Wiesenthal Center Facing Opposition on Two Continents

By Rebecca Spence

Published February 25, 2009, issue of March 06, 2009.
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Over more than three decades, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has cultivated a reputation for tracking down Nazi war criminals, speaking out against antisemitism and teaching tolerance. Now, its plans to move forward with two massive building projects, in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, are sparking a barrage of criticism that the center is acting insensitively — just the type of accusation that could tarnish its carefully constructed image.

In Los Angeles, the center is battling neighbors over plans to expand its Museum of Tolerance. Nearly 100 impassioned people on both sides of the issue appeared February 18 at L.A. City Hall for a public hearing, where opponents showed a video of an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor objecting to the proposed expansion.

“Hitler couldn’t kill this woman, but the expansion of the Museum of Tolerance will,” testified Susan Gans, a neighborhood activist.

Meantime, in Israel, the center’s plan to build another Museum of Tolerance, this one on the site of an old Muslim graveyard, is raising hackles with an increasing number of Jewish leaders.

Still, thanks to its vast and powerful network of supporters — built nearly single-handedly by Orthodox rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the center in 1977 — the center just might weather the controversies on two continents.

“Marvin Hier has become one of the most powerful Jews both in the world and locally,” said Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “He is so iconic in the movie industry and in the city that I doubt anybody with power would publicly oppose any project of the Museum of Tolerance.”

Hier, 69, has made remarkable inroads into Hollywood, not only cultivating a cadre of celebrities — including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and DreamWorks Animation SKG CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg — but also venturing into the movie business himself. The center’s film arm, Moriah Films, has taken home two Oscars.

Hier’s success has not only penetrated the upper reaches of L.A. society. By all accounts, he has built a big, inclusive tent across the spectrum of Jewish life. Bubis noted that one of the first things Hier did in 1979 was to initiate a national direct mail campaign, a precursor to the grass-roots Internet strategy employed by the Obama campaign.

Today, the center counts some 400,000 members.

Observers note how skillfully Hier and the center have managed public relations, but not all were convinced that the current swirl of controversy would leave the center’s image unharmed. “They’ve labored assiduously to cultivate the image of being ecumenical, and these two episodes threaten to damage that carefully crafted image,” said David Myers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Hier was unavailable for an interview.

The local battle has been brewing since 2007, when neighbors — most of them Jewish — learned that the museum wanted to add 28,000 square feet and extend its hours six days a week to accommodate social events. The proposal is now winding through L.A.’s zoning-approval process.

While Gans and other activists say that the museum has acted like a “bully,” museum officials say that they have done everything possible to assuage neighbors’ concerns, including making changes to the original building design. “We’ve listened to what they had to say,” said Susan Burden, the museum’s chief financial officer and chief administrative officer, referring to the angry neighbors.

At the same time, tensions continue over the Wiesenthal Center’s proposed new museum in Jerusalem, designed by star architect Frank Gehry and currently situated on the site of the Mamilla Cemetery, an 800-year-old Muslim burial ground in West Jerusalem that has for several decades served as a parking lot. While the center has passed the necessary legal hurdles in Israel, with the Israeli Supreme Court ruling in October 2008 that the project could move forward, critics contend that the center has a moral and ethical responsibility that supersedes the law.

Meeting in Jerusalem on February 25, the Reform rabbinate passed a resolution strongly opposing the Mamilla site. In a recent opinion piece, Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote “there is something perverse and ironic about building a monument to tolerance that will be a permanent source of tension in the region and that undermines the mutual respect and trust that tolerance requires.”

Yoffie’s statement followed a protest letter from Americans for Peace Now, signed by such prominent American Jews as author Michael Chabon and feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

In response, Hier penned an opinion piece in L.A.’s Jewish Journal, defending the museum, noting that the center published ads announcing its intention to build on the burial site in Hebrew, Arabic and English newspapers and got no response.

Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that while it’s still too early to know whether the Jerusalem project’s effectiveness will have been harmed by the controversy, overall, the center’s aggressive style has served it well. “They’ve always marched to their own drummer,” Berenbaum said. “And that is a source of attraction to their funders.”

Indeed, fundraising seems unaffected by the controversies. In 2006, when the Jerusalem protest began, the center took in nearly $17.8 million in donations; the following year, when the L.A. dispute erupted, it raised $21 million. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, the center raised nearly $36 million.

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