Holocaust Museum’s Burial Conflict
Officials of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council are rejecting claims by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a prominent Holocaust activist and council critic, that construction of a new memorial to the Jewish victims of the Belzec death camp in southeastern Poland is resulting in systematic desecration of the site where many thousands of them are buried.
But council officials concede that workers at the scene inappropriately removed some human remains, and that the entire project needs tighter controls to ensure there is no repetition of what a Polish authority calls an “unfortunate and pitiful incident.”
In fact, sources say that the council, which runs the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, would like to spin the project off to another agency.
Rabbi Weiss called the museum’s plan to build a memorial to
the 600,000 Belzec victims “bizarre,” and charged that if it continues, the human remains at the site will be “dumped out as garbage.”
Miles Lerman, the former council chair who has played a leading role in negotiating agreements with the Polish government over the preservation of Holocaust sites, said the goal is to protect the site and its grim contents, not destroy it.
“It will desecrate the site if we leave it as it is,” he said. “It has been neglected for years; it’s full of beer bottles, it’s used for bonfires. It would heartbreaking to let it remain that way.”
Lerman said that eight years of negotiations have produced a plan “that will preserve the memory of the victims and tell the story as it actually happened.”
A Soviet-era monument that had been at the site memorialized the “victims of fascism,” ignoring the fact that victims of Belzec were overwhelmingly Jewish.
Lerman conceded that local authorities recently permitted removal of some human remains in dismantling the old monument.
Council sources say there were two separate incidents: In one, workers dismantling the old memorial unearthed a box containing human bones and other remains. A local rabbi was consulted, they said, and the remains were buried properly.
But a second incident, they admit, was more serious: An unspecified amount of earth containing ashes and bone fragments was removed and dumped about a kilometer away. Because of that, Lerman said, the entire project “is on hold.”
In a letter to the council, Andrzej Przewoznik, secretary of the Polish Council for the Protection of Monuments of Combat and Martyrdom, admitted that workers had disturbed human remains “despite our best efforts and instructions.”
A museum spokesman said the new memorial will “run along the perimeter of the site; it will not cut through the mass graves. And rabbinic authorities will have the final say when human remains are encountered.”
But some council officials are unhappy. “There is growing feeling … that while this project was undertaken for all the right reasons, we simply do not have the ability to provide oversight for such an undertaking in Poland,” said a council source. “And there is concern that the local Jewish authorities may not be sufficient to prevent this kind of thing from happening.”
Fred Zeidman, who took over as council chair early this year, has privately expressed concerns that the museum has overreached in its determination to serve as primary negotiator over Holocaust sites in Europe.
Rabbi Weiss decried the lack of broad community input. “I feel very strongly that this process should be opened up,” he said.
“Think about the Twin Towers and the way the process is so open; there’s community discussion and a tremendous amount of dialogue …. Here, [Belzec] the money was in place, the plans were in place and it seems the halachic experts should have been brought into this at the start.”
Lerman — who raised more than $1 million for the project, mostly from families of Belzec victims — also said that the controversial negotiations he headed over the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site “are on hold, mostly because of outside forces.”
Rabbi Weiss was a critic of those negotiations, insisting that the plan would allow too much commercial development and too many Christian symbols at the site.
Staff writer Eric J. Greenberg contributed to this report.
Flip-Flopping At The White House
The Bush administration, beset with problems at home and pressed by all sides in the turbulent Middle East, continues telling everyone involved in the Arab-Israel conflict what they want to hear.
The result, according to several Jewish analysts: ping-pong policy-making that is having little impact in moving the sides closer to an agreement.
On Monday, several envoys from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Dov Weissglas, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and military attaché Moshe Kaplinsky came away with assurances that Washington will still insist the Palestinians take serious steps to stop terrorism before new U.S.-led negotiations can begin.
But last week, meeting with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials stressed a key Arab demand—the desire to move toward creation of a Palestinian state within three years.
And at the recent meeting of the Mideast “Quartet,” Washington signaled agreement with the European demand for parallel progress on the security and political fronts.
Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Quartet statement reflected a “subtle backtracking” by the administration after Bush’s June 24 speech demanding Arafat’s removal.
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum and a leading critic of the Oslo peace process, was more blunt. “In all my years, I’ve never seen an administration as unpredictable as this one,” he said. “They seem to just bounce from press conference to press conference; it’s hard to see any continuity at all. There is an erratic quality that renders American policy less effective.”
Pipes said the endless flip-flopping may be the result of several factors—including ongoing conflict between the hard-line Pentagon and the State Department and a simple desire to mollify all Mideast parties while the administration focuses attention on other problems, foreign and domestic.
Judith Kipper, director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a supporter of the peace process, agreed that the administration seems rudderless in the Middle East.
“There are speeches; there are statements of ‘vision,’ but there’s no real plan of action,” she said. “As a result, everything is makeshift.”
The administration’s top goal, she said, seems to be to “keep any of the interested parties from getting hot and bothered.”
This week, mixed signals continued.
The White House has generally shown approval of Sharon’s reoccupation of parts of the West Bank and its ongoing military offensive against terror targets. But it criticized Tuesday’s missile attack against a Hamas leader in Gaza, which resulted in a number of civilian casualties, as “heavy handed.”
That prompted a response from Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), who called the White House condemnation “absurd. The United States is right to continue our fight against terror in Afghanistan, and Israel is right to continue their fight against those who seek to destroy Israel and any hopes of peace with suicide bombings and shootings.”
Administration Turnaround Angers Jewish Groups
Several Jewish groups reacted angrily to the Bush administration flip-flop on the question of funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Last year President Bush proposed a $25 million U.S. contribution to the program; a bipartisan group of lawmakers raised the appropriation to $34 million.
But after fierce pressure from religious conservatives, who say some of the money is used to encourage abortions around the world and forced sterilizations in China, the administration this week decided to cut UNFPA funding—already incorporated into the foreign aid bill signed into law earlier this year.
The reason? “Simple abortion politics,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).
“We believe this is going to impact the lives and health of millions of women worldwide.”
Moshenberg said an aroused Congress could reverse the administration’s sudden decision, but the fight will be “difficult.”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), a leading member of the Jewish delegation in Congress and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, accused the administration of “backtracking on a deal with Congress. Apparently, no price is too high for this administration when it comes to political payoffs.”
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism this week issued an action alert urging members to press Congress to reverse the decision.
Tough Time For Anti-Israel Lawmakers
Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) one of Israel’s few critics in Congress, was defeated last month in a primary runoff after pro-Israel campaign contributors helped fund his opponent’s successful challenge.
But several other lawmakers with records of hostility to Israel are in political hot water for reasons having nothing to do with Mideast politics.
In Virginia, Rep. Jim Moran, a Democratic incumbent, is facing yet another crisis over his personal finances after revelations that he had accepted a loan from businesses with a direct interest in legislation before Congress at the time.
In a recent editorial, the Washington Post said that “Mr. Moran does not deserve the job” of representing Virginia’s 8th District.
Moran’s record on Israel is spotty, at best, and he has frequently crossed swords with pro-Israel lobbyists.
Rep. James Traficant’s record on Israel is much starker. Jewish leaders consider him one of the House’s most vocal critics of the Jewish state, not to mention just about the only defender of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk.
But Traficant’s downfall has nothing to do with angry Jewish groups.
This week the still-belligerent lawmaker was waiting for an expulsion vote by the full House after the House Ethics Committee unanimously recommended he get the boot.
The congressional action came after a federal court convicted the nine-term lawmaker on 10 racketeering and corruption counts.
If the House accepts the Committee’s recommendation, Traficant—who defended himself at his trial and during the congressional hearing with his trademark bluster—will be the second member to be kicked out of the House since the Civil War.