The controversies swirling around the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington are likely to be dampened but not extinguished by this week’s appointment of Sara Bloomfield as director of the $53 million facility.
Observers say Bloomfield, who has served as acting director since the ouster of former director Walter Reich a year ago, may provide a badly needed anchor for a museum that has been pummeled by back-to-back flare-ups, including the abortive invitation to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in January 1998; Reich’s messy departure; and the appointment and withdrawal of John K. Roth as head of the museum’s academic arm last summer; in addition to persistent charges that the museum is trying to universalize the Holocaust message.
Bloomfield, associates say, combines a deep passion for the museum
with a hardheaded approach to management. In an interview, she made it clear that part of her job will be to balance constituencies with a stake in the museum and a federal government that pays most of the bills.
The facility, she said, is unique — “a museum, a memorial and a moral voice. Making all three of those work together is a tremendous challenge,” she said.
The museum’s first obligation, Bloomfield said, is to the victims and survivors. “But that’s not the only obligation. We have to be accountable to all those with a stake in the institution, and that’s not always easy. We can’t be all things to all people.”
Bloomfield’s appointment comes at a time when the museum is at a crossroads. She and the Holocaust Museum Council believe she is exactly the person to help navigate it through a tricky intersection.
The controversies of the past year have not affected day-to-day operations, she said.
“These have been difficult times for the museum, but they haven’t had any impact on visitation, fund raising or interest in what we do,” Bloomfield, 48, said. “In a way, the controversies have been an affirmation of the museum’s resonance. The fact is, we have struck chords of passion.”
Despite that positive spin, she acknowledged that some of the recent controversies point to deep-seated conflicts over the museum’s multiple roles.
The Arafat incident, which lit the fuse for an explosive year, was the clearest example. The Palestinian leader was invited to tour the museum at the behest of U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross, a member of the council who hoped that a visit might boost the sagging Israeli-Palestinian talks, a top U.S. priority.
But the invitation incensed some Jewish leaders, who said bringing the former terrorist to the museum would desecrate the memory of Holocaust victims.
Bloomfield, while not directly addressing the Arafat controversy, suggested that the museum’s special standing gives federal authorities a significant say in its operation.
“The museum is part of the U.S. government. That is a given,” she said. “If the Jewish community wants a museum dedicated to the Holocaust on federal land, just off the Mall, there will be federal involvement.”
She added that there is a flip side to the heavy federal involvement: the imprimatur of the government means that many more people every year will be exposed to the central message of the Holocaust.
“You wouldn’t have 2 million people a year coming to a private museum on the subject of the Holocaust,” said Bloomfield. The weight of the U.S. government, she said, has also vastly expanded the museum’s access to recently opened archives and collections throughout Europe.
Bloomfield joined the staff of the council in 1986, before the ground was broken for the museum. She came as an administrator, not a Holocaust scholar. Her degrees are in English and education.
But the museum and the Holocaust quickly became the central threads in her life. “I’m in love with this museum. I’m passionate about this place,” she said. “I’m not married, and I don’t have children. This is what I created in my life. I have referred to it before — and people laugh — as my baby. It is without a doubt the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
Associates describe an efficient, well-liked administrator — something they say the museum has lacked since its founding. But even longtime colleagues say her intensity can be difficult.
“People tend to see her as a bureaucrat, which ignores the depth of her emotional commitment to this place,” said one. “That’s good because she really cares about the museum and its mission. It’s bad because her life is unbalanced. This museum is everything to her.”
Council sources say that from the beginning of the job search, Bloomfield, a native of Cleveland, was seen as the one candidate who could combine that level of commitment with the skills it takes to manage a growing federal institution with a multimillion dollar budget and more than 400 employees.
The choice grew even clearer when top Holocaust scholars declined to apply for the job — scared off, some council sources say, by last summer’s eruption over John Roth. Roth, a noted academic who was chosen as head of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies was forced to withdraw amid charges he had written articles critical of Israel. The articles contained Holocaust comparisons Roth later said he regretted.
Critics, however, including Rabbi Avi Weiss of Amcha: the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, complained that Bloomfield represents a trend that is compromising the essential character of the museum. A creeping “universalism,” say critics — a tendency to compare the Holocaust to other genocides and to give disproportionate emphasis to the other groups that suffered under the yoke of Nazi tyranny — is blunting the museum’s Jewish character and content.
Bloomfield rejects those charges. “The specificity of our focus on the Jewish tragedy and its uniqueness is overwhelming,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean the lessons of that tragedy don’t have universal implications. If understanding what happened to the Jews has implications only for the Jews, it’s not clear to me why we built a museum.”
Under her leadership, the museum will be even more willing to speak out against contemporary manifestations of genocide, “but always through the lens of the Holocaust. It is our clear focus that we are a Holocaust museum, and not a genocide museum or a human rights museum. That’s what gives us the appropriate moral seriousness to speak out about today’s events.”
One of Bloomfield’s immediate priorities is expanding the new Center for Advanced Holocaust Study. The center is still without a director, and outside observers say the appointment of a non-scholar as museum director puts added pressure on the council to find a top-rank scholar to head its academic arm.
Bloomfield hopes to expand the museum’s visiting fellows program, which brings scholars from around the world to the museum to conduct research and to network with each other.
Although Bloomfield speaks in the crisp language of the professional bureaucrat, just beneath the surface — not very far beneath — is a smoldering passion for the museum and its complex mission. Asked if she worries about a life on the emotional edge, she paused, then answered.
“Yeah, but what can I tell you? My colleagues say I’m intense, that I’m a perfectionist. My weakness is that I take things about this museum personally. It’s very, very important to me that we keep these moral questions alive in people’s minds and maintain this dignity that the s