the country.

Wariness pervaded the U.S. at that time; there was a wide-spread fear that allowing more Eastern European and Jewish immigrants into the country might court the sort of class revolution that was upending the Russian government and giving rise to proletarian leader Vladimir Lenin. A xenophobic groundswell was forming, and it was gaining support.

To state the obvious here: At a time when President Donald Trump has signed (and re-signed) an executive order tightening immigration policies for some Muslim-majority countries, “1917” makes for an exhibition people can easily connect with and respond to.

However, to hear it from museum heads, the timing of the installment was more than a little serendipitous.

“When we started working on this exhibition … these conversations about immigration and xenophobia and war and security, we had no idea how really timely it would be, and so it really recasts this exhibition for us, to think about today,” said NMAJH CEO and Director Ivy Barsky before a preview of the exhibition March 13.

A view of the “1917” exhibition. Courtesy National Museum of American Jewish History

For guests a little rusty on their history, the sheer density of information presented in “1917,” which marks a first-time collaboration between NMAJH and the National Jewish History Society in New York, can edge toward overwhelming.

With 125 artifacts, each robust with complex historical context, the exhibit is a feast for history enthusiasts. Guests can spend hours moving from piece to piece, regarding each placard and timeline and relic with equal attention.

Some of the most significant objects here are the documents, like the 1919 copy of the Treaty of Versailles and the two original drafts of the Balfour Declaration, in which Great Britain endorsed the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Until now, these drafts of the Balfour Declaration — one of which was scribbled on hotel stationery — have never been exhibited in the U.S.

Handbill, “The Answer to the Call,” Jewish Welfare Board, United War Work Campaign, 1918. National Museum of American Jewish History 1991.8.88 Gift of the Anne and John P. McNulty Foundation in honor of Lyn M. and George M. Ross

But what ties these many artifacts, and the globe-spanning events they invoke, together are their human, and specifically Jewish, points of view. While paying homage to the fine-grained history of the Great War and the Bolshevik uprising in Russia, “1917” shares its history through the eyes of Jewish citizens, refugees, revolutionaries, and soldiers.

One of the more impactful displays concerns U.S. Sgt. William Shemin, who fought during WWI and was awarded an extremely posthumous Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in June 2015.

According to museum information, Shemin and fellow soldier Henry Johnson “had enlisted and fought valiantly, but anti-Semitism and racism had prevented them from receiving the nation’s highest award for valor during their lifetimes.”

This sort of bigotry metastasized during the ensuing years. Global skirmishes led to “sweeping changes at home and abroad” that “produced multiple fears: of the unknown, of outsiders, and of moral decay,” notes museum materials. “Nativism and xenophobia helped encourage Congress to impose increasingly strict immigration quotas.”

One of the exhibit’s most effective illustrations of these developments can be found in a black-and-white political cartoon near the exit, mounted just beside the always-pertinent Fitzgerald quote.

The cartoon presents a familiar image: A massive border wall — labeled “Immigration Restriction” — blocking a sea of people identified as “Alien Undesirables.” The people are all climbing over one another, scrabbling in vain to enter the country.

Titled “Make This Flood Control Permanent,” the cartoon, created by Herbert Johnson, stopped more than a few museum guests in their tracks during the March 13 preview. After all — and to again state the obvious — it’s not hard to imagine Johnson’s cartoon being reprinted today, a full century later, without seeming the least bit dated.

Borne back ceaselessly into the past, indeed.

“1917: How One Year Changed the World” runs now until July 16 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East, Philadelphia. Find out more about the exhibition at www.nmajh.org.

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