Holocaust Scholar Resigns Post in Wake of Ongoing Controversy
Menu JTA Search

Holocaust Scholar Resigns Post in Wake of Ongoing Controversy

Download PDF for this date

In the end, John Roth decided his “happiness and well-being” would best be served 3,000 miles away from the specter of controversy hanging over the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Roth, an internationally renowned Holocaust scholar, resigned Monday as director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, a post he was slated to officially begin in August.

The resignation came in the wake of sustained criticism over several articles he had written, including a 1988 piece in which he compared Israeli policies toward the Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews.

His decision left his critics satisfied and his supporters, including most officials of the museum, dismayed.

In his letter of resignation, Roth said he decided that his “happiness and well-being — family, professional, and personal — will be served best” by remaining at Claremont McKenna College in California, where he chairs the philosophy and religious studies department.

Sara Bloomfield, the acting director of the museum, which is a federal institution, expressed “deep regret” following Roth’s decision.

“In spite of the public attention given to your appointment by a very few individuals, there was and continues to be very strong support for you as the right person for this important position,” Bloomfield wrote to Roth Tuesday, after receiving his letter of resignation.

Last week, 40 prominent Holocaust scholars attending a conference in Europe came out in support of Roth, a non-Jew who was slated to become the first director of the new center.

Criticism, however, continued unabated in recent weeks as Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and one of the most vocal critics of Roth’s selection, pressed forward with his campaign to oust Roth.

Klein publicized a series of what he called “troubling writings” by Roth. One of the Roth articles Klein circulated, titled, “Irony in Israel,” compared the actions of the Israel Defense Forces to Palestinian terrorists.

Responding to Roth’s decision, Klein said the resignation “is in the best interests of the Holocaust museum, protecting its sacred purpose of teaching about the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the inappropriateness of loose analogies to other historical events.”

Rep. Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.), who joined with Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.) in urging the museum to remove Roth, said in a telephone interview he was pleased that Roth “decided to react to the sensitivities raised in the Jewish community about his appointment.”

“This has been, frankly, about making sure that the scholarly work of the museum is not impaired by some controversial writings that put Israel or the Jewish people in a negative light,” Forbes said, adding that he hoped the museum “will be more judicious as they seek to fill the position.”

The decision did not come as a complete surprise to museum officials.

Bloomfield said in an interview that she knew Roth had been wavering and had tried to talk him out of the move.

However, a source with knowledge about Roth’s resignation suggested the parting of ways was a “Mutual decision. It did not happen in a vacuum.”

But if there was any doubt among members of the museum’s governing council about whether it was in the museum’s best interest for Roth to take up the post amid a cloud of controversy, it did not come out publicly.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council voted overwhelmingly last month to reaffirm Roth’s appointment and also unanimously passed a resolution repudiating the “character assassination” it said was being waged against him.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who cast the lone dissenting vote in the council against Roth because he concluded Roth’s mind-set was “flawed,” said this week he felt “sorry for him” because of the way the controversy played out through “personal attacks.”

But, he said, ultimately Roth’s resignation was the “right decision for both him and the museum.”

“He’s probably a very good scholar of the Holocaust but the wrong fit for the Holocaust museum,” Foxman said.

The council’s academic committee plans to reconvene soon to discuss finding a replacement.

Bloomfield, who has worked at the museum and at the organizing committee that preceded it for 12 years, said Roth’s resignation marked the end of “an unfortunate incident.”

But she said she remained confident that it would not tarnish the museum’s future role as a center for Holocaust scholarship and research.

“Small events like this are blips in what I see as a very fine history that will continue,” she said.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund