The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is a kind of minor miracle. Devoid of the kitsch that characterizes its neighbors on the Washington Mall, the museum somehow manages to do justice to the memory of the Shoah's victims for the mass of its 2 million annual visitors, as it simultaneously upholds strict scholarly standards in examining the morally troubling and intellectually complex problems that the study of the Holocaust raises. While the museum did screw up earlier this year with its on-again, off-again invitation to Yasir Arafat, its chairman quickly corrected the error and apologized. (Arafat was finally invited, but like everything else that week, the invitation was overshadowed by Monica Lewinsky, and the visit never took place.) The contrast between the museum's intellectual seriousness and the kind of naked political calculation that produced the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibition, for instance, could hardly be more pronounced.
The museum's commitment to academic integrity, however, is now under siege. A campaign led by Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and joined by the Jewish Forward, Republican Congressmen Michael Forbes of New York and Jon Fox of Pennsylvania, George Will, John Podhoretz of the New York Post and Neal Sher, the former head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, among others, is seeking to curtail its freedom in the interests of a right-wing political agenda.
The political censors' target is a mild-mannered Christian Holocaust scholar named John Roth. A professor of philosophy and religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California, Roth was chosen by a scholarly search committee to become the first director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. A respected Holocaust scholar and ethicist for more than twenty-five years, Roth has also lived and taught in Israel, where he was published by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Center for Holocaust Studies. Following the 1988 election to the Israeli Knesset of a party that advocated the mass expulsion of the Palestinians, Roth wrote an LA Times Op-Ed in which he worried that the Palestinians were "being forced into a tragic part too much like the one played by the European Jews 50 years ago.... Kristallnacht happened because a political state decided to be rid of people unwanted within its borders. It seems increasingly clear that Israel would prefer to rid itself of Palestinians if it could do so."
Read carefully, these statements are technically defensible, though politically obtuse. While they do not compare the Israelis to the Nazis--and certainly not to the Nazis post 1942, who implemented the "Final Solution"--they do push emotional buttons among all Jews that are better left unpushed. The Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is bad enough without stretching for imperfect analogies that beg to be misinterpreted. Roth concurs. After the quote was unearthed, he released a letter explaining that "it was not then and never would be my intention to create" the impression of a comparison between Israelis and Nazis. This would be "historically inaccurate and morally outrageous," and would …