WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (JTA) After 22 years of helping to lead the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through its successes and controversies, Miles Lerman has decided that it is time for him to scale back his role at the institution.
Lerman told President Clinton last week that he plans to step down as chairman of the museum’s council, a title he has held for the past six years. He was a driving force behind the museum’s creation since 1978, when he was appointed by President Carter to a commission tasked with studying how to remember Holocaust victims,
In an interview last week, Lerman said he would stay on as chairman until the president selects a successor from one of the council’s 55 members. He also said he would remain on the council’s executive committee.
While the museum has enjoyed a great deal of success during Lerman’s tenure, there also have been a number of well-publicized controversies that have tarnished the institution’s reputation. Lerman insisted that criticism from these episodes did not play into his decision to step down. Other members of the council said he was not forced out.
Lerman said he began discussing with his family the possibility of stepping down three years ago, and feels now is the right time for a change.
“Transition is healthy for any organization,” he said. “We need young blood.”
During the interview, Lerman, who is nearly 80 but only admitted to being “older than 51,” excitedly listed what he describes as the museum’s “fabulous accomplishments.”
Since the museum opened its doors six and a half years ago, nearly 14 million people have visited the museum, which has become almost a required stop for most tourists in Washington. Around 80 percent of the visitors have been non-Jews and 4 million have been children.
“This museum is more than just a museum,” Lerman said. “We are a moral platform.”
Museum officials credit Lerman with spearheading the campaign that raised $200 million to build the imposing, industrial structure just off the National Mall and said he negotiated agreements with Eastern European governments that allowed the museum to acquire artifacts for its permanent collection.
Lerman was born in Poland, and was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a slave labor camp. In 1942, he escaped and formed a resistance group that spent the next two years fighting the Nazis in the forests of southeastern Poland. After being liberated, he married his wife, Chris, also a survivor, and they eventually settled in Vineland, N.J., where Lerman became a prominent businessman.
In an effort to spur research on Jewish resistance during the war, Lerman created the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance. Lerman also oversaw the establishment of the Committee on Conscience, which has spoken out about contemporary genocide.
Those who worked with Lerman over the years praised his dedication to the museum.
“Miles made an enormous impact on the museum,” said Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and a longtime member of the council. “Holocaust survivors’ gratitude to him will remain for a long time. We will be forever appreciative of his wisdom and devotion to the cause of remembrance.”
Ruth Mandel, a political science professor at Rutgers University who serves as the council’s vice chair, said she thinks Lerman could have continued in the job. He was reappointed by the president to a second five-year term in 1998.
“I did not encourage him to leave,” Mandel said. “I thought it would be great for him to stay.”
While Lerman has garnered praise for his year’s of service, he also has not gone without criticism.
In January of 1998, the museum came under fire for Lerman’s on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to visit the museum. The subsequent ouster of the museum’s director, Walter Reich who some charged was made a scapegoat for the Arafat debacle proved to be another public relations disaster.
Also that year, the museum was stung by a barrage of criticism over its decision to hire Holocaust scholar John Roth to head the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. Roth was assailed for controversial writings about Israel and ultimately resigned the post.
And last year, the museum came under fire for promoting a book titled “Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know,” which some critics say contains anti-Israel propaganda and falsely accuses Israel of engaging in “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians.
After the Arafat episode, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chairs the House subcommittee that approves federal money for the museum, ordered a study of the museum’s governance and management.
The study, conducted by an outside panel of administrative experts, concluded that the institution has been stifled by “excessive involvement” of the museum’s governing council in day-to-day operations and specifically criticized what it called Lerman’s tendency to “act unilaterally,” suggesting that he and others let go of the reins and allow the director to assume greater responsibilities.
Brushing off questions about the criticism of him in the report, Lerman said he appointed a commission last year, before the report came out, to prepare its own recommendations on how to improve the workings of the museum.
In December, the council approved the recommendations, which also take into account some suggestions made by the study conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to make federal, state and local governments more effective. One of the recommendations was to bring in “young blood,” Lerman said.
“A leader who preaches certain concepts to others and does not apply these concepts to himself is not a serious leader,” he said.
For his part, Regula, in an interview from his home in Ohio last week, praised Lerman’s years of service and downplayed the criticism in the report. “Everyone owes him a great debt of gratitude for the service he has given,” Regula said, adding that “without him there wouldn’t be a museum.”
Although Lerman said the report’s conclusions did not play into his decision to step down as chairman, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and council member, said the criticism took its toll.
“It took away from Miles the full joy of seeing what he accomplished and achieved,” Foxman said.
Asked if he thought it would be good for the museum for Lerman to scale back his role, Reich, the former director who has been a harsh critic of Lerman, said, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on his years of chairmanship since we differed so deeply on a number of principles, including most importantly, my belief that the museum must never be used by the government as political or diplomatic tool.”
However, Reich described Lerman’s fund-raising for the museum as his greatest contribution.
“That’s his primary legacy and a lasting one,” he said.