Menu JTA Search

BEHIND THE HEADLINES Ousted Holocaust museum leader says he feels vindicated by report

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25 (JTA) — The former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is speaking out in the wake of a highly critical report that concluded the museum has been hindered by problems in governance and management. Walter Reich, who has remained largely silent in the year and a half since he resigned as director, said he feels vindicated by the report, which concluded that the museum’s governing council has entangled itself too much in daily operations and encroached on the authority of the director. Reich was ousted last year in the wake of a controversy surrounding an on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to tour the museum. Reich said the invitation was made by Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, without his knowledge and that he resigned over the principle of using the museum and the Holocaust for political purposes. Members of the museum’s council cited long-standing concerns about Reich’s managerial skills in ousting him, but Reich maintains that the issue of management was only raised to deflect attention from the issue of principle over which he resigned. His supporters, moreover, charged that he was made a scapegoat for the Arafat debacle. The report, ordered by Congress after the Arafat episode and conducted by an outside panel of administrative experts, concluded that the six-year-old institution has been stifled by “excessive involvement” of the museum’s governing council in day-to-day operations and by what it called Lerman’s tendency to act unilaterally. The study recommended that the legislation governing the museum be changed to strengthen its administration, scale back the role of the council and give the director of the museum more of the powers of a chief executive officer. Reich said that if the recommendations had been made three years ago, “it would have been easier to run the museum without spending most of my time trying to put out fires by those who were supposed to govern rather than manage, and especially in politically sensitive realms.” Reich also said he felt vindicated by the report’s conclusion about Lerman’s tendency “to make important decisions and enter into agreements without adequate consultation or sharing of information with the council or museum.” It was that problem, he said, that was at the heart of the Arafat controversy. Lerman declined to comment on Reich’s remarks, saying he would not engage himself or the museum in a debate over the issue. Reich, who is currently the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University, said the report also backs up the concerns he raised about politicization of the institution and what he called “the use of the museum by the State Department in the service of tactical diplomatic ends.” He was referring to the presence of two U.S. State Department officials, Dennis Ross, the special Middle East coordinator, and his deputy, Aaron Miller, who serve on the museum’s council and who last year urged Lerman to invite Arafat to tour the museum. The report, which was ordered by Congress following the Arafat controversy, concluded, “The Presidential appointment of State Department officials as full council members may be inappropriate because conflicts of interest may result.”