Jewish World Review / June 22, 1998 / 28 Sivan, 5758

Neal M.Sher

Neal Sher Sweep the Holocaust Museum clean

THERE IS NO WAY TO SUGARCOAT IT: For the sake of the Holocaust Museum and all that it stands for, the White House must not reappoint Chairman Miles Lerman or Vice-Chair Ruth Mandel. This is the conclusion more and more people have reached after witnessing the Museum's leaders drag the institution through one public embarrassment after another.

For the survivor and Jewish communities, the Museum's mission is nothing less than sacred. Success cannot be gauged simply in terms of statistics, headlines or photo opportunities. Those who seek positions of leadership should understand that they carry a much greater burden than do most other public servants: theirs is a solemn obligation to ensure that the sanctity of the memory of the Holocaust is not dishonored or abused. The overwhelming moral authority which can be invoked in the name of the six million must not be lightly invoked or used to advance any private or political agenda. Nor can they be cavalier in how they wield the power entrusted to them.

That those in charge have breached that trust was underscored when, for the second time in a few short months, they embroiled the institution in a damaging public display of ineptitude and mismanagement. One can only hope that the Clinton Administration - which has previously announced an intention to reappoint Lerman and Mandel - will finally realize what many of the Museum's worried supporters and insiders have been saying for some time: that the two must be replaced before they cause further harm.

First there was the pitiful "Arafat Affair," which was the result of Lerman having encouraged the State Department to invite Arafat without first consulting the Council or Director Dr. Walter Reich. Lerman and Mandel then engaged in the odious and unfair scapegoating of Reich who was the only one who acted with decency and on principle in an effort to preserve the integrity of the Museum's mission. He paid for it with his job.

Now comes the "Roth Affair" which, more than anything else, demonstrates that Lerman, Mandel and Company just can't get it right.

John Roth is a well known and generally well respected scholar who teaches at Claremont-McKenna College in California. In April he was offered the important position of director of the Museum's Center For Advanced Holocaust Studies, after he was interviewed by a search committee and presumably subjected to a vetting procedure designed to determine whether, among other things, there is reason to question the appropriateness of his appointment. At a minimum, one would expect that those in charge would review all of his published work to see if anything controversial pops up. That's the whole purpose of such a check. Moreover, in the day and age of Lexis/Nexis and the Internet, such a routine inquiry should be a piece of cake. That the Museum failed to do so in the case of Mr. Roth is both inexplicable and inexcusable. As a result, the Museum has suffered yet another self-inflicted black eye.

Had the basic homework been done, it would have been discovered that in 1988 Mr. Roth wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times in which he used the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht to lecture the government of Israel on how to treat the Palestinians. Exposed by Mort Klein of the ZOA, the Museum found itself on the defensive once again as it scrambled to justify the appointment, while Roth and his supporters tried to explain away the article, suggesting that perhaps it was too "subtle," that it had been "misinterpreted" or that the author - who had taught in Israel - was "misunderstood."

I've read the L.A. Times column and I couldn't agree more with Abe Foxman's assessment, as reported in the Forward: it's as subtle as a sledgehammer. No one reading that piece can come away with any conclusion other than that Roth, in an effort to make a political point, compares Israel to Nazi Germany. That's the bottom line. Sam Bloch, a vice-president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and a prominent supporter of Israeli causes, spoke for most of his compatriots when he called Roth's appointment a "terrible thing": "It's not acceptable to have such a man. It's impermissible." Sam Bloch has it right.

The Museum's reaction to the controversy also has been telling. Ruth Mandel immediately screamed that the Museum was being subjected to a "smear campaign", somehow suggesting that Mort Klein was simply retaliating for the Arafat fiasco. One does not necessarily have to be a fan of Klein's tactics (I've publicly criticized him in the past) to know that he is not the issue. Roth's words are, and his words speak for themselves.

Deborah Lipstadt, a Museum council member who also served on the search committee, properly described Roth's article as "odious", but nevertheless defended his selection. It was, she said, a "wonderful appointment." This coming from a Professor who has built her name and reputation fighting Holocaust denial and revisionism. Come on.

Then, in a repeat performance of a few months ago, Mandel and Lipstadt had the audacity to try to pin the blame for the current controversy on Walter Reich, arguing that he was in on and supported Roth's candidacy. That's nonsense and they know it. These women have no shame. Reich did not interview Roth for the job and he was out of the Museum when the job was offered so could not have been involved in Roth's vetting.

To make matters worse, the Forward has reported that two Congressman have protested Roth's appointment on the basis of other writings which they claim, among other things, compares Ronald Reagan's election to that of Hitler.

Some of Roth's friends and colleagues, including leaders in the Jewish community, have come to his defense, pointing out that he is a decent man of integrity who does not deserve to be dragged through the mud. In a way, they are right. But the fault lies not with Mort Klein or Sam Bloch or anyone else who is troubled by what Roth has said in the past.

Roth has been put in this position because the Lerman and Mandel crowd operate more like the gang that couldn't shoot straight than those charged with running a hallowed institution. They should have known about the L.A. Times article long before he was offered the job. I have no doubt that had that piece come to light during the interview process he would not have been offered the position. The more Museum leaders try to justify their selection with disingenuous and hypocritical double-talk, the more foolish they look.

I don't know Mr. Roth, and I certainly don't condone what he said 10 years ago. Nor am I satisfied with his would be apology. But I do feel for him. He would be wise to stay in California and avoid having to deal with those who currently run the Museum. He should look around and learn from the past. It will be just a matter of time before they turn on him when it suits their interests.

In recent weeks I have spoken with many survivors and others who care deeply about the Museum. There is anger and disgust at how it is being managed. It is as if Lerman and Mandel think that they are operating a Mom and Pop candy store, which they can run as they see fit.

I also know that some staff members are very concerned about the recent spate of controversies and negative press; morale can't be too good. (By the way, during Walter Reich's tenure, there were no such scandals).

Miles Lerman has devoted enormous amounts of time and effort into helping build the Museum. No one can take that away from him. But the Museum needs better - much better - leadership than he and Mandel have provided. It's time for a change before the next inevitable debacle erupts.

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.


5/20/98: The Case of Dinko Sakic: A Whitewash In The Making?
4/5/98: Judge Gilbert Merritt's Obsession With Jews (Demjanjuk, part II)
3/22/98: The Continuing Saga of Ivan Demjanjuk
3/1/98: Shameful Scapegoating At The Holocaust Museum

©1998, Neal M. Sher