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Op-Ed: Arafat's 1998 Non-Visit to the US Holocaust Museum

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Walter Reich, former director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, who was shocked at the invitation extended to Arafat.
Published: Thursday, April 10, 2014 7:23 AM



One has an obligation to protect the integrity of history.
“In January 1998, major efforts were being made by President Clinton’s Administration to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Yasser Arafat was heading to Washington to meet with Clinton. Many Israelis and American Jews were skeptical about Arafat’s trustworthiness after years of post-Oslo bombings that had killed scores of Israelis.

“The administration’s effort to have Arafat visit the Washington Holocaust museum was a breathtakingly manipulative act. The official who initiated it was a member of the White House’s Middle East peace team, Aaron David Miller. He viewed the visit as a way to advance the administration’s diplomatic agenda and used his membership of the museum’s board – the Holocaust Council – to convince the Council’s Chairman, Miles Lerman, to approve the invitation.”

Walter Reich was Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., from 1995 to 1998. He is now the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University.

“Though I was the museum’s director, I wasn’t informed of the invitation.  As soon as Lerman told me of the ‘idea’ of inviting Arafat – without telling me that the invitation had already been issued -- I said it was a terrible idea because it would exploit the memory of the Holocaust dead. Such a visit I stressed, would misuse the museum to sway public opinion. It would be a photo-op, with the museum and the victims it represented serving as props.

“I added that Arafat had been invited to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, which was also a museum and every bit as educational as the Holocaust Museum in Washington. He never bothered accepting the invitation, even though he was living nearby in Gaza. The visit to the Washington museum would turn it into a ritual purification bath. I asked: 'This week it is Arafat, and next week Milosevic?’ I warned that Arafat could well emerge from the museum declaring not that he finally understood why the Israelis were concerned about security but what Nazi Germany did to the Jews was exactly what Israel was doing to the Palestinians.

“In response, Lerman told Miller to disinvite Arafat, which he did. The aggrieved Palestinians leaked the disinvitation to the press, prompting pressure for a re-invitation by the Clinton Administration. Calls were made to Lerman, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on NBC's ‘Meet the Press’ that it was ‘too bad’ that the invitation to Arafat had been withdrawn, and that ‘It would have been appropriate for him to visit the museum as a VIP.’

“Beset by these and other calls and criticisms, and reportedly fearful that he would lose his job, Lerman went to Arafat’s hotel and reinvited him. At a meeting of the Holocaust Council’s Executive Committee, one member after another asked me to escort Arafat through the museum and even stand at his side as he would lay a wreath before the museum’s eternal flame. I refused all these requests. It was, I said, a matter of conscience in a museum of conscience.

“On the day Arafat was supposed to come to the museum, however, his staff canceled the visit. The Monica Lewinsky scandal had just broken, and Washington’s press corps and photographers were descending on the White House to cover it. Arafat’s opportunity for photos and swaying public opinion would be gone. I subsequently resigned as the museum’s director, writing to its chairman that I differed with him ‘on the use of the museum, and of the memory of the Holocaust, in the context of political or diplomatic circumstances or negotiations.’

“In the wake of the Arafat scandal, the Congressional subcommittee that funds the Holocaust Museum mandated a study of the institution. Its report backed me up. A study it commissioned in the wake of the Arafat scandal cited concerns that ‘federal institutions, especially one that carries the moral weight of the Holocaust, are vulnerable to political pressure from the executive branch or the Congress,’ and that the Holocaust Museum ‘should not be used as a tool to achieve particular political purposes,’ as it had in the Arafat affair.

“There are important moral and psychological lessons in all this. One has an obligation to protect the integrity of history. And one should recognize that even those who are entrusted with the responsibility to preserve Holocaust memory can be pressured into exploiting that memory to advance political and diplomatic ends — and convince themselves that it’s the right thing to do. One positive consequence of the ‘Arafat Affair’ is that it may have immunized the Holocaust Museum from future political hijackings by the federal government.

“There’s a definitive postscript to this story. Twelve years after the event, in a mea culpa op-ed in the Washington Post, Miller did something rare and admirable. He admitted that he’d been wrong. He pronounced the effort to invite Arafat ‘one of the dumbest ideas in the annals of U.S foreign policy.’

He ruefully acknowledged that ‘There is great danger in misappropriating memory and attempting to link it to another agenda or to a tragic historical experience seared in the minds of millions.’”