Leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, under siege because of their appointment of John Roth to head a new academic think tank in Washington, this week voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm that decision.
But only hours after that vote, yet another troublesome article by Roth surfaced, sending council members scrambling. By Wednesday morning, the council was considering a motion to review the new material and to consider all documents relating to the appointment of the Claremont McKenna College scholar.
Efforts were under way to contact Roth, who is traveling in Ireland. Council sources said they had not seen the newly revealed op-ed piece but believed that this latest development could jeopardize the appointment.
That came only hours after the council’s executive committee, which oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Museum as well as its expanding educational and research arms, lashed out at Roth’s critics. The committee voted unanimously to “repudiate and condemn the character assassination being waged against John Roth.”
Roth’s supporters among the small community of Holocaust scholars were buoyed further when Elie Wiesel, the top spokesman for Holocaust survivors and the founding chair of the council, signaled support for the appointment.
“John Roth has been a friend since our first meeting in 1972,” Wiesel told The Jewish Week. “In our numerous encounters I have never heard him utter anything that could have been interpreted as offensive to Jewish memory or insensitive to Israeli security. I read his books, not his newspaper articles.”
“I watched him grow as a teacher and scholar, and never had any reason to doubt his sincerity,” the Nobel laureate went on. “His passion for Holocaust studies was admirably felt in all his academic and literary endeavors.”
But Wiesel added, “Naturally, I am against all comparisons when we deal with the Holocaust,” a reference to critics’ claims that Roth has betrayed the uniqueness of the Holocaust in past analogies to other historical situations.
Wiesel had made the comments without knowledge of the latest Roth article.
The executive committee vote came during an emotional three-hour meeting on Tuesday night. The proposal to affirm “in the strongest possible terms” the decision by the search committee that hired Roth as director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies passed 9-0, with two abstentions. Council chair Miles Lerman does not vote.
The dramatic council meeting came as conservative columnists and Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein intensified their attacks, aided by two Republican lawmakers who last week hinted they might seek to hold up museum funding if the Roth nomination stands.
But the GOP legislators themselves came under fire for what Roth defenders said was a blatant attempt to misrepresent some of the scholar’s writings.
The controversy was ignited two weeks ago after a 1988 Los Angeles Times op-ed article by Roth was faxed anonymously to council members and reporters.
In the article Roth, who had lived in Israel, expressed misgivings about the rise of the hard-line Moledet party and the movement to expel Palestinians from the West Bank.
Critics say Roth compared Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, but supporters say he was making a much more limited comparison of Israelis who advocated deportation and Nazi policy before the “Final Solution” was envisioned.
At Tuesday’s meeting, several executive committee members expressed discomfort with Roth’s language in the article but said it did not outweigh decades of respected Holocaust scholarship, which includes more than 20 books.
The controversy heated up still further after Reps. Mike Forbes (R-L.I.) and Jon Fox (R-Pa.) wrote a stinging letter to Lerman protesting the appointment.
The GOP legislators criticized Roth’s Los Angeles Times article, and added that “we believe that members of the House Appropriations Committee, who bear the responsibility for funding the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, will have reason to wonder in what direction Prof. Roth may guide the museum, in view of his writings about Israel, the Holocaust and the United States.”
Forbes and Fox also charged that Roth, in another published essay, had compared the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan to the rise of the Nazis.
That article opened with a controversial paragraph in which the scholar said that he watched the 1980 election returns after returning from a Holocaust conference and “I could not help remembering how 40 years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism … to send the world reeling into catastrophe that virtually annihilated the Jews of Europe and altered the face of the earth forever.”
In the next paragraph, Roth said that comparisons with the Holocaust are inappropriate.
“The United States of the 1980s is far from the Germany of the 1930s, and to discern clear parallels between the two would be fantasy, not insight,” he wrote.
Forbes and Fox left out the second paragraph. The omission led Michael Berenbaum, director of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and former research director at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, to charge the legislators with distortion.
“If the congressmen knew about what Roth had said, their omission was malicious,” he said. “If they didn’t know and wrote their charges anyway, it was reckless irresponsibility and incompetence.”
Lerman and council vice-chair Ruth Mandel, in a letter to Forbes and Fox, termed the accusations “misinformed and misguided.” They added that they were “shocked at the implication that there is or should be a political litmus test for federal positions.”
Roth was hired under Office of Personnel Management guidelines that, like civil service rules, try to insulate personnel decisions from politics.
Forbes and Fox did not return calls from The Jewish Week, but aides to both legislators said they were not backing down.
“In fact, we’ve received a significant amount of favorable comment,” said a Fox staffer who declined to be identified.
But on Monday, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) warned against using the appropriations process to impose partisan views on the museum.
“The Holocaust Museum plays a critical role in educating all Americans, and I am very concerned that this important mission is being undermined and diminished by this controversy,” she said. “The museum must not be subject to undue political pressure or threats from Congress.”
At the same time, opponents of Roth’s appointment were stepping up their opposition.
“I know in my heart that this is just a terrible appointment,” said the ZOA’s Klein, adding that “I’ve talked to a lot of Holocaust scholars, and they don’t consider this guy a serious scholar.”
He said that Roth “seems to have a shallow understanding of the factors which led to the Holocaust and also doesn’t seem to understand the extraordinary uniqueness of the Holocaust in human history.”
Klein also warned that the Palestinians will rejoice in his appointment.
This week, however, museum officials were distributing thick packets containing letters of support from top Holocaust scholars around the world. They included Professor Yehuda Bauer, director of the International Center for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial; Rabbi Michael Signer, the co-director of the University of Notre Dame Holocaust Project; and Richard Rubenstein, president of the University of Bridgeport and author of “After Auschwitz.”
But Wednesday’s uproar and the council meetings left Roth’s appointment in doubt, and may have shaken the support by scholars and others.