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Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 1999 /22 Elul, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Two Degrees of Outrage: From burgers to the Holocaust museum: stories worth getting angry about -- AS THE HEBREW MONTH of Elul draws to a close, Jews around the world are attempting to take stock of their lives and the world around them in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. But despite the imminence of the Days of Awe, I am still having a hard time getting into a reflective mood. Why? With the year 5759 in its waning days, there are still things going on that are worth getting angry about.

So, before we begin our cheshbon nefesh, exploring our souls and accounting for our own deeds, here are a couple of issues that warrant attention and outrage.

Does it really matter who is selling burgers in a food court in Ma'aleh Adumim? Maybe not to us, but to Arab groups who want this Jewish suburb of Jerusalem to disappear, it is no small issue.

At stake in this story is the presence of a Burger King booth in a food court in that growing town a mere 5 miles outside of Jerusalem that was recently installed by the Israeli franchise-holder of the Burger King chain. The problem is that Ma'aleh Adumim is on the wrong side of the so-called "green line," which divided pre-June 1967 Israel from those areas that were then occupied by Jordan and that are now claimed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

While the world generally refers to Ma'aleh Adumim as a "settlement" in the "occupied territories," it is, in fact, nothing more than a close suburb of Israel's capital. As such, it is the largest "settlement," with a population of tens of thousands of people. As a matter of sensible urban planning, the Jerusalem Municipality is being expanded to include Ma'aleh Adumim (the plans were launched by the government of the late Yitzhak Rabin, not Benjamin Netanyahu).

But the P.A. and American groups who are also in favor of Arab claims on Jerusalem are clearly opposed to the presence of Jews in Ma'aleh Adumim, let alone a fast-food outlet to serve them greasy (albeit kosher) hamburgers. Thus, a coalition of Arab-American groups and others hostile to Israel (such as the Quakers' American Friends Service Committee) got together to try and pressure Burger King to remove its presence from the "illegal" town.

Predictably, the Burger chain freaked out when they learned that the new store in Ma'aleh Adumim was not in "Israel proper" and asked they the Israeli franchise holder to take their signs down.

There is some dispute over whether Burger King actually knew in advance about the location of the store, but that -- and Burger King's policies themselves -- are not the issue.

Much like the furor last year over the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream chain's use of water from the Golan Heights (the left-wing Vermont ice cream makers cancelled a contract with a Golan water company after pressure from Arab groups), what is at stake here is the international community's (and that includes the sector of the business community that does business in Israel, like Burger King) acceptance of the June 4, 1967 cease-fire lines as the borders of Israel and their implicit approval of the idea that all of the "West Bank" is actually the State of Palestine, where Jewish communities will not be allowed to exist.

Thus, while the Burger King retreat from the Jerusalem suburbs may not be a reprise of the Arab boycott of Israel (the chain operates 46 stores in Israel), it is a significant victory for those who wish to remove Jews from all of Judea and Samaria and to chip away at Israel's claims to Jerusalem.

The point here is that the argument isn't about burgers, ice cream or even the principle of boycotts.

It's about land.

Burger King may not have intended to make any political statements, and they may have been unaware of where their Israeli partner was putting their store. But by declaring Ma'aleh Adumim off limits, they are making a statement about territory that is surely unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Israelis.

Interestingly, the same groups that successfully lobbied Burger King to pull out of Ma'aleh Adumim are now pressuring the Walt Disney Co. to change part of its upcoming Millennium exhibit at their Epcot Center theme park in Florida.

What's their beef with Disney? The Israeli exhibit at Epcot will be titled: "Jerusalem: Capital of Israel," an intolerable insult, they say, to the honor and dignity of the Arab people.

Leiters Sukkah

The bottom line is that foes of Israel in America are feeling confident and winning battles. Whether or not the pro-Israel community is up to the test that this development poses is far from clear.

When a group chartered by Congress published its assessment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last month, it was predictably tough in its appraisal of the way the institution is governed.

The report, by a distinguished panel of the National Academy of Public Administration, criticized the "excessive involvement" of the museum's chair, Holocaust survivor Miles Lerman, in the running of the place. It also noted that the board of the museum was not representative of America's politicians and included no African-Americans or Latinos.

While most American Jews don't care one way or the other about the former complaint, they probably would be shocked to hear of the latter. Why should there be affirmative action for membership on the board of the Holocaust museum, they might ask?

The fact is, they should care about both concerns, because they are directly related.

The museum is open to affirmative-action claims specifically because it is a federal institution, not a Jewish one. The people who raised the enormous sums to build it and plant it on the Mall in Washington wanted the patronage of the federal government and liked the idea of the United States of America taking the Holocaust to its heart in this symbolic manner.

That has happened as the museum has become a startling success and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the capital. But the price is a high one. The board of the museum is composed of a mixture of Jewish notables, like Elie Wiesel, and authors like Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, but also includes many wealthy contributors to the campaigns of the presidents who appointed them. No surprise there.

But, as we learned last year when two board members (who also happen to be Jewish officials in the State Department with their own political and diplomatic agendas) attempted to involve the museum in a dispute with the government of Israel, federal ownership of the museum is a huge problem.

When those board members (Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller) got the museum to invite Yasser Arafat for a private tour ("peace partner" or not, the idea of a man who has himself murdered many Jews getting the red-carpet treatment in those sacred precincts is obscene), then-museum director Walter Reich tried to stop them.

But Lerman not only allowed the scandalous invitation to go forward, he wrongly blamed Reich for the mess, and subsequently got him fired.

Reich is right to feel that the report vindicates him. But for Jews who are still puzzled by the whole sordid mess, the episode bears more thought.

As a creature of the federal government and political appointees (no matter how well-meaning they might be), the museum is inevitably headed for more trouble. Though it is probably the most splendid history museum I have ever visited and on target in its treatment of every aspect of its subject, the Holocaust museum is surely doomed to an inevitable slide into universalism that will minimize the specific Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust.

That was not the intention of its founders, or even of its current leaders. But having long ago sold its soul to the federal government, and thus, made subject to the vagaries of affirmative action and political intrigues such as the Arafat invitation, the museum is headed down a path few Jews can wish to travel.

And if that isn't worth getting angry about, I don't know what is.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin