A Murder Highlights Holocaust Museum’s Value

Essay

By Michael Berenbaum

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

From its inception, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has regarded itself — and been regarded by others — as a high-priority target, and for good reason. Though not a Jewish institution but a government institution, it is one of the most visible manifestations of the prominence of American Jewry — its creators — and is the cathedral of American Holocaust memory.

Cathedral of Memory: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
Getty Images
Cathedral of Memory: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

For the past 15 years, the museum has spent significant resources on security and held itself to the highest standards. Its security staff is very professional, well trained and armed. These high standards were evident on June 10 in the swiftness of the security guards’ response when a gunman determined to kill entered the museum’s main hall. Lives were saved. There may have been as many as 2,000 people in the museum that day. We deeply mourn the death of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, a six-year veteran of the museum’s security staff, and salute his colleagues for their immediate and effective response.

The alleged shooter, an 88-year-old white supremacist — let us not give him the dignity of a name — reminds us that danger lurks in many places and that hatred takes many forms. He hated Jews, but not only Jews. Racists seem unable to confine their hatred to only one group, and this often generates solidarity among the subjects of their hatred, for the safety of one group is inextricably linked to the safety of another, and to the effectiveness of law enforcement groups and the rule of law. He proclaimed his hatred on the Web. His heinous act is the loudest proclamation of that hatred.

We should genuinely fear a copycat killer, and other institutions must take appropriate precautions. A lone gunman willing to risk his own death seldom can be stopped. Homegrown terrorists are dangerous, as we saw in a Kansas church on May 31, when an anti-abortion rights activist murdered Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider.

There is, right now in America, an almost perfect storm to create a climate of hatred. Economic uncertainty, loss of jobs, the erosion of economic security for the middle class and the amplification of hatred in our media, especially talk radio and cable television. In this climate Jews, but surely not only Jews — have been recently targeted: a student murdered at Wesleyan University, an alleged plot to bomb two synagogues in Riverdale, N.Y. and now the USHMM.

The attack also reminds us of the sheer power of the events of the Holocaust; the power to plead for dignity and decency, for tolerance and pluralism, and for an effective response to other genocides, and for the condemnation of antisemitism, past and present. And the power to attract those very forces the Museum seeks to combat.

The killer may have been on Holocaust overload. This is not to excuse his action, nor to suggest that the emphasis on the Holocaust is not appropriate, but merely to emphasize our contemporary reality.

Pope Benedict XVI recently visited Yad Vashem and forcibly condemned Holocaust denial and antisemitism. And while most Jews regarded his words somewhat disappointedly — they were overly intellectual, somewhat cold and devoid of autobiographic detail, especially when contrasted with those of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II — such subtlety was likely lost on the killer.

President Obama also may have been on his mind. An African-American man who is clearly brilliant and articulate accepted by the American people as their president may have been too much for a white supremacist to handle. It shatters his perception of the world, the certainty of his own twisted vision. Obama’s appointments of his female opponent as secretary of state and a female justice of Hispanic origin to the Supreme Court may fuel the perception that the America the killer embraced is swiftly disappearing. The times they are a-changin’.

The president’s forceful condemnation of Holocaust denial in Cairo was unambiguous and authoritative. So welcome to many of us, it may have been raw meat for such a man of hate. And the president’s visit to Buchenwald in the presence of the president of Germany and the chancellor of Germany, with Elie Wiesel, the most prominent survivor of Buchenwald, as their guide, was a direct refutation of his worldview. New leaders had arisen in Germany; they do not deny the past, they condemn it. The skeletonlike figure who once slept in the barracks of Buchenwald had become a world spokesman for human dignity and for embracing the diversity of God’s creations. This, too, must shatter the worldview of a man filled with hatred.

The president’s visit was America at its best. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is also America at its best — open; diverse; pluralistic; fighting for human dignity and decency; confronting the hatreds that resulted in the Holocaust, the hatreds that would invite its repetition.

Those who visit the museum in the aftermath of this horrendous attack should view their visit as an act of defiance, denying white supremacists and other haters their victory. The death of Johns should renew our determination to advance the causes of the museum, for which he gave his life.

Both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish Committee have established funds to honor officer Stephen Tyrone Johns and benefit his family. All proceeds will go to this family. The address of tbe Museum is 100 Raoul Walllenberg Place, SW Washington, DC 20024. The American Jewish Committee is at 165 East 56th Street, New York, New York 10022.

Michael Berenbaum was project director during the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.