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Museum of Tolerance .... 02/10/2003
Museum of Tolerance  Officials Have
An Obligation to be More Tolerant

 
By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
 
A lengthy article in the Feb 3rd issue of the Los Angeles Times by
Christopher Reynolds exposing the removal of an exhibit dedicated to the
Armenian Genocide from the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in
Los Angeles raised great concerns in Armenian communities worldwide. Even
more disconcerting were the less than honest reasons and excuses given by
museum officials for their shameful and shocking actions.
 
Now that this issue is widely publicized in the pages of one of the largest
and most prestigious newspapers in the country, local Armenian and Jewish
leaders have to come together to find a mutually acceptable solution before
lasting damage is done to relations between two large and influential
communities that live side-by-side in Southern California.
 
Here are the key points that must be considered:

1) The museum contravenes its dual mission of commemorating the Holocaust
and exploring other instances of prejudice and persecution worldwide, when
it totally ignores the Armenian Genocide;

2) Judging by its name alone, one would automatically assume that an
institution called the Museum of Tolerance would be more tolerant and
sympathetic towards the suffering of other people. Even the U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which is a museum dedicated to the
Holocaust, includes several mentions of the Armenian Genocide in its
permanent exhibits;

3) The Museum of Tolerance has violated the letter and the spirit of the
legislation that was adopted by the State of California and signed by
then-Gov. George Deukmejian granting $5 million for its start-up costs.
According to the Times, the 1985 legislation stated that Californians should
be informed about the hatred and prejudice "which have so adversely affected
the lives and well-being of so many human beings, through such mass murders
as the Armenian genocide and the Nazi Holocaust and other genocides." Gov.
Deukmejian told the Times that he was very disappointed by the museum's
removal of the Armenian Genocide exhibit;

4) The Times reported that the museum "has backed away from its own pledge
to include the first genocide of the 20th century - the Armenian genocide of
1915 - as a part of its permanent exhibition. The newspaper confirmed that
in several interviews prior to the opening of the museum in 1993, Rabbi
Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, "was quoted
repeatedly as saying that the Armenian genocide would be included;"

5) In 1997, the museum scrapped its small exhibit on the Armenian Genocide
and stopped showing to visitors the 11-minute introductory documentary that
included a segment on the genocide of 1915.  Visitors now see a revised
version of that film cleansed from its Armenian content;

6) The Times quoted critics, including this writer, who attributed the
removal of the exhibit and the revision of the film to the "political
alliance between Jewish leaders and the Turkish government." Museum director
Liebe Geft, however, told the Times that there were no political motivations
for making these changes. In response to complaints she received through the
ANCA website following the publication of the Times article, she said that
the museum does not allow "any political agenda to intrude" into its
decisions. In her e- mail responses, she avoided using the term Armenian
Genocide, even though she told the Times that the museum does recognize the
Armenian Genocide. She substituted various euphemisms favored by the Turks,
such as "tragedy" or "bitter history" for the Armenian Genocide. The closest
she came to using the "g" word was when she called it "the genocidal
Armenian experience."
 
Despite Ms. Geft's assurances about the absence of any political agenda at
the museum, Wiesenthal Center officials openly confessed their sympathy for
the Turks. "Many U.S. Jewish leaders are alert to Turkish sentiments
...because of Turkey's status as an ally of U.S. and Israeli interests in
the Middle East," the Times reported. In fact, the Center went as far as
writing a letter and issuing a press release last year to support Turkey's
membership in the European Union!
 
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center's Associate Dean, is quoted in
the Times as saying "there is a reservoir of goodwill toward Turkey among
many Jews, including myself." He acknowledged that the Turkish government
was "absolutely not" happy that the museum initially had an exhibit on the
Armenian Genocide. "We had letters and we had visits" from Turkish
officials, he told the Times. Given the fact that both the exhibit and the
film were subsequently scrapped, it is difficult to take at face value Rabbi
Cooper's contention that none of these Turkish pressures "played any role in
any museum decisions."
 
Ozgur Kivanc Altan, the Acting Consul General of Turkey in Los Angeles, left
no doubt as to such Turkish interference in the decision of the museum.
While claiming that the consulate "has made no efforts to influence museum
exhibitions," he told the Times that in recent years, "obviously, there has
been contact between the consulate and the museum". He acknowledged that he
has visited the museum and that the Turkish position is "well-known by the
Armenians and also by the museum itself." Altan said that the Armenian
Genocide "would not merit inclusion in the museum."
The Times article also confirmed that similar pressures were brought to bear
on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum's
founding director Jeshajahu Weinberg and co-author Rina Elieli, in their
book, "The Holocaust Museum in Washington," document not only the campaign
by Turkish officials opposed to any mention of the Armenian Genocide, but
the shameful lobbying by the Israeli Embassy on behalf of the Turks.
 
Fortunately, Gov. Deukmejian is not the only state official who is unhappy
that the Museum of Tolerance has not kept its end of the bargain. According
to the Times, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) wrote a letter
in June 2001, seeking a permanent Armenian Genocide exhibit "in keeping with
the promises extended to the Armenian community at the museum's inception."
Last week, State Assemblymen Dario Frommer and Steve Samuelian wrote a stern
letter to Liebe Geft expressing their concern that the museum has broken its
own pledge to include the Armenian Genocide as part of its permanent
exhibition. The two Assembly members also said that museum officials have
ignored the intent of the legislators who had allocated $5 million from
state funds on the assurance that the Armenian Genocide would be included in
it.
 
To make matters worse, Museum officials, on several occasions, have shown
their total lack of sensitivity towards survivors of other genocides by
rejecting suggestions to organize joint activities. Eugenia Sakevych Dallas,
a survivor of the Ukrainian Genocide, related to this writer that back in
1994 she approached Rabbi Hier to see if she could tell her story at a
museum gathering. She says that Rabbi Hier rebuffed her suggestions by
adding that the museum was the result of the Jewish community's efforts, and
that if Ukrainians wanted to tell their story, they should build their own
museum. Last June, she approached the museum again, in order to present her
book of memoirs. She never heard back from the museum official who received
a copy of her book. Ms. Dallas now wonders if "this is a Museum of Tolerance
or, perhaps, a Museum of Intolerance!"
 
Even prominent Jewish speakers don't seem to be immune from such rejections.
Richard Kloian, the D irector of the Armenian Genocide Center, contacted
Rabbi Cooper last September to see if Dr. Israel Charny, the Executive
Director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, could
speak at the museum during his U.S. visit. Kloian provided to Cooper a
choice of 19 topics for Dr. Charny's proposed lecture, some of which covered
the Armenian Genocide. Despite several follow-up phone calls, Kloian was
given non-committal and evasive answers. Regrettably, Dr. Charny, who is a
pre-eminent scholar on Holocaust and Genocide, was not given an opportunity
to speak at the Museum of Tolerance.
 
If the museum officials are sincere in their assertion that they are
planning an exhibit on the Armenian Genocide "very soon," they should
contact Armenian community leaders and scholars who would be more than happy
to cooperate with them and offer any needed assistance. It is important that
museum officials take prompt action in this matter to calm the brewing
tensions.
 
Those wishing to make their opinions known on this subject could send an
e-mail to the museum by visiting the ANCA website: http://capwiz.com/anca/issues/alert/?alertid=1356516&type=CU
or write to:
Ms. Liebe Geft, Director, Museum of Tolerance, 1399 South Roxbury St.,
Los Angeles, CA 90035.



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