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Behind the Headlines: Wiesenthal Center Head Recalls 20 Years of Fighting Intolerance

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When Rabbi Marvin Hier arrived in Los Angeles in 1977 to inspect the sizable building he had purchased on unfashionable Pico Boulevard, it was one of the few times in his life that he was genuinely scared.

“The place had been stripped of all light fixtures,” he recalls. “We had one telephone with a 100-foot extension chord, which I took with me whenever I moved through the building. I was frightened that we would never be able to fill all the rooms.”

Today, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has not only filled up the space, but is overshadowed by the adjacent Museum of Tolerance; has branch offices in New York, Miami, Toronto, Jerusalem, Paris and Buenos Aires; produces Oscar-winning documentaries; and operates on a $24 million annual budget.

With 400,000 dues-paying families, it has evolved from a self-defined center for Holocaust studies into an organization that “fights intolerance and anti- Semitism around the world,” Hier, the center’s dean and founder says.

Last week, when the center marked the 20th anniversary of its official launch at a black-tie dinner, President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played glowing tributes via video, California’s top politicians were granted a few minutes on the rostrum and some of the country’s most powerful media and Hollywood moguls were in attendance.

The man whose link to the outside world was once a single phone with an extension chord now flies across oceans for instant summits with heads of state. He has become one of the most visible and quoted Jewish spokesmen in America — and the world.

A couple of days after the anniversary fete, the unorthodox Orthodox rabbi – – trim, black-haired, sharp-featured, unlined at 59, his rapid-fire speech tinged with the accent of New York’s Lower East Side — sat down in his unpretentious office to expound his action-oriented philosophy, recount a few of the center’s major accomplishments and respond to some frequently voiced criticisms.

“We decided from the beginning that we wouldn’t be just a research or documentation center, but that we would be activists and bring about change,” he says. “We are not afraid of challenges.

“We didn’t want to be like some Jewish organizations that do the same thing year after year, which rest on their laurels and eventually become stale and irrelevant.”

Topping Hier’s own list of accomplishments is the $55 million Museum of Tolerance, which, since its opening five years ago, has attracted 2 million visitors. Of these, more than 70 percent, including droves of high school students on tours, are not Jewish, Hier estimates.

“We felt from the start that we had to appeal to young people and plan for a time when there would be no more living Holocaust survivors to bear witness,” said Hier.

“We knew that a photo gallery or display of documents would not be effective for students,” he said. The center decided to have high-tech exhibits “to give the kids a Holocaust 101 course, which would be so interestingly presented that they wouldn’t duck out.”

The second basic decision was that the museum “wouldn’t be credible if it dealt only with the Jewish experience,” he says.

As a result, exhibit space is equally divided between the Holocaust and tolerance in general. The latter is taught through displays on genocides, racism and prejudice throughout the world, including America.

Hier stresses that this divided emphasis does not diminish the unique dimensions of the Holocaust, or, in his analogy, that in studying the world’s worst earthquake one should not ignore lesser ones.

To bring the museum’s message to those who cannot visit it, the center then created the center’s Moriah Film division. Two of the center’s four documentaries, focusing on the Holocaust and immediate postwar years, have won Academy Awards, but, as usual, Hier is looking toward the future.

“We will do biographies of great Jewish leaders and scholars, on Israel, on Soviet Jewry, to show what Jews have contributed, that there is more to our history than suffering and death,” says Hier.

The center’s emphasis on social activism emerged within a year of its founding, when the German government announced in 1979 that it would invoke a statute of limitations on future prosecutions of all Nazi war crimes.

Hier led a diverse 30-person delegation to Bonn to lobby then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who quickly reversed his decision.

“If we hadn’t succeeded, then much of what Jewish organizations have worked for in the last 20 years, from conviction of war criminals to Swiss restitution, wouldn’t have happened,” Hier maintains.

The Wiesenthal Center’s almost instant success, legendary fund-raising skills, and brash tactics have not been cheered by all and old-timers still bear scars from some of the early battles between the upstart center and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, the community’s umbrella organization.

Time seems to have healed some wounds, as witness the two groups’ joint sponsorship of Israel’s 50th anniversary celebration this year.

But some common critical themes recur, although, in tacit acknowledgment of the center’s clout and feisty posture, critics rarely go public.

No attack rankles Hier more than the charge that the center’s high-tech techniques “trivialize” the profound tragedy of the Holocaust and suffuse it with a kind of disneyland patina.

“They don’t seem to understand that we are not a think tank or ivory tower, that we set out to attract the masses and not a handful of Ph.D. students,” responds an exasperated Hier.

“The same kind of criticism is now being leveled at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. Even Yad Vashem sent some of its staff over here for a week to incorporate some of the same techniques in its new museum,” says Hier.

Since its inception, the center has received a total of $13.5 million in California state funds. The latest installment, of $2.5 million, will help purchase a building for a children-oriented version of the Museum of Tolerance.

Critics charge that such public subsidies violate church-state separation, based primarily on Hier’s relationship to the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles.

After a 16-year stint as congregational rabbi in Vancouver, Hier initially came to Los Angeles to create the high-school level Orthodox institution, which opened before the Wiesenthal Center and shares the same quarters.

Hier serves as dean of both institutions, which, until 1983, were governed by the same board.

Hier says that the state grants “are no longer an issue” and that there is hardly a Jewish organization or institution that does not receive federal, state or municipal fund support.

In the center’s case, most of the money has been earmarked for a tolerance program to sensitize police officers and teachers to ethnic and religious differences.

“This money is for the broader good of the state and every penny has to be accounted for,” says Hier.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, has been Hier’s partner since the first day of the center’s existence and receives much of the credit for framing its issue agenda and international outreach.

Of his senior colleague’s success and fund-raising touch, Cooper comments, “Rabbi Hier has an incredible instinct about people, a great sense of humor and he understands how and where to invest his time.”

Nearing 60, a grandfather of eight, and still tied to the telephone day and night, Hier isn’t about to slow down.

With the children’s museum in the works, the next planned outreach is to Israel, where he hopes to erect a new incarnation of the Museum of Tolerance – – focusing on strife and tension within Israeli and Jewish society — in Jerusalem.

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