Museum Lands On Political Battlefield

Museum Lands On Political Battlefield

A dispute between City Hall and Albany over funding for New York’s Holocaust museum has placed the institution in an uncomfortable political spotlight, making some Jewish leaders uneasy.

"People are embarrassed by the bickering between the mayor and governor over the museum," said one official of a major communal organization, who requested anonymity to avoid friction with either official. "As much as they admire and respect this institution, they are uncomfortable that government dollars are required for its expansion."

Although the city and state are both enjoying relative prosperity, some leaders told The Jewish Week they sensed public resentment of the taxpayer funding, even among Jews.

"There is a sense this should be done privately," said the leader.

The public contribution of $22 million toward the expansion of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan was to be announced at a press conference last week, which might have garnered some media coverage.

But when aides to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani accused Gov. George Pataki of reneging on a promise to foot half the public share of a new wing ó to house a theater, classrooms and Internet research equipment: the issue took on greater magnitude in the larger context of an ongoing feud between the two Republican leaders. Some fear this may portray the funding as political rather than a contribution to the city’s cultural life.

The governor’s staff denied having made a commitment to the expansion, citing the state’s contribution of the valuable waterfront real estate on which the museum is built and $2 million in operating expenses annually allocated to the museum in the state budget. The land belongs to the state-created Battery Park City Authority.

A spokesman for the governor, Michael McKeon, said the issue was first raised in a phone conversation two weeks ago between Bradford Race, the governor’s chief of staff, and a City Hall official, whom he declined to name.

"The question was, ‘Didn’t you guys agree to do $11 million on this,’ and the answer was ‘no.’ It was very straightforward and matter of fact. … But a few days later there seemed to be a different recollection."

Randy Levine, deputy mayor for economic development, who acknowledged being the official who called Race, told The Jewish Week that "high-level [state] government people" had agreed with the city that the formula for expansion would be the same as that of the public share of the museum construction: 50-50 between the state and city. "When the governor’s budget came out and it’s not in there, I placed the call to Brad," said Levine. The press conference was then scuttled, he said, because funding for the project was not in place.

Private donations will fund more than half the $45 million expansion. But the public contribution is reputedly considered crucial to the project since the museum’s bank of donors have already contributed heavily over the past decade to fund the museum administration during years of planning; to build the museum in 1997, and to operate it for the past two years.

"There is a limit to the generosity of even the wealthiest New Yorkers," said one source familiar with the museum’s funding.

Since its opening, the museum has been highly successful in attracting both tourists and student trips from surrounding schools, creating a justification for expansion.

"The city and state support thousands of cultural and educational institutions," said the museum’s director, David Altshuler. The reasons, he said, include economic development, tourism, jobs, as well as education, which he called the museum’s most crucial role. "The mayor has referred to the ‘soul of the city’ in talking about the importance of expanding cultural resources."

Altshuler said the museum has raised "the lion’s share [of funds] for all projects so far."

Neither Altshuler nor the museum’s chairman, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, would address the dispute between Giuliani and Pataki, noting only that both were strong supporters of the museum.

"We are confident that the expansion will go forward, and that any differences between the mayor and governor will be worked out," said Morgenthau, noting that Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg would visit the museum next week to discuss the annex. Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation has contributed $1 million to the museum, and his archive of filmed survivor testimonies will be electronically accessible at the new wing.

Levine said that the city was now determined to provide the entire $22 million share of the expansion, and that the mayor was working with City Council Speaker Peter Vallone to appropriate the funds.

The director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, dismissed the notion of a backlash against public financing of the expansion. "It hasn’t been a secret that the city and state have an interest in teaching tolerance," said Foxman. "It could easily be defended."

The controversy points up the growing tensions between the mayor and governor as both mull plans for higher offices, and the degree to which Jewish voters, whom each has carefully courted, may be swept up in them. But the aforementioned Jewish communal leader, recalling last year’s stormy Senate race, cautioned against either official attempting to portray himself as more sympathetic about the Holocaust than the other.

"After the debacle of [former Sen.] Alfonse D’Amato draping himself with Holocaust survivors, I would hope that this issue is not a mirror image. It would be a disaster for both."

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