A former Nazi hunter is looking to strip the Whitney Museum of its tax exempt status.
Neal Sher, an attorney and former head of the Office of Special Investigations, a Justice Department unit focused on Nazi prosecution, filed a complaint to the IRS on May 8. As the Financial Times reported, Sher, who led the OSI from 1983 to 1994, alleged that the leadership of the museum “knowingly engaged in conduct which was flagrantly at odds with the Whitney’s charitable purpose” by orchestrating a “smear campaign” against former board member Warren B. Kanders. Kanders resigned as vice chairman of the Whitney last July, following months of protests spearheaded by the activist group Decolonize This Place (DTP).
The protests focused on Kanders’ ownership of Safariland Group, which is alleged to have provided non-lethal ammunition to police in Puerto Rico and to Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Sher accused board members and staff of having “actively participated” in advancing the political agenda of the protests and pressuring Kanders to resign.
Sher claims that in the process of those protests, individuals affiliated with the museum, including board members, engaged in politics outside of the purview of the nonprofit museum’s “charitable mission” and so “disqualified the Whitney from enjoying tax-exempt status.” While artists and activists pressed for Kanders’ removal and museum employees penned a letter of concern to Whitney director Adam Weinberg, a concentrated pressure campaign by the board isn’t evident from current reporting.
Sher, now in private practice in New York, told The New York Times that while he filed the motion on his own, he’s had communications with Kanders and donors of the museum. A representative for Kanders told Hyperallergic on May 18 that Kanders had “no knowledge or involvement” with the complaint.
Sher has served in a number of prominent posts in the Jewish world, including as the executive director of AIPAC from 1994 to 1996. Between 1998 and 2002 he was the chief of staff for the Washington office of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims; his tenure there ended after the Baltimore Sun reported he was suspected of financial malfeasance. He later admitted to inflating his travel expenses, which led to his disbarment by consent in the District of Columbia. At the time, Sher told the Forward he wouldn’t fight the disbarment, but claimed that former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, then the commission’s chair, told him “the bar action was an outrage.”
When asked by the Financial Times why he decided to respond to the alleged pressure campaign against Kanders by challenging the Whitney’s tax exemption, Sher responded “I’ve been around long enough to know that in order to get things done you have to know where to appropriately apply pressure.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org