- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

How politcs infiltrates Washington museum

Sooner or later, nearly everything in Washington comes down to crass politics. Sometimes sooner and later.

When Jimmy Carter established a presidential commission to decide whether to build a Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall, he was trying to mollify American Jews who were unhappy with his Middle East policies, especially the sale of F-15 fighters to the Saudis. To his credit, President Carter also saw the museum as an important way to compel the study of the systematic destruction of the European Jews “to learn how to prevent such enormities from occurring in the future.” Politics fused with good intentions.Bill Clinton´s eleventh-hour pardon of Marc Rich draws political controversy to the museum again. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, chairman of the Holocaust Museum Council, wrote to President Clinton in December, urging him to offer “the opportunity for a new life to Mr. Marc Rich.” Such a pardon, the rabbi said, would be a “Godlike action.” How clever. What other prospect could so please a politician? But this “Godlike action,” as the Wall Street Journal observes, is a trend toward politicizing the museum. There´s more than one way to break down the wall between church and state.

You don´t have to look far to see that Marc Rich has been generous to both Israeli and Jewish causes, and by some accounts even spied for Israel not exactly persuasive reasons for a pardon from an American president sworn to uphold the law, including an indictment of tax fraud. Rabbi Greenberg is entitled to his personal opinion, but his plea to the president, written on museum letterhead, was over the line. It looked like a plea from the museum. Such a mistake could lead to public skepticism of the mission of the museum.

The U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum gets 60 percent of its budget from the U.S. government. It was, in fact, placed on the mall, close to our most precious national shrines, because it was meant to be a symbol of what couldn´t happen here. It commemorates the 6 million Jews who died for the perversions of Nazi Germany, and honors through memory the hope of never again.

The National Holocaust Museum has avoided many of the current trends of museums to dumb-down history with fraudulent “relevance” and gimmicky interactive technology. It stands out in sharp contrast, for example, to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Holocaust museum in Los Angeles, that has been described as “Half Yeshiva and half Disneyland,” Where famine, massacre and concentration camps are juxtaposed with video presentations of drunken driving and flaming Ku Klux Klan crosses. (So far nothing about the peril of tobacco.)

It´s important to all of us that the political crassness of Rabbi Greenberg not lessen the public regard for the museum. As we say in Washington, “mistakes were made.” Nevertheless, the museum continues to provide a necessary educational forum. Only last week it held a memorial service for Jan Karski, who died last year. Mr. Karski was not a Jew but “a righteous gentile,” a brave Pole who was one of the first messengers to deliver an eyewitness account of the Holocaust to Allied leaders during World War II. He became a witness from inside the Warsaw Ghetto, risking his life many times as he was smuggled in and out of Poland by the underground. He confirmed for London and Washington that Hitler´s design to exterminate the Jews was not rumor but evil fact. His message fell on deaf ears and died in the silent mouths at both the State Department and the White House. President Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter knew. Though disappointed, Jan Karski was unrelenting in his dedication to speak the truth even when nobody listened.

Karski reminds us that the courage of faith is “the courage of individual conscience,” the Rev. Leo J. O´Donovan, president of Georgetown University, told the museum´s memorial service. He quoted Eli Wiesel: “Thanks to , we know that the individual, if he so desires, is capable of having an effect on history.”

We hear the words every day in Washington of those who are trying to have an effect on history. Some succeed. Many museums have begun to politicize exhibitions drawing attention to our wrongs rather than our rights, such as the Smithsonian´s aborted attempt to blame America for the war in the Pacific but the Holocaust museum has so far stayed true to its purpose. It´s a museum dedicated to a terrible time in history, celebrating the living as it honors the dead, the survivors and the American soldiers who rescued them. There are lots of godlike actions portrayed in this museum. A pardon for Marc Rich is not one of them.

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