Holocaust museum appointee regrets essay

WASHINGTON — The incoming director of a Holocaust studies center at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has apologized for a 10-year-old article that compared Israeli policies toward the Palestinians to the Nazis' treatment of Jews.

In interviews and statements, John Roth, an internationally renowned Holocaust scholar who serves as chairman of the philosophy and religious studies department at California's Claremont McKenna College, sought to end controversy over a 1988 op-ed he wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Stung by attacks from the Zionist Organization of America, which publicized the essay, and from calls for a clear retraction from the Anti-Defamation League, Roth said in a statement this week:

"If I could erase one item from my professional record, it would be the opinion piece I wrote 10 years ago for the Los Angeles Times. I apologize for and would like to retract that essay."

Museum officials are backing Roth and say that he will assume his new post as head of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies as scheduled in August.

Ruth Mandel, vice chair of the museum, said that when Roth's article was called to the attention of museum officials, "we all had concerns."

However, in the context of his 30-year career, the essay itself, she said, would not influence her decision to support him.

With Roth's comments this week, Mandel said she was "satisfied with that explanation."

Roth, who is not Jewish, wrote the opinion piece after an Israeli election campaign during which the right-wing Moledet Party advocated the forced removal of Palestinians from the West Bank.

"Kristallnacht happened because a political state decided to be rid of people unwanted within its borders. It seems increasingly clear that Israel would prefer to rid itself of Palestinians if it could do so," Roth wrote in the Nov. 12, 1988, article.

"As much as any other people today, they are being forced into a tragic part too much like the one played by the European Jews 50 years ago."

The piece concludes: "As a Holocaust scholar, as one who has lived and taught in Israel and who loves that country deeply, during this year's remembrance of Kristallnacht, my thoughts are on Palestinian plight at least as much as on Israeli security."

Amid increased media attention on the controversy, Roth said this week that "any such comparison" between Israel and Nazi Germany "would be historically inaccurate and morally outrageous, and furthermore, would be a repudiation of my own studies and life experiences."

Roth has written or edited more than 25 books and has served on the museum's board since 1994.

Despite the statements, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, is not giving up.

Klein, who acknowledges that Roth has apologized and retracted the op-ed, said that he will withhold judgment on Roth's appointment because some of Roth's additional writings raise concerns about his appreciation of the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

However, Klein refuses to identify the other passages that he finds troublesome.

Holocaust scholars and longtime colleagues of Roth have leapt to his defense. "This is a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the Holocaust," said Deborah Lipstadt, a member of the museum's board and the search committee that chose Roth.

"His work is important, significant and shows sensitivity," said Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. She called on the public to view Roth's career as a whole and not one essay that he has apologized for.

The questions over Roth are the latest in a series of controversies involving the Holocaust museum.

Most recently, Klein was involved in protests over an invitation by the museum to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. After initially refusing to invite Arafat, the museum reversed itself, a move that led to a public feud and the eventual ouster of the museum's director, Walter Reich.

Klein's quest to convince the museum to oust Roth has fueled criticisms that ZOA is acting out of revenge over the museum's invitation to Arafat, who never in the end visited the museum.

"If you want to disagree with the museum's inviting Arafat, do so. But do not bring down a man's reputation," said Lipstadt.

Klein strongly denied that his motivation stemmed from the Arafat invitation. "If the Arafat issue never existed, we would have the same problem with a major figure at the museum equating Israel with Germany," he said.

For his part, Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said he dropped his opposition to Roth after this week's statements by the scholar. But escalating a long-running battle with Klein, Foxman said, "Mort Klein has set himself up as a thought police."