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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2001/ 15 Shevat, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Profaning the sacred with the political -- SOONER or later, nearly everything in Washington comes down to crass politics. Sometimes sooner and later.

When Jimmy Carter established a presidential commission to decide whether to build a Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall, he was trying to mollify American Jews who were unhappy with his Middle East policies, especially the sale of F-15 fighters to the Saudis. To his credit, President Carter also saw the museum as an important way to compel the study of the systematic destruction of the European Jews "to learn how to prevent such enormities from occurring in the future.'' Politics fused with good intentions.

Bill Clinton's eleventh-hour pardon of Marc Rich draws political controversy to the museum again. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, chairman of the Holocaust Museum Council, wrote to President Clinton in December, urging him to offer "the opportunity for a new life to Mr. Marc Rich.'' Such a pardon, the rabbi said, would be a "godlike action.'' How clever. What other prospect could so please a politician? But this "godlike action,'' as the Wall Street Journal observes, is a trend toward politicizing the museum. There's more than one way to break down the wall between church and state.

You don't have to look far to see that Marc Rich has been generous to both Israeli and Jewish causes, and by some accounts even spied for Israel -- not exactly persuasive reasons for a pardon from an American president sworn to uphold the law, including an indictment of tax fraud. Rabbi Greenberg is entitled to his personal opinion, but his plea to the president, written on museum letterhead, was over the line. It looked like a plea from the museum. Such a mistake could lead to public skepticism of the mission of the museum.

The U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum gets 60 percent of its budget from the U.S. government. It was, in fact, placed on the mall, close to our most precious national shrines, because it was meant to be a symbol of what couldn't happen here. It commemorates the 6 million Jews who died for the perversions of Nazi Germany, and honors through memory the hope of never again.

The National Holocaust Museum has avoided many of the current trends of museums to dumb down history with fraudulent "relevance'' and gimmicky interactive technology. It stands out in sharp contrast, for example, to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Holocaust museum in Los Angeles, that has been described as "Half Yeshiva and half Disneyland,'' where famine, massacre and concentration camps are juxtaposed with video presentations of drunken driving and flaming Ku Klux Klan crosses. (So far nothing about the peril of tobacco.)

It's important to all of us that the political crassness of Rabbi Greenberg not lessen the public regard for the museum. As we say in Washington, "mistakes were made.'' Nevertheless, the museum continues to provide a necessary educational forum.

Only last week it held a memorial service for Jan Karski, who died last year. Mr. Karski was not a Jew but "a righteous gentile,'' a brave Pole who was one of the first messengers to deliver an eyewitness account of the Holocaust to Allied leaders during World War II. He became a witness from inside the Warsaw Ghetto, risking his life many times as he was smuggled in and out of Poland by the underground. He confirmed for London and Washington that Hitler's design to exterminate the Jews was not rumor but evil fact.

His message fell on deaf ears and died in the silent mouths at both the State Department and the White House. President Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter knew. Though disappointed, Jan Karski was unrelenting in his dedication to speak the truth even when nobody listened.

"Karski reminds us that the courage of faith is the courage of individual conscience,'' the Rev. Leo J. O'Donovan, president of Georgetown University, told the museum's memorial service. He quoted Eli Wiesel: "Thanks to (Jan Karski), we know that the individual, if he so desires, is capable of having an effect on history.''

We hear the words every day in Washington of those who are trying to have an effect on history. Some succeed. Many museums have begun to politicize exhibitions -- drawing attention to our wrongs rather than our rights, such as the Smithsonian's aborted attempt to blame America for the war in the Pacific -- but the Holocaust museum has so far stayed true to its purpose.

It's a museum dedicated to a terrible time in history, celebrating the living as it honors the dead, the survivors and the American soldiers who rescued them. There are lots of godlike actions portrayed in this museum. A pardon for Marc Rich is not one of them.


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01/25/01: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"
01/22/01: Poetry and religion in the Bush administration
01/18/01: Ashcroft can't dance (don't ask him)
01/15/01: Clothes make the First Lady
01/11/01: Pity Jerusalem in the 'peace' process
01/08/01: Laying the political race card
01/04/01: 'What women want' in the new millennium
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12/21/00: First impressions of two First Ladies
12/18/00: Challenge for the 'better angels of our nature'
12/14/00: What we've lost sight of
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12/08/00: Return of the 'second sex' on campus
12/04/00: Politics as entertainment today
11/30/00: Winner vs. whiner
11/27/00: Measuring against history
11/23/00: Memories of Thanksgiving past
11/17/00: In defense of the Electoral College
11/16/00: More than one way to win an election
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10/30/00: The Oval Office, through a glass brightly
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10/19/00: The celebrity candidate
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10/12/00: Gore vs. Bush: Volvo vs. Maserati
10/10/00: We weep for Rami for he is dead
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10/02/00: Campaigns, candidates, and kissy-face
09/28/00: Laughing and crying over Joe Lieberman
09/21/00: Targeting teenagers for money
09/21/00: Sexual politics in New York
09/18/00: Surviving the stereotypes and debates
09/14/00: Gloria Steinem runs cheerfully into captivity
09/12/00: Sex in the eye of the partisan
09/07/00: 'Sex and death' on the college campus
09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
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07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
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06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate