Washington — Holocaust scholars this week are rallying around the appointment of John K. Roth as the first director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, the newly created scholarly arm of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
And museum officials seem to be lining up behind the embattled scholar.
Roth last week found himself under attack for a 1988 Los Angeles Times op-ed article that his attackers say “desecrates the memory” of Holocaust victims and compares Israel to the Nazis.
But defenders, including some top Jewish leaders and prominent Holocaust scholars, say Roth’s article was deliberately misrepresented by critics. Several have labeled the anti-Roth effort a “witch hunt.”
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, who said he disagreed with Roth’s use of a Holocaust analogy, nevertheless characterized some of
his opponents as “Jewish thought police.”
The anti-Roth crusade is being led by Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein, whose initial press release demanded that the Claremont (Calif.) McKenna College scholar apologize and retract his controversial statements. Last week, Roth — a philosopher who began specializing in the Holocaust in the early ’70s — said that he regretted the 1988 article.
“The essay is one that lends itself to interpretations different from what I intended, and I take responsibility for that,” he said in an interview. “If there was one piece I could blot out of my extensive publications list forever, this is the one I would pick.”
But that didn’t entirely mollify Klein, who said the ZOA “accepts his somewhat equivocal apology — but he is apologizing only for what he terms is a misconstrued impression on this particular article and not for his troubling analogies.”
Roth indicated this week that he is confused about exactly what Klein wants. “I’m willing to take responsibility for the piece, and I was prepared to apologize for creating an impression that was inconsistent with my views, which I did. I don’t know what more he wants, except maybe my head on a platter.”
The controversy began last week when copies of the 10-year-old opinion piece were faxed to reporters and Holocaust Council members.
Roth wrote the piece in the wake of elections in Israel that saw the rise of the Moledet party, which advocates the deportation of Palestinians on the West Bank. Roth wrote that the rise of Moledet echoed events in Germany in 1938, when official Nazi policy on Jews focused on forced emigration.
“Kristallnacht happened because a political state decided to be rid of people unwanted within its borders,” he wrote. “It seems increasingly clear that Israel would prefer to rid itself of Palestinians if it could do so.”
Roth’s supporters generally concede that the comparison was an unfortunate one — although historically, some say, it was not beyond the pale.
“Holocaust scholars take into account the fact that the Nazi policy prior to 1939 was not mass annihilation but forced immigration,” said Michael Berenbaum, a top Holocaust scholar and former research director at the Holocaust Museum who co-authored a book with Roth and strongly supports his appointment.
“John never made the comparison to post-1939 German policy. Morton Klein said he labeled Israel as like the Nazis; that’s simply not true. He labeled those who advocated the forced evacuation of the Arabs.”
But the Roth flap has also played into broader debates under way at the museum involving charges from conservatives that the institution is being “de-Judaized,” and that it is starting to emphasize a universal approach to Holocaust studies that diminishes the event’s Jewish character. Roth is not Jewish, which some observers see as a factor in the current controversy.
“There are tremendous pulls at the museum in favor of universalization of the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Avi Weiss, the Riverdale activist who has been a critic of the current museum leadership. “I see his appointment as representing one more step in that direction. I see a universalistic leaning in his writings.”
But Berenbaum — who fought to retain the emphasis on the Jewish experience during his tenure at the museum — rejected that argument.
“I yield to no one in my belief that the Jewish core of the Holocaust must be protected, understood and dealt with,” he said. “John Roth is one of the men in the world who writes with the greatest sensitivity of this experience.”
Berenbaum criticized Klein for launching his first press-release salvo based only on the short op-ed article, not on Roth’s vast scholarly work.
“Mort Klein is wrong on substance, and he is introducing a tone of vulgarity to Jewish life,” he said. “How can he attack a man who has written 25 books without reading a single one of them? Or a chapter of one of them?”
Klein admitted that he had not read Roth’s scholarly work before issuing his first criticism, but said that he has done so since then — and that he has found “troubling” aspects in Roth’s scholarly writing. But he declined this week to elaborate.
Klein said that his status as a child of survivors gives him a basis for judging Roth’s scholarship.
Some Jewish leaders and a number of Holocaust scholars countered that the anti-Roth effort seemed more like a personal vendetta than a debate over the museum’s future.
The ADL’s Foxman pointed to a growing list of targets for Klein’s highly personal attacks, including folk singer Pete Seeger and reporters Thomas Friedman and Mike Wallace.
Foxman emphasized that “there’s nothing wrong with Mort Klein raising questions about this person because of what he’s written. But that’s not what he did — he raised the question having already come to his conclusion, and then started calling [Jewish leaders] around the country looking for support for his position, without any debate, without discussion. That’s where it begins to look like McCarthyism. You don’t ask, ‘Are you a communist?’ You start with, ‘You are a communist, aren’t you?’ ”
Klein was also accused of misrepresenting the position of a key Holocaust Council member. In his second press release on the subject, Klein cited a statement by Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt in the Forward.
Lipstadt, he wrote, “said that Roth’s Los Angeles Times op-ed was ‘odious.’ ”
But this week, the Emory University professor blasted Klein for leaving out the rest of her quote. In fact, she said, she had strongly praised Roth’s appointment and objected to the way he was being “tarred and feathered.”
“I am appalled, absolutely appalled,” she said. “This is the height of intellectual dishonesty, to take a quote that clearly indicated I thought something unfair was being done to John Roth, and to use it to give the impression that I had criticized him.”
Lipstadt said that she was uncomfortable with Roth’s use of the Nazi analogy, but that “in no way does this offset his scholarship, or the fact that this man is a clear supporter of Israel.”
Klein defended his use of Lipstadt’s quote.
“I very carefully stated that this is what people are saying in response to the Nazi-Israel analogy in his article,” he said. “I wanted to make it clear that it was not only ZOA that was making the case that this was odious, that there were Holocaust scholars who found this odious.”
This week, Holocaust Museum officials seemed to be standing by their man.
“Key members of the council are fully supportive of John Roth,” said Holocaust Council chairman Miles Lerman. “We have no intention of caving in to anybody. If we’re convinced we’re on the right side of the issue, we’ll stick to it.”
Lerman refused to criticize Roth’s attackers by name, but he made his anger and frustration plain. “If people want to attack the museum, that’s inevitable,” he said. “But when they start using lies, that’s completely unacceptable.”
He also criticized some of the press coverage of the controversy.
“I’m a little surprised that the press hasn’t gone deeper into it, and tried to understand that this is part of an assault implemented by a very small group who is trying to be vindictive in settling scores,” he said.