Washington — The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has suffered another embarrassing public relations setback that supporters say could leave the institution more vulnerable to political control.
John Roth, the Claremont McKenna College philosophy professor whose appointment as head of a new academic arm of the museum generated ferocious attacks from the right and unease among some mainstream Jewish leaders, stepped down Monday before assuming his duties.
His resignation represented a victory for critics who charged that Roth in a number of articles and essays had made casual comparisons between current events and the Holocaust, and that he had maligned Israel.But supporters say the successful campaign against Roth will damage the academic credibility of the museum and lead to a new susceptibility to political pressure that will
make it harder to attract serious scholars to the institution.
In a letter last week orchestrated by supporters, 42 leading Holocaust scholars said that “To impose a political litmus test on any personnel connected with the Center — especially on its director — would be devastating to the intellectual integrity of the Center and the national standing of the Museum.“None of us could conceive of having academic involvement with the Center should any other criteria than scholarly excellence and administrative competence be imposed on the appointment of the director,” they said.
But a key signer, Hebrew University Professor Emil Fackenheim, recanted this week, saying that when he signed the letter, he had seen only the first controversial Roth op-ed.
“But his complete record available to me now causes me to withdraw my recommendation,” he said.“His record of judgments, in particular about the Holocaust itself, has been so consistently poor as to make him, in my view, quite unsuitable for this sensitive post.”
Also last week, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman changed course and joined the critics, saying that Roth’s writings “reveal a mind-set I found troubling. He seems preoccupied with comparisons I find offensive, and that changed my mind.”
In his resignation letter to acting museum director Sara Bloomfield, Roth wrote that “As I continue to reject the distorted allegations that some interpreters of my scholarship and beliefs are making, I have decided that my happiness and well-being — family, professional and personal — will be served best by my remaining at Claremont McKenna College” in California.
Council sources said this week that Roth was surprised and dismayed by the vehemence of the campaign against him, and that he was swayed largely by personal and family considerations.
Roth retained the support of key Holocaust Council members. He was backed, too, by former research director Michael Berenbaum, a top Holocaust scholar who actively campaigned against his accusers.“In no way did this museum encourage him to resign,” Bloomfield said Tuesday. “In fact, members of the Council and the staff were strongly encouraging him to come to Washington.”
In a letter to Roth responding to his resignation, Bloomfield praised the scholar’s role in helping create the center. Bloomfield insisted that the affair will not damage the museum’s academic stature, but she said that “obviously the politicization of the museum that we’ve seen in this is a matter of great concern to all of us. But in the long run, I’m not worried. I don’t believe any individual or group has the power to derail this institution.”
Bloomfield pointed to the continuing success of the museum as a tourist attraction and to a host of programs organized by the new academic center. The programs include a three-week master class for college professors who teach courses on the Holocaust and an upcoming conference of key scholars to assess the overall field of Holocaust study and research.But there was also relief about Roth’s resignation, even among some of his supporters.“John Roth was academically a good choice, but he lacked political survival skills,” said one museum source.
“What people didn’t consider is that academic credentials don’t necessarily mean an ability to make it in the rough environment of Washington.”Roth first came under fire for a Los Angeles Times op-ed in which he compared the rise of Israel’s Moledet party, which favors expulsion of the Arabs, to Nazi policy in 1938.
Critics said he was comparing Israel to the Nazis. Supporters insisted he was making a more specific comparison, but many expressed discomfort with the way he framed his argument.
Two weeks ago, the Holocaust Council reaffirmed its selection of Roth even as additional essays surfaced that included criticisms of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and additional Holocaust comparisons. The council also unanimously blasted critics for what members agreed was a campaign of personal vilification against Roth.
But Roth’s cause was damaged when he was blasted by leading conservative columnists like George Will. More important, his ineffective response to the controversy over his appointment, and the fact that he did not reveal additional writings that could have caused embarrassment to the council, disturbed some supporters.
The ADL’s Foxman, the lone dissenter when the council recently voted to reaffirm the appointment, said the fracas will not damage the museum. But he expressed concern about what it will do to a Jewish community in which political debate is increasingly bitter and personal.“Because of the personal nature of the attacks against him, the museum stood by the appointment — which was right, even though I voted against him,” said Foxman, who added that in the future, the museum will have to look at more than “core academic writings” when considering high-level appointees.“The issue could have been raised more civilly. It didn’t have to be a personal attack from the start. We can’t afford that because after a while, the same thing will happen in Jewish life that is happening in political life: people of quality won’t seek leadership positions because they know they’re going to get attacked by people who just go after them because they don’t like what they say.“Debate the issues, challenge people on the merits of the issue,” Foxman said, “but don’t destroy them.”
The council will not immediately select a new director for the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, created this year to enhance the museum’s stature as a world center for serious Holocaust scholarship. This was not the museum’s first experience with a botched personnel decision. In 1995, the council’s choice as museum director, Cornell University scholar Steven Katz, was forced to resign only two weeks before taking over because of charges he had misrepresented his scholarly achievements.The council replaced him with Walter Reich, a psychiatrist and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. But Reich quickly ran into conflict with senior museum staffers and with council chair Miles Lerman. Reich was ousted this year, and the search for a replacement is under way.