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Jewish World Review / March 1, 1998 / 3 Adar, 5758

Neal M.Sher

Neal Sher Shameful Scapegoating At The Holocaust Museum

THE U.S. HOLOCAUST Memorial Museum, and everyone who cares deeply about its sacred mission, suffered a severe blow last week when Dr. Walter Reich announced that he would not seek reappointment as Director when his term expires in June. Reich's departure came on the heels of last month's public embarrassment when Museum Chairman Miles Lerman dizzyingly flip-flopped on whether Yasser Arafat would be extended an invitation. It is a sad commentary - and one which does not bode well for the Museum - that Reich, who behaved honorably and on principle throughout this debacle, has been made a scapegoat for failings of others. If nothing else, this episode underscores the need for a changing of the guard at Raoul Wallenberg Plaza.

When the story first broke I wrote that the planned visit, precipitated as it was by the State Department's Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller in order to further their own agenda (to try to make Arafat look as credible and reasonable as possible at a time when Netanyahu was under increasing U.S. pressure) was ill-conceived and threatened to drag the Museum unnecessarily into a political quagmire.

Whether or not Arafat stood to benefit from a VIP visit is not the central issue. On that score, I fully recognize that reasonable people can and do hold differing views. Some, including Museum Council member Deborah Lipstadt - who has made a name for herself as an expert on Holocaust denial - argue that it is especially important that someone like Arafat take the tour in furtherance of the quest for peace. The exhibitions, we were told, might sensitize him to the Jews tragic history.

Others, myself included, find that argument less than persuasive when applied to a man who has condoned blatant Holocaust denial and obscene comparisons of Nazi Germany to the State of Israel by his colleagues, especially when made within the context of a delicate political atmosphere. I say this as someone who, as the head of AIPAC, worked hard to further the peace process, even lobbying Congress to grant foreign aid to Mr. Arafat.

As intriguing and glamorous as it might be, it is unwise to immerse the Museum into the intricacies and volatility of the Middle East peace process. And it was certainly wrong for Ross and Miller to do so without consulting the Israelis, who were taken by surprise.

Moreover, to suggest that Arafat is somehow ignorant of the Holocaust and in need of education is an insult both to him and to our intelligence. Hardly a babe in the political woods, he travels constantly and is treated like a head of state throughout the heart of Europe, the very sites of the Shoa. For God's sake, the man has a Nobel Peace medal hanging in his closet. Arafat knows full well about the destruction of European Jewry and it is naive to think that a visit to 14th Street would be an epiphany. If he was genuinely sincere about acknowledging the Jewish tragedy, he had the perfect opportunity to do so with a tour of the Museum in September 1993 after the famous handshake on the White House lawn. And he certainly could have asked to visit Yad Vashem during the years the peace process was on track.

The plain fact is that Arafat, and those who sought to bolster him, saw a possible photo opportunity and seized to capitalize on it, at the expense of the museum and, ultimately, Walter Reich. Ironically, after all of the hullabaloo, Arafat never made it to the Museum, despite

Lerman's eventual proclamation that he stood ready to greet him "with joy in his heart". His staff blamed a heavy schedule. The real reason was that the press corps was so preoccupied with Ms. Lewinsky, that the Museum visit had lost its p.r. value.

While the appropriateness of an Arafat visit may be open for legitimate debate, it is beyond doubt that Walter Reich was shamefully treated by the Museum's top lay leadership. The real scandal is how he was thrown to the wolves.

Walter Reich is a brilliant scholar who believes that the Museum is a unique and sacred institution which should resist being exploited for political purposes, regardless of how tempting or glamorous those opportunities may be. He had that principle in mind early last month when he was first asked by Lerman, rather casually and almost hypothetically, what he thought of a possible Arafat visit. At that time, however, Lerman neglected to mention to Reich one crucial fact: that he had already discussed the matter with Aaron Miller, encouraging him to extend the invitation.

Kept in the dark as to how far things had advanced, Reich offered his candid judgment: it would be a mistake. One does not have to agree with that position to respect it. The key point however, is that he rendered his opinion on the basis of what he was told and, more importantly, what he was not told. Lerman must have agreed with Reich and decided that Arafat would not be invited. Reich had every reason to believe that the issue had been resolved. Little did he know.

When the Washington Post reported that Lerman had declined to extend an invitation, all hell broke loose. Apparently, the Arafat camp had already been approached with the idea. Ross, Miller and their colleagues at State were furious, since they felt Lerman had given them the green light. And, the noses of some Museum Executive Committee members were bent out of shape, not necessarily because they thought Arafat warranted a VIP tour, but because they first learned about it from the media.

Sensing which way the wind was blowing in the Administration, and eager not to jeopardize his chances for reappointment as Chairman, Lerman did an about face, admitting to having made a mistake in declining an invitation. He said he shouldered full responsibility as the Chairman: the buck, we were told, stops with him. Fair enough. One might not have agreed with his reversal, but everyone respects a stand-up guy. Things then got ugly.

In the same breath that he accepted responsibility, Lerman proceeded to lay the blame on Reich, claiming that he had provided "bad advice." As anyone following could see, Lerman needed a fall guy. It's bad enough to throw a colleague to the wind; but to make him the culprit when his advice was premised on deliberately incomplete information was inexcusable. It was painful to watch that performance.

There is no doubt that had Lerman been forthright and Reich of the depth of his dealings with State, Reich - no man's fool - would have approached the matter differently and the fiasco would have been avoided.

To his credit, but not necessarily to his benefit, while he was being unfairly dragged through the mud, Reich kept his silence, hoping to avoid any further damage to the institution he was trying to protect. Sadly, he was alone. Even those who on the Council who professed to support him did not muster the courage or decency to cry foul. They let him twist slowly in the wind.

It is also important to know that Walter Reich ran the Museum with dedication to the core truth that while others suffered at the hands of the Nazis, the Shoa was unique to the Jewish people in its design, scope and tragedy. This is significant because there are those on the Council, including Vice-Chair Ruth Mandel (who also leveled gratuitous criticisms of Reich in the press) who resist and resent Reich's views in that regard. They call themselves "universalists." Dangers to Jewish memory and historical truth is a more apt description.

No doubt, the Museum's lay leadership is hoping that with Reich's resignation the Arafat matter has been laid to rest. Don't bet on it.

One has to wonder what kind of a serious and qualified candidate for the Directorship would want to jump into the hornets nest which exists under present conditions and leadership. No one in his or her right mind would want to be subjected to the type of abuse Walter Reich had to endure.

Moreover, the ink on Reich's letter of resignation wasn't even dry before mean-spirited Museum officials -- in violation of the reported terms of a severance agreement -- began to disparage Dr. Reich in the media, thus confirming the long held reputation that there are elements in the institution which are out of control.

There was no legitimate justification for the manner in which Reich was made the scapegoat. The mission of the Museum is too important to tolerate such behavior. It is time for a housecleaning at the highest levels. The Museum needs and deserves a Chairman of international stature and prestige whose only objective is to educate and preserve memory. We need and deserve someone like Elie Wiesel.


New JWR contributor, Neal M. Sher, is a partner in the Washington law firm Schmeltzer, Aptaker and Shepard and is the President of the American section of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. He is the former Director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department and the former Executive Director of American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

©1998, Neal M. Sher