Friday, September 26, 2008

The Yad Vashem Issue

Museums need to prioritize, to decide what to display, which is also to say that they need to decide what is to be excluded. Resources, notably space and funds, are limited and this creates the imperative to be selective. The primary determinant is, of course, the nature or mission of the institution. A museum devoted to Islamic culture will not display Hopi Indian artifacts, at least not until a dissertation writer expounds on the impact of Islam on Hopi life. In the life of most museums, there are plenty of close calls regarding what to include.

For all of the sincere determination to be objective in the choices that are made, it is not possible to exclude entirely individual tastes and interests, both subjective factors, and perhaps also a dose or more of bias. The proof is in the many disputes regarding what museums exhibit, as well as the changes that are made when there are key personnel changes.

Yad Vashem is, in a strict sense, a museum, a description that inadequately describes its mission as our people’s primary evocation of horrors that while visually portrayable remain beyond comprehension. A second challenge is the vastness of the destruction of European Jewry, the numbers and places and key events and major personalities. Another difficulty arises from the sensibilities and passions that engulf the remembrance of the tragedy that befell our people.

In attempting to meet these challenges, Yad Vashem officials must constantly be mindful that the institution is not theirs. They must purposefully strive to banish whatever scholarly or aesthetic prejudices they may have as they perform their institutional responsibilities. This isn’t easy because the field of Holocaust history is rife with conflict and some of this is not pretty. What is urgently needed is a bias against bias.

It may be inappropriate to use adjectives when describing Yad Vashem’s achievements. One is unavoidable: impressive, a term that applies especially to sections of the museum that are less well visited, including the Valley of the Communities, the Children’s Memorial, the Hall of Remembrance where candles commemorate the camps where Jews were slaughtered, the Hall of Names where the names of each murdered Jew is inscribed, the memorials to Righteous Gentiles and an expanding array of research and documentation services assisting those who seek information about murdered family members. There is dignity in the way Yad Vashem operates.

The Holocaust History Museum, which is the main exhibition space, provides an extensive verbal and pictorial narrative of the Holocaust, from the events leading to Hitler’s rise to power to the establishment of Israel. This facility is new, having replaced in 2005 the previous History Museum that had been Yad Vashem’s mainstay. The new museum covers the same ground as its predecessor, but in a softer and yet more moving and effective way.

In the choices they have made, Yad Vashem officials have invariably struck the right note. A notable and unfortunate exception is the slighting of religious life and leaders, a point that has been made by Mrs. Esther Farbstein who has written extensively on the subject, notably in “Hidden in Thunder,” a significant work that has been published in English in a two-volume edition. A granddaughter of a previous Gerrer Rebbe and the wife of the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Mrs. Farbstein has urged Yad Vashem officials to correct this unfortunate neglect. In a recent email to me, she wrote that there has been progress, yet more needs to be done.

A far more publicized issue concerns Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, whose militant group pressured both the American Jewish establishment and the Roosevelt administration to take stronger action to assist and rescue European Jew, as many thousands were being murdered daily. It has been estimated that these efforts resulted in as many as 200,000 Jews being saved, certainly a significant achievement.

This is a Holocaust chapter that should be included in Holocaust museums and especially Yad Vashem. Yet, this hasn’t happened, in large measure because it is convenient to treat Kook as an outcast. In a sense, what has happened is payback time by the establishment. Recently, however, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington reversed course and it is including a Bergson exhibit. Fifty Holocaust scholars from around the world have urged Yad Vashem to follow suit. Unfortunately, Yad Vashem is adamant and this constitutes a betrayal of trust by those who need to understand that the place where they have titles and offices is not theirs but the emotional and historical property of the Jewish people and it is necessary for those who make decisions to be sensitive to the sensibilities of all Jews.

In a surprisingly tendentious Jerusalem Post article called “Why Kook is Out,” Dr. Yehuda Bauer, the noted Holocaust historian who is the director of Yad Vashem’s International Center for Holocaust Studies, defends the decision to exclude the Bergson group. Much of the article offers an extensive and I believe historically warped defense of Stephen Wise, a prime target of the Bergson group. Bauer argues that it is not the function of Yad Vashem to pay attention to Kook since he operated outside of Europe and “Yad Vashem can only cover what happened to the Jews in Europe – not the action or inaction of the Jews outside.” This is, to be gentle, a questionable assertion in view of what Yad Vashem already displays about Jewish activity outside of Europe.

It is not Yad Vashem’s role to debate the merits of Hillel Kook and those who worked with him or to enter into any of the other scholarly thickets and controversies that are the province of historians. The pity is that there is so much the institution does right. It should be big enough and sufficiently honorable to do the right thing regarding the Bergson group.