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Remarks About Israel Spur Battle over Holocaust Council Chairman

January 10, 2001
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A speech by the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council has led to calls for his replacement — and responses that he is the victim of a McCarthyite smear campaign.

Critics charge that a speech by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg in November at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly was unduly critical of the Israeli response to the Palestinian violence that broke out in late September and involved more than 350 deaths.

Greenberg and his supporters respond that his comments are being taken out of context and that he is the victim of an ideological vendetta.

The controversy began after an editorial in The Wall Street Journal criticized Greenberg’s speech, in which he addressed the issue of the ethics of Jewish power and the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

The Dec. 29 op-ed, written by Ira Stoll, criticized Greenberg for having said he “would not be shocked if 5 percent or 10 percent or 20 percent of those casualties were [the result of] scared soldiers or people overreacting.”

Stoll, a former managing editor at the Forward newspaper, blasted Greenberg for “blaming Arab casualties in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza over the past few months on an `overreaction’ by `gun-happy’ Israeli soldiers and police.”

He further called the council, which oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “something of a playpen for Clinton loyalists” and called on President- elect George W. Bush to “set things straight” by asking for the resignation of Greenberg and his vice chairwoman, Ruth Mandel.

The incident escalated this week, after a group of 45 Israeli soldiers faxed to Jewish communal organizations a statement calling upon Greenberg to publicly retract his remarks.

To some locations, the fax was sent anonymously, but others who received the fax said it was sent under the name of the Zionist Organization of America, according to Blu Greenberg, Yitz Greenberg’s wife.

Morton Klein, the president of the ZOA, said that while he did not authorize any of his employees to send the fax, “I don’t think it was inappropriate to do so.”

“I was disappointed and deeply perplexed that Yitz Greenberg strongly criticized the way Israel’s soldiers are defending themselves against unprovoked Arab attacks, while ignoring Arafat’s terroristic regime of primitive hatred and violence against innocent families,” said Klein, who says he attended the G.A. session where Greenberg spoke.

Greenberg’s statements “were both inappropriate and wrong,” Klein said.

For his part, Greenberg said his remarks were taken out of context in Stoll’s piece and called the op-ed “an outrageous misrepresentation.”

Reached in Jerusalem, he pointed to other parts of his talk in which he defended Israel.

He said at one point, for instance, that the Israeli army “is trying to seriously minimize casualties and death and under much more difficult circumstances than the previous intifada because there are now serious weapons on the other side.”

Greenberg, a longtime Jewish thinker and leader, also defended the museum, which he said has had 15 million visitors since it opened in 1993, as a “bipartisan, highly respected institution.”

He said he has written a letter to the army veterans, but does not know where to send it because the veterans’ letter does not have any addresses or e-mails attached.

Individuals in Israel — where Greenberg is currently visiting participants on the Birthright Israel program and meeting with officials at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial — are attempting to arrange a meeting between Greenberg and the soldiers, said Arthur Berger, the chief spokesman for the Washington-based museum.

In any event, Greenberg said he does not feel the need to defend himself.

“Anybody who knows my record for the last 20 years would not be affected by the editorial,” Greenberg said.

Before heading the Holocaust council, Greenberg was the founding director of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Klein said he has written a letter to Greenberg, also asking him to retract his comments, and would not speculate on what action he would take if Greenberg refuses to do so.

But in the past, Klein has not shied away from participating in public campaigns against the Holocaust museum that eventually resulted in backtracking by the museum or its appointees.

In 1998, John Roth, an appointee to head the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, was criticized for making comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany.

After a campaign spearheaded by Klein, Roth eventually resigned his post.

There’s no evidence that the latest controversy will take this route, and two members of the Holocaust council contacted for this article say they back Greenberg.

“Yitz was trying to push forward the degree to which Jews with power are faithful to the tradition followed by Jews without power,” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar.

He defended Greenberg’s “sterling integrity” and “love for the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”

Abraham Foxman, also a member of the council, took his criticism of the anti- Greenberg campaign even further.

“Is this a litmus test that to be the head” of the Holocaust council, one has to believe certain things? said Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League.

“It’s McCarthyism. If you disagree with a person’s point of view, disagree with that person’s point of view, challenge that person’s point of view. But don’t take it to the point of going after them personally and then their job,” Foxman said.

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