Museum of Tolerance Special Report / An exhibition of Zionism
Marvin Hier built the Wiesenthal Center from nothing, and has forged ties with political leaders and celebrities alike. But with an ambitious plan for Jerusalem, he finds himself mired in controversy.
LOS ANGELES − It isn’t entirely clear how Rabbi Marvin Hier, with his sharp sense for identifying opportunities and his public relations wizardry, got himself into the mess in Jerusalem.
“It was not my idea to build it in Jerusalem,” says Heir, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, regarding the planned Museum of Tolerance, which is now steeped in controversy. “I would have never thought of it, to be perfectly honest. In February of 1993, unannounced, mayor Teddy Kollek went to the Museum of Tolerance [in Los Angeles]. He spent a lot of time here. I was in Washington, D.C. He left me a message to call him immediately.
“It was one month after we opened. I called him and he said: ‘You must replicate this museum in the heart of Jerusalem. Don’t do Holocaust because we have Yad Vashem. But the rest of it − we must have it in Jerusalem.’
“I came, he took me around, showed me properties there and said: ‘They won’t be good enough because they are too small. You have to come back and we’ll work on it.’ And I came back, and he had just lost the election, but he personally took me to [his successor as mayor, Ehud] Olmert and said: ‘Ehud, I was going to do this project, but it didn’t fall into my lap now, but you have to see that this project is done.’
“That was soon after we had built the facility over here for about $55 million − and I wouldn’t have undertaken it. But I am a Zionist, proudly so. So when Teddy Kollek offered it, I said okay, we’ll build it one day.”
Sources close to Kollek say the former mayor, who died in 2007, thought a Museum of Tolerance should be built in Jerusalem, but was not in favor of importing a replica of the Los Angeles museum.
In Israel, Hier’s name carries a lot less weight than that of the famous, late Nazi hunter, after whom the center that Hier founded is named. But Newsweek magazine twice put Hier at the top of its list of the United States’ most influential rabbis − describing him as “one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head.” When U.S. president George W. Bush visited Israel, Hier was part of the delegation of Jewish leaders accompanying him.
“He’s a giant,” says one Israeli diplomat who knows Hier. “He is a magnet for Hollywood. They are the only ones who could bring Will Smith to their annual event last year and Russell Crowe this year, including all the top people and the studio heads.”
At the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s annual Humanitarian Award dinner on May 5, Crowe spoke about tolerance and humaneness in the heart of the American dream. Also present were other actors, and filmmakers and studio heads, as well as entertainer Jay Leno, who wrote a generous check.
Rabbi Hier speaks gladly about his − and the museum’s − relationships with leaders, about the actors who participate in the center’s productions and about how King Hussein of Jordan visited the museum with his entire family and even kept his museum membership card in his wallet, according to his son King Abdullah.
Hier can’t say that the entertainment community agrees with the center’s positions on Israel, he admits, but with respect to the Museum of Tolerance, the center’s educational arm, they see the influence the museum has on young people, and the center and the museum are fortunate to have their support. Entertainers identified with both the right and the left have expressed their support of the center: Frank Sinatra, who was an admirer of Wiesenthal, was among the first to be a supporter; and Jane Fonda, long outspoken as a leftist, has attended their annual dinners.
Filling a void
Hier was born in 1939, on New York’s Lower East Side, and suggests that even if he wanted to, with his education, no one would ever mistake him for a Harvard professor.
After his ordination as an Orthodox rabbi, he served as rabbi for a congregation in Vancouver and as director of the Hillel House at the University of British Columbia. Until he left for Canada, all the people he knew were Orthodox, he says. In Vancouver, however, he discovered a different world − communication was necessary, anti-Semitism hadn’t disappeared and it will not permanently disappear, he says.
When Hier came to Los Angeles in 1977, he discovered that the United States didn’t have a single site for commemorating the Holocaust − although there were lots of places that commemorated dinosaurs.
First Hier founded Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles in a Jewish neighborhood near Beverly Hills. In August 1977, he thought to establish a Holocaust memorial center in the United States. He and a donor contacted
Wiesenthal, who agreed to let them use his name, and they built a small museum.
No country is immune from anti-Semitism, says the rabbi, not even the United States; no one can swear that a crime like the Holocaust won’t happen there or in Europe. The Jews have been mistaken too many times, so the smartest thing to do is to educate the population and make friends among the non-Jews. For that, he says, you need an idea that will attract not only Jews − which is how the Museum of Tolerance was born.
In 1989, when Hier and his colleagues began to plan the project, they didn’t have the money to see it through, and yet, four years later, the museum opened to the public. At the time the Los Angeles Times predicted that it would attract the “Pico Boulevard public” − which is to say, the city’s Jewish community. Yet today, Hier and his colleagues proudly declare that 90 percent of the 350,000 annual visitors are not Jewish.
Hier has plenty of supporters among the Jewish community: William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, says one of the keys to Hier’s success is the location of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The East Coast, he explains, has many such institutions, but in L.A., though the city has a large, affluent Jewish community, the museum is a source of special pride for Los Angelenos and serves as a center for civic involvement.
Jewish liberals are more measured in their praise. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the outspoken editor of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, says he has visited the museum and thinks it increases understanding among the various ethnic groups in the Los Angeles area. However, he says he regrets that the museum is associated with what he calls Hier’s very right-wing and distorted view of Israel as the innocent victim and the Palestinians as evil terrorists.
It is hard not to be impressed by Rabbi Hier’s energy. As we walk through the corridors of the museum, I nearly have to run to keep up. Employees relate that he works out twice a day.
Museum director Liebe Geft says that over the years Hier has built up a staff of people wholeheartedly committed to the museum’s vision. He does not micro-manage the museum, but rather considers the employees’ many ideas − and in the end, he knows what will work, she says.
He also has a weakness for technology. He proudly shows me a sophisticated movie theater with amazing sound quality: Raindrops sound like they’re falling among the chairs. He tells me that this is the city’s most amazing movie theater − boasting state-of-the-art technology. Two top Hollywood studio executives came here, and they could hardly believe what they saw, he says.
The next expansion
Currently on the museum’s agenda is another expansion − a new conference center, that will also be available for rental for bar mitzvahs and weddings, among other things. Several neighbors protested the plan, which they said would decrease their property values, and cause traffic problems and noise. The neighborhood, whose residents are almost entirely Jewish, is still littered with signs declaring that holding festive events at the museum will desecrate the memory of the Holocaust. Both parties recruited Holocaust survivors to their side in the conflict.
Susan Gans, who organized the neighborhood protest, says she and the others have no objection to the museum, but do not want a hall open until midnight in a residential neighborhood. She says the plans threaten the frail, elderly Jews, including some Holocaust survivors, who live closest to the museum − construction noise and dust just a few meters from their windows will endanger their health and may even kill them, she says.
Another neighbor, an elderly Jewish woman walking her Chihuahua dog on a pink leash on the street behind the museum, says the opponents lost “because Rabbi Hier is so well-connected, and his donors also give to campaigns and all the politicians are in their pocket.”
Another neighbor taking in the garbage cans shrugs: “You can’t fight this. He [Rabbi Hier] is very powerful and we don’t have the money to fight this.”
When confronted with the complaints, Hier responds: “You don’t mean neighbors, you mean Susan Gans. I know they complained − they lost. The city council had a hearing. It was a unanimous decision by the city commission for the expansion. The governor was in favor, the mayor is in favor of the expansion, so they lost.”
Hier describes the new project as a cultural center, which is intended to host meetings and conferences. He says the organization very much respects the neighbors, and will employ noise experts to ensure neighbors won’t be disturbed.
As for the neighbors who said it is inappropriate to have parties and weddings at a Holocaust museum, Hier calls the claim a public relations gimmick.
Perhaps it is his take-no-prisoners attitude, which pokes out now and then in an interview, from behind the smiles and the openness, which no doubt accounts to a large extent for how his tremendous enterprise grew out of nothing.
When Frank Gehry was appointed architect of the planned Jerusalem museum, officials from the municipality there showed them the current site, near Independence Park, recalls Hier.
“We asked who owns it, and they said they and the Israel Lands Authority. And eventually they gave it to us. However, we never dreamed that underneath ... We started construction, and then they found bones.”
You didn’t know about that in advance?
“No. Of course not. No one at the Wiesenthal Center had any idea whatsoever, never.”
So when you first heard about the bones, didn’t you sense any trouble?
“Not at all. What trouble? The city of Jerusalem and the land authority own a piece of land on which there is a municipal parking lot, three levels, without anyone objecting to that. So on what basis? For 50 years, there were no bones found. And we started, and there were bones. If the Supreme Court had ruled against us, we would have moved.
Whose idea was it to take us to the Supreme Court? [Islamic Movement head] Sheikh [Ra’ad] Salah and his few Palestinian friends. Why did they do it? The most logical thing is to assume they thought they were going to win. They lost. Everybody wants to win. And nobody can accuse the Israeli Supreme Court of being a right-wing court.”
The severe recession that has hit California has also affected the Wiesenthal Center. That is also the reason, Hier says, that Gehry resigned from the project.
Still, some Israelis are not so fond of the idea of rich American Jews teaching them tolerance.
“We are talking about Zionism and there’s nothing wrong for an American Jewish organization to have a stake in Jerusalem. Putting your money where your mouth is. We say we are Zionists. Jerusalem means something to us, we want to influence the society there, and that’s why we’re building a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. I don’t think it’s a big sin.”
But right now, aren’t you taking the risk that even if you build the museum there, pretty much everyone entering the museum will know it was built on a cemetery?
“What was the history of the Knesset 400 years ago? What was the history of the president’s house 400 years ago? Are we going to undo the society?”He says he wouldn’t be sincere if he were to say he isn’t frustrated, but asks to be permitted to say that the museum in Jerusalem will be built and will be open in “three to three and a half years” − and I can quote him on that.