The Wiesenthal Center’s Bait and Switch

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s stated purpose is “confronting anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promoting human rights and dignity, standing with Israel, defending the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust.” Rabbi Marvin Hier established the Center as a tax-exempt foundation in 1977 with a major grant from Canadian financier Samuel Belzberg and arranged with Simon Wiesenthal to have the famous Austrian Nazi-hunter’s name put on the project.

Hier’s foundation flourished, and by 1993 enough new money was raised to build an imposing Museum of Tolerance, dedicated to fighting “bigotry and racism.” The museum became the Wiesenthal Center’s public face and educational arm. Los Angeles had proven to be an excellent spot to solicit public and private contributions, and it afforded Hier many opportunities to work with the movie industry.

When the Wiesenthal Center comes to Israel’s defense, any pretense of “promoting human rights” and “tolerance” or fighting “bigotry and racism” is immediately put aside. The organization’s mission statement is partially suspended. Hier uses the Holocaust and charges of anti-Semitism to attempt to silence any criticism of Israel, thus making the Center a collaborator with Israeli invasions, occupations, and human rights abuses. Nazi genocide is transformed into a very effective political weapon and powerful fund-raising tool. As Samuel Belzberg noted, “Jewish education and all the other familiar buzzwords no longer serve to rally Jews behind the community. The Holocaust, though, works every time.”

Sometimes, however, even the well-funded combination of Holocaust remembrance and unstinting support of the Zionist state cannot mitigate or obscure Israeli responsibility for crimes against the Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip. British MP Gerald Kaufman pinpointed the Wiesenthal Center’s difficulty with employing the Holocaust to defend Israel from international condemnation when he observed, “My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town…. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.”

The Wiesenthal Center has had to make strong and continuing efforts, consistent with the maxim that covering up the largest crimes requires the biggest lies, to defend Israeli mistreatment of 1.5 million desperately poor, stateless refugees in Gaza. For example, at the beginning of this year 54 U.S. congressmen asked President Obama to force Israel to lift its three-year siege of that grossly overcrowded, small strip of land. The Center’s second in command, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, promptly demanded that the petitioners withdraw their request, stating that “basic goods needed by the civilian population are being transferred from Israel to Gaza. … The only requirement is that each truck is X-rayed to ensure there is no contraband or materials used by terrorists.”

Close upon the heels of Cooper’s assurances that Gazans had been receiving everything they needed came the news that after a two-year ban, aluminum, wood, and new clothes and shoes would be allowed into Gaza. No new clothes or shoes for two years! Cooper’s definition of terrorist contraband is very, very broad indeed. And one cannot help but wonder how Cooper would feel if his children had to go two years without new clothes or his wife two years without new shoes.

Sometimes what the Wiesenthal Center says about Gaza is absurd. In September 2009 Hier and Cooper tried to get the UN to fire Refugee Works Agency chief Karen Abu Zayd for refusing to teach the Holocaust in schools there. Let’s see, most people in Gaza are the children or grandchildren of Palestinians who were expelled from Israel in 1948, experienced Egyptian misrule until the Israelis captured the Strip in 1967, and have been under Israeli occupation, siege, or attack ever since. Given the suffering Gaza has experienced, it seems ridiculous to insist that school kids there need extra lessons about racism, war, and murder. In fact, since the Wiesenthal Center is a shameless apologist for Israeli crimes in Gaza, it is Hier and his associates who ought to revisit the stated goals of the Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

Much has been written about the December 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza, perhaps most comprehensively in the Goldstone Report, which, no surprise here, the Center has denounced because it is highly critical of the conduct of the Israeli Defense Forces. Hier has done his best to blame the Palestinians and Hamas for the tremendous destruction of civil infrastructure and private property during Israel’s crushing attack. His arguments, however, are wholly unconvincing and are completely undercut by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (among others), who said the invasion “restored Israel’s deterrence … when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild” and “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.”

Hier even advocates ongoing punishment and misery for Gazans: “[I]f Gaza is not rebuilt, many civilians will suffer. There will be a shortage of schools, medical facilities, and adequate housing. That is truly a tragedy. But the real tragedy is the failure of the world to get it right, to tell the Palestinians, ‘Never again.’ World leaders must vow that they are not going to rebuild Gaza….”

So unless the people of Gaza elect leadership acceptable to Hier, stop resisting Israel’s siege and blockade, and accept their status as untermenschen, they should be denied schools, medical care, and decent housing.

Who funds the foundation is most interesting. Audited financial statements reveal that during fiscal year 2009 the Center received $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Justice, most of which was used to expand the Museum of Tolerance; in 2008 the department contributed $2 million. For 2008 and 2009 the Center obtained a combined total of $930,000 from the state of New York and the New York City Board of Education for “tolerance” programs. In 2008 the California Department of Parks and Recreation gave the Center $4.8 million to be spent over two years on new exhibits at the Museum. A year earlier the Museum got $2.6 million from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, again for new exhibits. Since 1977 the Center has received many millions from taxpayers.

In addition to public money, the Museum of Tolerance is the beneficiary of corporate largess. Contributors include international financial institutions Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and US Bancorp; insurance companies Pacific Life and State Farm; major Japanese exporters Nissan and Sony; global communications giant Sprint; UPS, which has the world’s largest package delivery network; Northrop Grumman; Edison International, whose principal subsidiary is Southern California Edison; and Hilton Hotels. Interestingly enough, Hilton’s Tel Aviv property has a parking lot that sits atop a Muslim cemetery, as did the site for the Museum of Tolerance’s Jerusalem branch before it was torn out to make way for the museum.

Private individuals have also made significant gifts to the Center. According to Hier, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s contributions total $1 million, more than any other Hollywood star. Arnold’s donations are perhaps more than a mite to encourage Hier to forget that Schwarzenegger’s father was a member of the Nazi SA. It seems Arnold made some positive remarks about Hitler back in the 1970s: “I admire Hitler, for instance, because he came from being a little man with almost no education, up to power. I admire him for being such a good public speaker and for what he did with it.” Paying off Hier seems even a better deal for the sinner than buying an indulgence in the Middle Ages, which would only help the donor in the next world. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s contributions to the Wiesenthal Center seem to have produced benefits for him in the here and now.

Hier has been close to the entertainment business since his move to Los Angeles. In 1981 when he was making the first of two Oscar-winning documentaries, Genocide, he received a $100,000 donation from Frank Sinatra for the project. Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles donated their services to narrate the film. Hier’s second Oscar winner, The Long Way Home (1997), about the travails facing survivors of Nazi genocide in the aftermath of World War II, was narrated by Morgan Freeman and used the voices of Ed Asner (as Gen. George S. Patton and David Ben-Gurion), Martin Landau, Miriam Margolyes, and Michael York. The Center’s latest film, Against the Tide, tells the story of efforts in America during World War II to rescue European Jewry and is narrated by Dustin Hoffman. Hier also served as a consultant for Schindler’s List and the TV miniseries War and Remembrance.

The Wiesenthal Center also undoubtedly receives important support from its large board of directors, which includes Richard Blum, the husband of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Other well-known board members are Gary Winnick, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Sidney Sheinberg. Interestingly, none of the major public or corporate donors has a seat on the board, nor are there any Middle East scholars represented. No one seems to object to Marvin Hier putting his wife and son on the payroll (compensation to the Hier family totaled $822,000 in 2007 [.pdf]). And, apparently, no one protests that although the Center preaches tolerance and human rights in Los Angeles, its Middle East politics are distinctly Likudist.

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Author: John Taylor

John Taylor received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages from the University of Chicago, a B.A. and an M.A. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He served two years active duty in the United States Army, reaching the grade of sergeant, and spent six years in the reserves. Before making his career in the oil and gas business in Texas, he worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist, banker, and civil servant. Taylor is a life-long Republican.