News Analysis: Official’s Ouster Revives Debate over Role of Holocaust Museum
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News Analysis: Official’s Ouster Revives Debate over Role of Holocaust Museum

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The recent ouster of the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has reignited questions about the politicization of the museum and how best to memorialize the Holocaust.

Walter Reich’s resignation, forced by the museum’s governing body last week, came one month after he refused to escort Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on a tour of the museum.

Miles Lerman, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, had publicly blamed the on-again, off-again invitation to Arafat — it was extended, retracted, extended again, then ultimately declined by Arafat — on “bad advice” from Reich.

In his letter of resignation, Reich wrote to Lerman: “As you know, we have differed on the use of the museum, and of the memory of the Holocaust, in the context of political or diplomatic circumstances or negotiations.”

While the Arafat episode may or may not have been the issue that led to Reich’s ouster — sources close to the museum say his job performance during the last three years was the real factor — his departure has nonetheless focused attention on the complexities surrounding the nature of the 5-year-old institution.

At the same time, the internal maneuvering suggests that even an institution as venerable as the Holocaust museum is not immune to problems in governance and personnel politics.

Coming to Reich’s defense in an op-ed column published in the New York Post this week, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said of the outgoing director, “He believes that the Holocaust must not be used politically.

“To him, the memory of the victims is sacred, as is the museum itself, and neither should ever be used as a tool. One may disagree with him, but is that a reason to make him the scapegoat in this unfortunate affair? Clearly, from statements in the press immediately following the incident, this is what happened.”

According to the agreement governing Reich’s departure, all of the key players agreed not to discuss the issue publicly. The search for Reich’s replacement has not yet begun, according to museum officials.

Among Holocaust survivors, scholars and others in the Jewish community, there is general agreement that honoring the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust is the primary concern of the Jewish people, and therefore of the Holocaust museum.

But many also say that the only proper way to honor the memory of the dead is to use that memory to ward off evil against any people — not just the Jewish people — in any time.

Toward that end, in 1995, at a time when inter-ethnic conflicts were raging in Bosnia and Rwanda, the museum created a Committee on Conscience to provide a collective voice to address global genocide.

The idea was first proposed in 1979 by the President’s Commission on the Holocaust as part of an overall vision of the institution.

In its report, the commission said it “knows well the potential for the politicization of a Committee on Conscience, but the risks are worth taking if such a body can provide maximal exposure for dangerous developments,” raising, in one scholar’s words, “an `institutional scream’ to alert the conscience of the world and spark public outcry.”

The mandate still pertains, said Hyman Bookbinder, a founding member of the museum’s council who now sits on the museum’s Committee on Conscience. “What is the museum for, what is the council for, if not to compel people to pay attention to what the Holocaust means?”

But others are more cautious.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a member of the museum’s council, does not believe an “activist view” is appropriate for the institution.

“There’s always going to be a very delicate line between history, memory and the current situation, wherever it may be,” said Foxman, a Holocaust survivor.

“Whenever the museum will want to take a position, whether it’s Bosnia, or whether it’s China or Arafat, it will be at risk to disturb some and offend others.”

Some Holocaust scholars, meanwhile, say the politicization of the institution may be unavoidable.

“The very idea of a Holocaust museum in Washington is inherently a political act,” said Sara Horowitz, a Holocaust scholar who heads the Jewish studies program at the University of Delaware.

“When you invoke a public memory, you are already putting it to a political use and politicizing it in some way.”

Horowitz points out that even Yad Vashem in Israel ends up serving certain political purposes.

When foreign dignitaries are taken to the shrine in Jerusalem, “that visit has an inherently political message, which has to do with justification for the creation of the State of Israel,” she said.

At the Holocaust museum in Washington, political realities are further complicated by the fact that it remains a federally funded institution with two federal officials — Dennis Ross, the State Department’s Middle East coordinator, and his deputy, Aaron Miller — sitting on the museum’s council.

Ross and Miller proposed the idea of Arafat visiting the museum as an opportunity to further the peace process by helping him better understand the history and fears of his adversary.

While the building of the museum was substantially funded by American Jews, the Arafat episode highlighted the reality that it remains a federal — not a Jewish — institution.

As a public institution that receives federal funds, some say, it is not the museum’s place to engage in its own politicking, selecting who may visit and who may not.

“It would be constructive to open the doors wide, which does not mean that there’s a specific political agenda,” said Deborah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

“It simply means that this is a museum dedicated to the elucidation of a catastrophe, of an atrocity of Western civilization and that all who have any wish whatsoever to learn about this are most welcomed.”

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