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Rites Launch Israel Tolerance Museum

On its 10th anniversary, the Simon Wiesenthal Center project has accomplishments and critics.


by Tom Tugend

May 6, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley with Simon Wiesenthal at the opening of the center in 1977. Photo courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley with Simon Wiesenthal at the opening of the center in 1977. Photo courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

Amid a gaggle of Israeli security guards, bustling volunteers and California Highway Patrol officers wired up to communicate with who knows whom, Rabbi Abraham Cooper runs around the first two of about 50 rows of plastic seats temporarily set up in Jerusalem's Cats Square.

"Bring me chairs over here," says Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as he tries to move some seats to make room for one more.

"[Israeli Defense Minister] Shaul Mofaz is not going to be a happy man," he says aloud to no one in particular. "See this guy over here?" he tells his helpers, pointing to a flimsy seat that doesn't look big enough to hold the name on the sign: "Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger," "this guy doesn't move."

It's Sunday, May 2, two hours until the official groundbreaking ceremony for the new $200 million Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance, and this game of musical chairs Cooper is finessing is the final touch to prepare for all the dignitaries, politicians, donors and supporters who all, it seems, will get to say a few words before about 1,200 people at a ceremony that will last about 2 hours.

So of course, Cooper wants to arrange the seats just right -- does architect Frank Gehry sit to the left or right of the governor, and where do donors Merv Adelson and Gary Winnick sit? -- because while the event signifies the culmination of seven years of planning that have been put into this ambitious project, it is also just the beginning.

T hese are heady days for the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). Two months before the Jerusalem groundbreaking, the New York Tolerance Center, another SWC offshoot, opened its doors in Manhattan.

The Jerusalem and New York projects are outgrowths of the original Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Other cities are asking SWC founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier for his help and know-how in creating their own tolerance museums, but they will have to wait in line.

Quite a success story for the Wiesenthal Center, which opened in 1977 -- on the wrong coast -- as a one-man institution, operating with one phone and a very long extension chord. Since then, the SWC has evolved from a center for Holocaust remembrance to what its literature describes as an international human rights organization, which claims more than 400,000 family memberships.

From its Los Angeles headquarters, SWC maintains offices in eight U.S. and foreign cities. Its purview now includes Middle East affairs, fighting anti-Semitism anywhere it is a problem, tolerance education, producing documentaries and tracking hate sites on the Internet.

The SWC's fundraising prowess, boldness, modus operandi and media savviness, which has made it arguably the most visible and vocal Jewish organization here, have understandably drawn criticisms and apprehension.

In an implicit tribute to the SWC's clout and feistiness, critics generally prefer to remain unnamed or are highly circumspect in their language. Criticisms fall into a number of categories: Hier's dual role as dean of both the SWC and of separate yeshivas for boys and girls; SWC's adroit lobbying and ability to obtain funds from state government; high salaries for top executives; turning Holocaust remembrance into a high-tech, multimedia attraction; reportedly exaggerating the dangers of anti-Semitism, and its appetite for moving into territory claimed by established defense and communal organizations.

The outspoken Hier is willing to rebut his detractors point by point, but, overall, he tends to attribute their objections to "envy and jealousy." During a lengthy interview in his office, tied to the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, Hier, hyperenergetic at 65, commented on his motivating philosophy and the museum's wide-ranging impact.

From the beginning, Hier said, the SWC based itself on two guidelines: "We were not going to be an abstract research institute but an activist organization, and we wouldn't run the museum as a particularistic Jewish exercise."

True to this activist credo, in one of SWC's first public actions, Hier and his longtime associate, Cooper, traveled to Germany and persuaded Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and parliament to lift the statute of limitations on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. The story and photo made a splash in The New York Times, setting the pattern for constant and overwhelmingly favorable media exposure from then on.

In going beyond the Jewish experience, the SWC and its museum have expanded from the initial modest Holocaust exhibit to include past and present genocides around the world and have vastly expanded their outreach to the broader community. Liebe Geft, Museum of Tolerance director, said that about 4 million people, mostly non-Jews, have visited the museum in the past 10 years, while 110,000 public school students annually tour the exhibits as part of their studies.

The museum's Tools for Tolerance program has sensitized thousands of law enforcement officers, educators, judges and other professionals in the United States and abroad, Geft said. Many more have been reached through Internet programs, documentaries, teaching guides, conferences and collaboration with ethnic community organizations.

One of the SWC's major strengths is its instant reaction to world events -- anytime and anywhere -- touching on Jewish concerns. Though responsive to their board of trustees for long-range policy and spending projects, on the ground, Hier and Cooper largely dispense with committee meetings and bureaucratic processes that hobble more traditional organizations.

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, attributed part of SWC's speed in responding to the media and in implementing decisions to avoiding "communal processes, as compared to consensus-driven organizations."

Hier makes no apologies for his executive style, citing Dr. Samuel Belkin, a former president of Yeshiva University, as deploring too much democracy in an organization. "You can't take a committee vote on every item," Hier said. "That paralyzes the system."

One of his more daring acts has been the decision to go ahead with the new museum in Jerusalem, despite huge costs, unsettled conditions in Israel and opposition by some Israeli voices.

Planned to be three times as large as the mother museum in Los Angeles and designed by architectural superstar Gehry, the Jerusalem center is expected to open in 2007. More than 40 percent of its $200 million objective has been raised from eight donors.

Its mission statement calls for "the promotion of civility and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths and creeds." The museum will include interactive exhibits tracing the history of the Jewish people and the key events that shaped their development.

"This is a project that will focus on today," Hier tells the crowd sitting in the open tent, whose black net tarp is shielding them from the stinging Jerusalem sun. "This a project that will expose the people of the world to the pillars of our faith: tolerance, unity and solidarity," he says, using Hebrew words like derech eretz.

Standing on the expansive black makeshift stage, Hier is dwarfed by the colossal photo tapestry dramatically unfurled moments before, which shows the chimerical structure: The seven-building, 232,500-square-foot project integrates salmony-beige Jerusalem stone, titanium and glass, and with its shimmery blue-and-white effect, open half-moon atrium and Louvre-like triangular glass wall, leaves an awesome impression of endless fluidity, like an ocean.

"The idea of building a building for people who have a lot bad feelings for each other was daunting," Gehry says. "It shouldn't be one building. I thought it should be a complex ... and I wanted from the beginning to have this accessible from all directions."

Breaking it down into small parts symbolizes pluralism, Gehry says, and "it stands for issues that he wanted," referring to Hier, who brainstormed with the architect on the building. Gehry, overcome with emotion, tells the crowd, "I was taught by my parents and grandparents about the people of Israel, and I thought when I was an architect, I would be able to build something for Israel ... it is a dream come true."

For Gehry, Hier and the others at the ceremony, this is indeed a dream come true. And while it has been supported by two former Jerusalem's mayors, Teddy Kolleck and Ehud Olmert, and the current one, Uri Lupolianski, their enthusiasm has not been shared by all.

Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial authority, let it be known early on that the Jerusalem did not need another Holocaust museum. After lengthy discussions between Yad Vashem and the Wiesenthal Center, both sides agreed that the new museum will not deal with the Holocaust.

Asked for comment, Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem directorate chairman, congratulated the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance on its 10th anniversary, adding diplomatically, "We acknowledge the importance of all organizations that promote Holocaust awareness -- even when there are occasional differences of opinion between them on professional issues."

A persistent critic has been Esther Zandberg, architectural critic for the influential Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, who wrote on the day of the groundbreaking: "Jerusalem will get a spectacularly expensive showcase project whose content is not clear, even after the explanations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California, which initiated and financed the project through fundraising, and whose name could not be more ironic in Jerusalem, a city where tolerance is zero."

"The outrageous cost of the structure -- NIS 1 billion -- is a mockery of the city's large number of poor," she continued. "With that amount of money, it would be possible to make Cats Square [the museum's site] shine for all time, and there would still be enough left over for other worthy causes."

Zandberg's continual attacks demanding justification for the project raised the as-yet unanswerable question of whether Jerusalem actually needs a museum to teach tolerance (no one denies that it needs tolerance itself) but it also reflects a prevalent Israeli attitude of resentment toward American interlopers.

Cooper said they will "create an organic relationship" with existing Israeli tolerance-promoting organizations to develop programs specifically for the Israeli culture, and that the center's creation in Jerusalem will not only infuse much needed cash and jobs into the capital, but will jump-start tourism, attracting the type of tourist who would travel to Jerusalem to see a Gehry marvel.

Hier is unfazed. "Are we prepared for skeptics? Absolutely. We're prepared for an army of skeptics casting doubt on us," he told an Israeli reporter. "But I'll tell you when that army will quiet down and go home. On the day the museum opens, and the first group of Israeli students walks in."

On the home front, one line of criticism has dogged the SWC from its beginning. When New York-born Hier, then the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in Vancouver, Canada, decided to come to Los Angeles, it was to establish a yeshiva. Only after founding the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) did Hier move on to the second institution, then named the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.

Hier is the head and Rabbi Meyer May is the executive director for both institutions, and they receive separate salaries from the corporate entities for YULA and SWC. The overlapping leadership and close ties between a religious and secular-oriented institution have frequently raised questions about state support for the SWC, now totaling more than $50 million.

A number of critics have viewed the flow of government funds as a breach in the separation of church and state. Hier has consistently rejected such objections, arguing that state appropriations are earmarked for the extensive program of tolerance and diversity training for professionals.

A current criticism centers on charges by a YULA staff member that while huge sums are going to the tolerance museums in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, YULA is subsisting on a barebones diet. "We are treated as the poor stepchild," said Joel Fisher, YULA's athletic director and a former math teacher at the boy's school.

In a long list of alleged shortcomings, Fisher cited inadequate facilities, such as lack of a library, computer lab, cafeteria or gym; penny-pinching on such basic supplies as toilet paper and stationery; opposition to unionization of teachers; poor security, and excessive salaries and perks for the top leaders, who he said paid little attention to the yeshiva's needs.

Fisher said that salaries for both rabbinical and secular teachers are good, but that pension and health benefits lag. Other YULA faculty members contacted declined comment or did not return phone calls.

May acknowledged that YULA suffered from a cash-flow problem and has had "to make some painful decisions." These have included consolidation of classes, elimination of two rabbinical faculty positions and some attrition of the secular teaching staff.

But May and Hier rejected all other complaints regarding inadequate facilities and benefits. "We've just put in $12 million for construction at the boys school and $6.5 million at the girls school," Hier said. May noted that "in 26 years, we have never missed a payroll for our faculty members," suggesting that a reporter check out whether other Jewish schools could make the same claim. He also asserted that during the past few years, he had brought down the school deficit from $500,000 to $150,000.

Hier, who has raised "hundreds of millions, maybe close to a billion dollars" for SWC and other Jewish causes, makes no apologies for drawing a very sizable salary. He rejects "the mentality of Europe, when the villages brought a nourishing meal to the rabbi on Shabbos, because he didn't have any food in his pantry."

A cover story on Hier in the Los Angeles Times Magazine some years ago was headlined "The Unorthodox Rabbi," and the ecumenical style of the Orthodox rabbi has not endeared him to the Orthodox community.

Nor was The Jewish Federation among his early fans. However, time seems to have healed some old wounds, at least for the record. Fishel of The Jewish Federation said that "the Wiesenthal Center is an extraordinary resource in reaching many people, even if we do not agree on everything.... The center has not impacted on Federation activities, and I believe it respects the role of The Federation as spokesman for the organized Jewish community."

Betty Ehrenberg, director of international and communal affairs for the national Orthodox Union, lauded SWC's activities as "extremely helpful to the entire American Jewish community," singling out the new New York Tolerance Center for special praise. "We have worked closely with Rabbi Cooper on many advocacy issues."

One veteran community observer, who requested anonymity, was not quite as enthusiastic. He questioned SWC's constant "hyperbolic ... the sky-is-falling" warnings about anti-Semitic threats and its expertise as a "human relations" agency.

However, he had admiring words for Cooper and praised Hier's courage in rallying local Orthodox leaders to join in the community's grief, following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an early rebel against the local Jewish establishment as a fire-breathing Soviet Jewry activist, observed that "as long as we understand that there is a role for both The Federation and the Wiesenthal Center, we can minimize the rivalries that naturally exist."

Yaroslavsky jokingly observed that the fiercest politics of all took place in three communities -- religious, academic and Jewish. Taking the long view, he added, "The Wiesenthal Center's establishment definitely filled a vacuum in the community. When people look back 50 years from now, they'll say, 'That was a good thing.'"

Amy Klein contributed to this story from Israel.

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