Washington -- The chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, was fighting for his reputation and his public life this week after a group of members of the museum's governing council demanded that he step down over his role in the Marc Rich pardon affair.
The resignation demand was presented in a letter, signed by 17 current and former council members, that was hand-delivered to Rabbi Greenberg at a Detroit airport three days before Passover. The move prompted a counter-attack by his supporters, who gathered signatures from 35 members of the 65-member council on a letter urging Rabbi Greenberg to stay on.
In gathering signatures, both sides said they had deliberately refrained from approaching the council's 10 sitting members of Congress, suggesting that the council's 55 non-congressional members are divided roughly two-to-one in Rabbi Greenberg's favor.
While on the surface the affair appears to represent just the latest twist in the continuing fallout of the Rich pardon scandal, Rabbi Greenberg's supporters insist that his opponents had ulterior motives. Among them, his supporters said, were Beltway partisanship, conflicts over Rabbi Greenberg's leadership style and longstanding disputes over the museum's identity and message.
In particular, they pointed to a debate within the museum's staff and lay leadership over the museum's obligation to address Jewish sensibilities, which Rabbi Greenberg has championed. His stance reportedly has aroused resentment among some senior museum staffers who see the museum first and foremost as an American institution, with less responsibility to address Jewish themes.
A similar debate led to the dismissal in 1993 of a previous chairman, Harvey Meyerhoff, a Republican appointee, by President Clinton, after Mr. Meyerhoff refused to invite Israel's then-president Chaim Herzog to address the museum's opening ceremonies, claiming it would detract from the museum's identity as an American institution. Mr. Meyerhoff is said to be one of the main organizers of the move to unseat Rabbi Greenberg, who was appointed by Mr. Clinton a year ago.
"The museum and its critics may be a mirror for some of the divisions in the contemporary Jewish experience," said one prominent Greenberg backer, former museum research director Michael Berenbaum.
Rabbi Greenberg's opponents said in their letter that he had "entangled the Museum in a political controversy inimical to its mission" when he wrote to President Clinton last year on museum stationery to urge a pardon for Mr. Rich, the controversial fugitive tax-cheat.
"Your action has diminished the stature and reputation of the Museum, and this damage cannot be repaired while you continue to serve as its Chairman," the letter said. Signers included Mr. Meyerhoff, Catholic Holocaust scholar Rev. John Pawlikowski, former Massachusetts first lady Kitty Dukakis and Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, who recently won a celebrated British libel case against Holocaust denier David Irving.
The counter-letter from Rabbi Greenberg's supporters blasted his opponents' initiative as "unfair," noting that he had "apologized for his mistake" at a January meeting of the council, and that the apology was "accepted by both the Executive Committee and the full Council" in majority votes. Signers included the founding museum council chairman, Elie Wiesel, as well as the former White House special representative for Holocaust matters, Stuart Eizenstat, and the chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Benjamin Meed.
In interviews, Rabbi Greenberg's supporters reacted angrily to his opponents' letter, noting that it came three days before the Passover holiday and just two weeks before President Bush is scheduled to make his first appearance at the Days of Remembrance, the federal government Holocaust memorial ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda every April 19, timing that some said seemed designed to maximize Rabbi Greenberg's public humiliation.
Several Greenberg supporters pointed angrily to what they said were his opponents' ulterior motives beyond the Rich affair, which they insisted had been settled when the council accepted his apology.
A key factor, several sources maintained, was tension between Rabbi Greenberg and the museum's executive director, Sara Bloomfield. Several signers of the resignation demand are known as allies of Ms. Bloomfield. The tension is said to stem from a combination of friction over Rabbi Greenberg's management style, which numerous sources have characterized as "difficult," and philosophical disagreements over the museum's identity.
"Yitz believes that the Shoah is becoming what the Exodus was, a particular Jewish story that is made into a universal symbol in order to strengthen conscience and human dignity," said one Greenberg ally, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Up till now the survivors have carried that message, but as they pass on, he believes the museum has to institutionalize it, which requires staff that is sensitive to the Jewish experience. Some of the existing staff hears the words and believes he wants to hire only Jewish staff, which they object to. It's a continuing misunderstanding."
Another key factor, several Greenberg supporters insisted, was a desire for revenge by Mr. Meyerhoff, after his 1993 dismissal under similarly humiliating circumstances on the eve of the museum's grand opening.
It was Mr. Meyerhoff who hand-delivered the resignation ultimatum to Rabbi Greenberg at the Detroit airport on April 4. Several sources said Mr. Meyerhoff had contacted Rabbi Greenberg's office the day before and asked that he call back on Mr. Meyerhoff's cellular phone. When Rabbi Greenberg returned the call on the morning of April 4, he found Mr. Meyerhoff at a Detroit hotel, where he had come in an apparent attempt to surprise Rabbi Greenberg. The two arranged to meet at the airport where Rabbi Greenberg was scheduled to depart for another engagement. There, Mr. Meyerhoff reportedly asked Rabbi Greenberg to resign on the spot.
Mr. Meyerhoff's dismissal from the chairmanship has remained controversial for years. Sources familiar with the events say the confrontation arose over a request by Holocaust survivors on the museum council that Israeli president Herzog be invited to address the museum's opening ceremonies. Mr. Meyerhoff, appointed to the chairmanship in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, reportedly opposed Herzog's participation as inappropriate for an American institution. Mr. Meyerhoff refused to bend even after direct intervention by President Clinton, prompting Mr. Clinton to remove him from the post. Mr. Meyerhoff is said to have been particularly incensed that the matter was leaked to the press, embarrassing him on the eve of the opening of the museum he had worked for years to build.
Mr. Meyerhoff's supporters have insisted ever since that the dismissal was a nakedly partisan move by Mr. Clinton to remove a Republican from what should have been a nonpartisan post.
In discussing this week's controversy, however, Rabbi Greenberg's opponents stuck to their position that the pardon of Mr. Rich was their only motivation in demanding the resignation. Rabbi Greenberg "has totally embarrassed the museum," said former council vice-chairman William Lowenberg, a Republican businessman from California. "I have known him more than 25 years and I was devastated to see him taking this position in defense of this thief, Rich. Using the museum's stationery for that was unacceptable. I have heard from many donors, they're very angry and I'm angry. It was unforgivable."
But the supporters of Rabbi Greenberg assailed his critics' tactics as "premeditated malice," in the words of one supporter, attorney Menachem Rosensaft, a member of the museum's executive committee and chair of its committee on government.
"The letter's signatories have forfeited the moral high ground by the way they have operated," Mr. Rosensaft said. "The critics could have asked for a special meeting of the council to discuss this but instead they put it out in [public] ....There is no justification for engaging in this kind of stealth terrorist attack in the context of an institution that is supposed to represent an ethical dimension in human interaction."
Mr. Berenbaum, however, was philosophical about the dispute. "The periodical struggles and bloodletting in the museum may be a result of the fact that it's dealing with such a horrific event - the horror of the event and the evil of the event spill back on the people that work with it," he said.
Forward, 13 avril 2001
First Display on aaargh: 10 May 2001
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