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Behind the Headlines: Controversy Second Nature to U.S. Holocaust Museum

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The leadership of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has spent much of the past year trying to put out fires.

First it was the on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to visit the museum that brought on a wave of criticism and embarrassment.

Then it was the ouster of Walter Reich as the museum’s director — another controversial move that provoked anger from his supporters, who believed he was being made a scapegoat for the Arafat debacle.

The most recent flare-up stems from the museum’s decision to hire John Roth, an internationally renowned Holocaust scholar, to head the museum’s new Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

In the past few weeks, the museum has been stung by a barrage of criticism from a handful of Jewish leaders, members of Congress and newspaper columnists over a 1988 article Roth authored, in which he compared Israeli policies toward the Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, as well as other controversial writings.

As the 5-year-old museum navigates the highly sensitive and complex web of issues associated with its unique role, concern has arisen about whether the latest controversy — coupled with the year’s other trials — will damage the image and the efficacy of the institution.

Many of those who care passionately about the museum are treading cautiously.

“My concern is that whatever merit there is to these particular arguments” about Roth, “one must be very careful not to hurt the museum itself,” said Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime Jewish activist in Washington and a founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Some critics point to what they say is a pattern of bad decision-making by the museum’s leadership. But museum leaders say that the same people who were most critical during the Arafat and Reich episodes are now engaging in a campaign to discredit the museum.

“I think the image of the museum is solid and positive in almost every corner of the country and even around the world,” said Ruth Mandel, vice chair of the museum’s council. “This is a noisy eruption in a pretty small part of the population in the country.”

Moving to put the Roth controversy behind them, the museum’s governing body last week voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm the appointment of Roth, who is chairman of the philosophy and religious studies department at California’s Claremont McKenna College.

The council also unanimously passed a resolution repudiating the “character assassination being waged against John Roth.” While some members admitted they were troubled by his decade-old analogy, most were satisfied with Roth’s apology and separated their reactions to his political views from their admiration of his scholarship.

In re-endorsing Roth, Mandel said she was concerned with “sending a strong message of support not only to him as an individual but to the scholarly community.”

It was important, she added, to demonstrate the museum’s commitment to academic freedom and to show the search for a director “was motivated by scholarly principles, and not by political ideology.”

Privately, some members of the council said that firing someone the museum had just hired might have proved too damaging to the institution’s reputation and to its ability to attract future scholars.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, cast a lone dissenting vote against re-endorsing Roth, while five other council members abstained.

Foxman was initially critical of Roth, then dropped his opposition when Roth apologized for the 1988 article. But he said after reading another article by Roth, a 1983 piece titled “Irony in Israel” that compared Israel Defense Force actions to those of the Palestinians, he decided he could no longer support him.

“It’s a moral equivalence which I don’t think is defensible,” Foxman said. “I personally don’t think that with that mind-set he can do justice to the lessons of the Holocaust to future generations.”

One of the most vocal critics of Roth’s selection, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has vowed to press forward with efforts to have him removed.

Without naming anyone specifically, Miles Lerman, chairman of the museum’s council, and Mandel have suggested that Roth and the museum have become the objects of a “sustained campaign to damage the museum.”

In a sharply worded letter to two members of Congress who raised objections to Roth’s appointment, Lerman and Mandel wrote, “Some of our council members and staff believe these attacks have been orchestrated by individuals with personal agendas.”

Indeed, a number of council members have said they believe Klein and other supporters of Reich have made it clear they have an ax to grind over the Arafat episode and Reich’s ouster.

“Nothing could be more false than that charge,” Klein said. “We would have identical concerns to this man’s outrageous writing, whether the Arafat episode happened or didn’t happen. That episode is completely irrelevant to John Roth’s inappropriateness to this position.”

For his part, Klein, a child of Holocaust survivors, said the best way for the institution to avoid damage to its reputation is to replace Roth with “someone who is qualified and understands the Holocaust properly.”

Other observers suggest that the Roth controversy stems from a deeper problem.

“John Roth is not the issue. Governance is the issue,” said Deborah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “What this series of problems would suggest is that perhaps it’s time to look again at the way decisions are made and the way policies are formulated” at the museum.

She added that there is a “leadership vacuum” while the museum director’s position remains unfilled. Sara Bloomfield is serving as acting director.

Although Foxman said the Roth controversy amounted to “a blip on the Holocaust museum’s history,” he voiced concern about the museum’s repeated political problems

“It’s become a whipping boy for all kinds of people to play agendas, which I think is very troubling.”

The museum has certainly been no stranger to clashing viewpoints over the years.

But Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta and a member of the museum’s executive committee, said that if there are lessons to be drawn from recent months, it is “that sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t win you friends or win you kudos but you do it anyway because in the long run it will stand.”

Whatever short-term conflict may arise, she added, “Ultimately you’ve got to weigh it against the 2 million people who come in the doors each year who aren’t privy to any of this and who walk away profoundly influenced by what they see.”

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