Washington — Since its opening in 1993, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here has tried to position itself as a respected national institution, not an instrument of Jewish politics.
But this week it became ensnared in just what it hoped to avoid when its top lay and professional leaders spurned an administration request for an official welcome for Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat during his trip to Washington.
Top museum officials first gave a green light to an initiative by U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross to invite Arafat, then abruptly rescinded the invitation — causing public embarrassment not only for Arafat, who had accepted the original invite, but also for Ross and the museum.
And whether or not Arafat accepts a new invitation offered Tuesday by the museum, the controversy raises questions about the politicization of a public, taxpayer-funded federal institution and how it is being operated.
“Who is setting policy? How is that policy formulated?” asked Deborah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Dwork, who works closely with the museum, called it “absolutely absurd politically, but also morally unconscionable for the museum to rescind its offer of courtesy to Arafat.”
“This is a national museum, this is not a Jewish museum,” she said.The museum’s flip-flop also angered members of its executive council, who said they were not consulted about the initial offer nor its reversal.
“When I found out it was a big shock,” said Ruth Mandel, vice chairman of the council’s executive committee and a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Both the decision-making process and the decision itself were problems for me.”
Said executive council member Menachem Rosensaft, a New York attorney: “Neither the executive committee of the council nor the whole council was involved in or consulted in any way with respect to the possibility of Yasir Arafat visiting the museum. I as well as other members of the council first learned about it from [last] Saturday’s newspaper stories.”
The council’s executive committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the issue. According to a museum spokeswoman, the 17-member board is supposed to establish institution policies.
Executive council members include New Yorker Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors; Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta; and philanthropist Harvey Meyerhoff of Baltimore.
The museum receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government. Of its annual $50.1 million budget, $31.7 million is appropriated by Congress and $18.4 million comes from private donations, according to spokeswoman Christine Brown.
Former New York City Mayor Edward Koch, a prime mover of the city’s new Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust told The Jewish Week that “the people running the museum really blundered.”
“He [Arafat] is being received by the president. He’s not someone who is not acceptable anymore,” Koch said. “He was given status by [the late Prime Minister Yitzchak] Rabin, who shook his hand in front of millions of people.
“If you’re not going to accord him the courtesy that is due under this situation, I think you damage the goal that these people have, which is peace.”
Koch argued that exposing Arafat to the U.S. Holocaust Museum “could impact in a very positive way upon him. I’d like every anti-Semite to walk through that museum.”
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who barred Arafat from Lincoln Center in 1995, causing international headlines, declined to enter the fray this time.
But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, supported the museum’s withdrawal of full head-of-state treatment.
Hoenlein said he believes Arafat should not be extended such courtesy until he first “renounces all anti-Semitic statements and publications of the Palestinian Authority, and Holocaust-denial statements, and comparing Israel to the Nazis.”
“He has an invitation to Yad Vashem in Israel, he should go there,” said Hoenlein, referring to the sudden outpouring of invitations from several Holocaust institutions as a result of the controversy.
Efraim Zuroff, Israeli director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, went further, stating that a visit by Arafat “does not reflect a genuine desire on his part to learn about the Holocaust or express identification with the victims of Nazism, but is most likely a ploy to gain support in Western public opinion.”
Zuroff also contended that an Arafat visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum “will cause much pain and suffering to numerous Holocaust survivors,” who would view it as sacrilegious.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), saying he represents the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the U.S., expressed outrage over the latest invitation. The museum yielded to political pressure from President Clinton, he said.
“Yasir Arafat is a man who not only has decades worth of Jewish blood on his hands, he and the top leaders in his government are Holocaust revisionists who venerate avowed Nazis such as the Mufti of Jerusalem,” Hikind said. “This should be stopped immediately.”
However, Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian permanent observer to the United Nations and a nephew of Arafat, told The Jewish Week that a museum tour would not be risk free for Arafat at home.
“I can tell you that many Palestinians would not swallow easily the visit,” he said.
He called the Washington museum’s reversal “very ungracious.” And al-Kidwa said that were he advising Arafat, he would tell him not to visit the museum at this time.
“Because of what happened and because of the need to prevent misunderstandings … I would advise to wait,” he said.
Despite the new invitation, the controversy damaged the museum’s credibility and may bring simmering disagreements over its leadership to a boil, according to several sources.
“The staff has been in an uproar for more than a year,” said one source. “The way this decision was made — with no consultation, no debate — is the best illustration yet of a process that many here see as seriously flawed and damaging to the institution.”
The incident may cost Lerman and Reich their positions.
A Washington Post report Wednesday said that White House aides, furious with the mishandling, noted that Lerman’s term is up in May and Reich’s contract ends in the spring.
“Job alert,” the Post report began the item.
The controversy was ignited late last week when Ross deputy Aaron Miller called council chair Miles Lerman and suggested the visit, which administration officials hoped would send an important message about movement in the peace process in a week when deadlock and controversy were expected to predominate.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Lerman said he and museum director Walter Reich agreed — but that Reich, after several calls, changed his mind. Reich did not return several phone calls.Lerman, fearful of embroiling the museum in a messy political controversy centering on the unpopular Arafat, agreed to turn down the administration request.
“We both believe that the institution has to be protected from political involvement,” he said. “When you bring politics in, you lose your credibility.”
However, other sources said that major museum donors had strong-armed Lerman and Reich to rescind the offer to Arafat.
Meanwhile, the story was leaked to The Washington Post, and suddenly the museum found itself in the middle of an international controversy, which was heightened when directors of several leading Holocaust museums in Israel criticized the decision and announced their own invitations to the Palestinian leader.
Critics pointed out that the museum has often welcomed controversial figures with an eye toward educating them and possibly changing their views about Jews, starting with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. His anti-Semitic writings prompted a round of protest when he was welcomed at the museum’s opening ceremonies in 1993.
“We use our exhibitions to teach about a period of history that has profound lessons to offer us today,” said Mandel of the museum’s executive committee. “The museum is open to everybody; for people who represent other countries and other groups of people, and who have influence over the hearts and minds of people, it’s all the more important to invite them in.”
Lerman insisted that for the museum, the administration request posed a no-win choice.
“If we had given Arafat full diplomatic status, 40 percent of the Jewish community would have applauded me, 40 percent would have killed me,” he said.
But he conceded that his decision was a mistake.
“I believe it was handled poorly,” he said. “And no issue like this should be handled by only two people.”
Other council sources said that the controversy reflects growing strains between Reich, the staff and the council over the way decisions are made at the museum. Many museum backers agreed that the controversy hurt the museum’s image.
“My visceral feeling was terribly negative,” said Mark Talisman, a longtime Jewish activist here and one of the museum’s founding directors. “Things got out of control. I would have preferred that Arafat be received with dignity; it’s absolutely essential that he see this. It’s an American institution, and it tells a lot about the American standpoint in the Middle East.”
Talisman agreed that there is a risk Arafat could use a high-profile visit to the museum to score propaganda points.
“It has to be handled very carefully, in a way that is worthy of the memory perpetuated in the museum,” he said. “But there’s absolutely no way to defend what happened last week. It should be turned around immediately.”