Zeidman’s Challenges

Fred Zeidman is coming to Washington to straighten out the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and a lot of people wish him well. But it will take more than good wishes to help the spectacularly successful, periodically troubled council and the Holocaust Museum it runs.

Zeidman, selected by President Bush this month to replace Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg as chair, will lead a factionalized council and a demoralized professional staff.

There are the usual Washington turf battles at work here, but the real source of conflict is built right into the museum’s foundation. The problem: finding the proper balance between the museum’s diverse roles and its function as both a Jewish institution and an institution serving the interests of the government that pays the bills.

Zeidman, a Houston businessman and Republican stalwart who was picked because of his friendship with the president and not his Holocaust scholarship, has a reputation as a bridge builder; that, more than any positions he takes in the ideological wars over Holocaust remembrance, may be the real key to his success during his five-year term.

The museum has bounced from controversy to controversy in recent years, many of them reflecting a contradiction in its roles.

John Roth, a respected Holocaust scholar, was appointed to head the museum’s scholarly arm, but his nomination was scuttled because of his earlier views on Israel — a hot-button issue for the Jewish community. Yasser Arafat was invited at the behest of administration officials who hoped a museum visit would help him understand Jewish sensitivities, but the proposal exploded in politically charged controversy.

More recently, Greenberg faced a rebellion of fellow council members, ostensibly because of his public plea on behalf of fugitive financier Marc Rich, but also because of mounting tensions between the museum staff and some council members they accused of micromanagement.

Greenberg sought to impose a more distinctly Jewish imprint on the museum, something many Jewish leaders applaud.

But the museum is a federal institution, subject to all the rules and regulations of the government bureaucracy. Its professional staff are government employees; they are not supposed to run this as just another Jewish institution.

Critics of the museum worry that the federal role means that the core message of the Holocaust — the fact that most victims were Jewish — will be obscured and eventually lost because of other agendas. They fear the message of the exhibits and educational programs will become "universalized," and that the museum will eventually become just a generic genocide museum.

The overarching message of the museum — and the most poignant one for most of the 2 million or so visitors who come every year — is that these victims were killed simply because they were Jewish.

Zeidman faces a huge challenge in restoring morale among many employees who feel they have been criticized unfairly for doing exactly what they have successfully avoided: diluting the Jewish content of the facility.

He faces a challenge in avoiding the micromanagement by council leaders that has plagued the institution from the beginning. It is the job of the lay council to set policy and fine-tune the vision for the museum, not manage every exhibit, every lecture and seminar.

Zeidman faces a challenge in maintaining and building on the work of his predecessors in making the museum a respected moral voice that can speak to today’s human rights emergencies before they spawn new holocausts.