The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been widely hailed as a critical and popular success, drawing rave reviews and attracting 21.6 million visitors since its opening in 1993. More important than any of the first-rate exhibitions, however, was the decision to make the museum a federal institution and build it on the National Mall in Washington. As a result, the museum stands first and foremost as a testament to the Jewish community’s post-World War II success in appealing to America’s collective moral conscience and in amassing political power. It was Stuart Eizenstat, then President Carter’s domestic policy chief and later the Clinton administration’s point man on restitution issues, who first suggested that the White House push for a national Holocaust memorial. He recommended that the presidential commission charged with implementing the idea be headed up by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a leading Holocaust theologian.
In many ways the exhibits inside the 265,000-square-foot museum echo Greenberg’s writings, by stressing the particular suffering of Jews at the hands of the Nazis, while also drawing universal lessons from the Holocaust. The choice of location can be seen as a reflection of the harsher edges of Greenberg’s theology: the belief that the Holocaust created a moral imperative for the Jewish people to once again become players in history, and demonstrated the need for all minority groups to accept responsibility for their own security. Or, put more crudely, had American Jews in the 1940s enjoyed political muscle — the kind of muscle needed, for example, to erect an enormous museum smack in the middle of the nation’s capital — this country might indeed have been the haven for refugees that so many lament it was not.