November 19, 1998
The Wiesenthal Center’s $1 Million Problem
Though it may seem otherwise, we are not picking on the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In general, we admire the center, its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, its staff and their fine work. The center is innovative, responsive and highly effective -- qualities lacking in many major Jewish organizations, here and elsewhere.
The Wiesenthal Center is the focus of our cover story, however, because of its decision to scrap a documentary on Israel that took a year to make and cost as much as $1 million. The filmmakers, one of whom has won an Academy Award, claim that their project was spiked because it presented a more truthful, though less flattering, version of Israel. The center's officers -- who have also garnered two Oscars -- maintain that the commissioned film was just too dull and uninvolving.
It just might be. But we'll never know, and neither will you. The Wiesenthal Center has said it won't release the film. That's their right, though one obvious question for center donors is why the organization dropped so much money into a project it will not release. The center approved the script and gave the filmmakers a green light every step of the way, then pulled the plug. Sure, it happens every day in Hollywood. But at a donor-funded nonprofit institution?
Beyond that issue lies the deeper question of whether American Jewish organizations spoon-feed their constituents only the most easily digestible, over-simplified and uplifting story of Israel, past and present. Many Israelis and American Jews will tell you the answer is yes, as our stories on pages 22 and 23 intimate.
If so, it's time to change the approach. A new generation of potential donors, weaned on Watergate, tuned to "Geraldo,"and "Dateline NBC," is unlikely to buy Israel-as-fairy tale. They are prepared to understand the country at its most miraculous and its most despicable, and still care about it.
The Wiesenthal Center is working on another film. Rabbi Hier says that it will be more engaging than the first, while still not sugar-coating Israel.
We look forward to it. By trying to quietly toss aside the first project, the organization has opened itself to charges that will only be answered when Documentary II finally screens. -- Rob Eshman, Managing Editor