Wiesenthal gets Oscar nod, unveils high-tech show

LOS ANGELES — These are heady days for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. On the same day that its latest documentary film was nominated for an Academy Award, the Los Angeles center's Museum of Tolerance started reinventing itself by opening a new high-tech exhibit.

Coming in April, to mark the Jewish state's 50th anniversary, is the U.S. and Israeli premiere of the center's new film. Also, a meeting will be held that may launch the creation of a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

As icing on the cake, the Wiesenthal Center is joining the local Jewish federation in sponsoring Los Angeles' glamorous "Salute to Israel," signaling, perhaps, a new era of cooperation between the independent center and the umbrella Jewish community organization.

During a rapid-fire interview, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the 21-year-old Wiesenthal Center, ticked off the items on his full plate.

Chronicling the fate of Holocaust survivors in the immediate postwar years and their desperate attempts to reach the Jewish homeland, the film "The Long Way Home" has been picked as one of five documentary features in the Oscar race.

Director-writer Mark Jonathan Harris, along with co-producers Richard Trank and Hier, had no time for celebrations because the same team is rushing to complete "If You Will It."

The new two-hour film, designated as the anniversary year's official documentary by the international Israel 50 Jubilee committee, will take "a candid look at Israel's first five decades through the eyes of her people," Hier says.

The world premiere will be held April 27 in Jerusalem, followed by special screenings April 30 at the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles, May 5 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and May 19 in New York City.

On the same day as the Academy Award announcement, the Museum of Tolerance marked its fifth anniversary by unveiling its Point of View Diner, a $1.4 million interactive multimedia exhibit.

The project is a faithful replica of a 1950s diner, with counter stools and red booths, each with its individual jukebox, updated to function as video monitors.

Two different scenarios appear onscreen: one probing the boundary between free speech and hate speech, the other exploring moral choices and attitudes following a fatal drunk-driving accident.

After each presentation, viewers can ask preprogrammed questions of the film's characters, then vote their personal reactions, which are instantly tabulated and displayed. Both scenarios convey the graphic impact of TV newscasts.

The POV Diner is one step in revising and updating the Museum of Tolerance. "Interactive technology changes completely every four to five years, and we are reevaluating and expanding our exhibits accordingly," Hier says .

The museum's core exhibit on the Holocaust will remain, but the visual contents will change. For instance, a new film portrays the roles and attitudes of ordinary people in Germany and occupied Europe during Hitler's reign.

Looking far beyond Los Angeles, the Wiesenthal Center's board of trustees will meet in Israel on April 30 to vote on an ambitious and controversial project to build a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

The actual vote will be on whether to wrap up plans to purchase a plot of land in the Mount Scopus area, near the Hyatt Regency Hotel, as the museum site and to launch a fund-raising campaign for the estimated $35 million-plus cost of the building and exhibits.

Hier acknowledges that Yad Vashem's reaction to his plans has been less than enthusiastic, but he has assured officials of the Holocaust memorial that his proposed museum will not focus on the Nazi era.

Rather, Hier says, the emphasis will be on teaching kavod habriot, or respect for mankind, in the context of the flashpoints facing Israeli society. Obvious examples are the often acrimonious divisions between the fervently religious and secular segments of society, and between the contrasting visions of hawks and doves on Israel's future.

If the project gets the green light, Hier estimates that it will take one year to raise the necessary funds and an additional two years for the building phase.

Turning back home, the Wiesenthal Center and the L.A. Jewish Federation, in a surprising major collaborative effort, have joined forces to present the premier event in the area's celebration of Israel's 50th anniversary.

The April 14 extravaganza at the Shrine Auditorium will be headlined by screen star Kevin Costner and will be broadcast across the world the following evening by the CBS-TV network.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent