The Tolerator

Jerusalem — Half a dozen Israeli teens shouted like rock groupies and pressed up against the blue metal police railing in hopes of catching a glimpse of larger-than-life California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was in Jerusalem Sunday to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum of Tolerance’s new $200 million museum here.

Every time the governor’s name was mentioned by one of the many speakers, the boys clapped and hooted, and at one point they broke into affectionate soccer chants: “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!”

A nice sentiment, even if it was a bit off.

The same curious air of adoration and befuddlement attended the rest of the star-cum-governor’s whirlwind 36-hour visit to Israel, as many Israelis fell over themselves to catch a glimpse of Schwarzenegger and praise his visit, even if they weren’t quite sure what he was doing here.

On a normal day in Israel — if there are any normal days left — a visit from one of the country’s favorite movie stars to this terror-tired place, where people feel abandoned by the world and can probably count on their fingers the number of celebrities who publicly support it, would garner top headlines in every news broadcast here.

But the day of his arrival, Saturday, May 1, was no ordinary day. The country was teetering in anticipation of two major events: the European League championship basketball game that night and the impending vote the next day on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s referendum of Likud members on the pullback from Gaza. The next 24 hours proved only one quest victorious (although, given the 100,000 fans who gathered in a Tel Aviv stadium to celebrate the game, it’s hard to say which event was more important to Israelis).

Amid the frenzy of car-honking basketball fans and last-minute politicking for the Likud vote, Schwarzenegger stuck to his message of promoting tolerance and supporting the museum, and also stuck to his schedule of meetings with top Israeli officials and Israeli and Californian investors to promote business between the two states.

But he didn’t stick exactly to schedule, which, when announced a few weeks ago, primarily focused on the Museum of Tolerance’s groundbreaking ceremony (see story, page 14) and a gala fundraising dinner later that night at the King David Hotel. While Schwarzenegger’s visit was the culmination of a 20-year relationship with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, it drew praise and protests from various quarters. Some Californians were upset that the new governor’s first out-of-state visit was for so parochial a purpose. Most in the Jewish community were thrilled that the high-profile governor’s first state visit would be to Israel, a fact that upset many Arab leaders.

But in practice, the whirlwind Mideast trip — from Saturday to Monday afternoon — expanded beyond the museum and its duties to include Jordan and a visit with Special Olympics athletes.

“I love the way you pronounce ‘Caleefonia,'” Schwarzenegger told Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, “because that’s the way I say it, and that’s the right way to say it.” (For more one-liners, see sidebar on page 15.)

The governor was addressing the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute reception on Saturday night, and he introduced five Israeli companies planning to expand in California. The initiative, which he said will bring 800 new jobs to the state, comes courtesy of the California Commission for Jobs and Economic Growth. California is the fourth largest U.S. exporter to Israel.

“We are enormously happy that despite the challenges, you came,” said Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem who was also pivotal in the Wiesenthal Center’s project. “You are a powerful ambassador to the Jewish people, and now we count on you to support the State of Israel and to work together to strengthen ties between us and California.”

The next morning, when Schwarzenegger towered over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (“Twins II”?), he deftly avoided comments on criticism for only meeting with Israelis.

“Well, as you know, you’ll always get criticism,” he said, and mentioned his meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan the next day. Later, in continuing response to questions about whether he’d meet with Palestinians, Schwarzenegger said that he “wasn’t invited by anyone.”

Perhaps it was this critique that prompted the governor to set up a Monday brunch with King Abdullah of Jordan in his palace, although he said he’d been invited weeks before, when he met with the king, a longtime friend, in America. (While the meeting in Amman did nothing to address the fact that the governor only met with one side of the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the truth is, who could he have met with? Yasser Arafat holed up in his Ramallah complex? Also, despite the security, press coverage and high level of meetings, this was only a gubernatorial visit, not a presidential visit, as much as it seemed so.)

At every stop, and no matter whom he met with, the governor plugged his raison d’etre for the visit: tolerance and the museum, both themes he addressed with gusto.

“I was born in Austria, a place where atrocities happened, and because of that I want to do whatever I can to promote tolerance around the world,” Schwarzenegger told the crowd of about 1,200 people at the afternoon groundbreaking ceremony in Jerusalem.

“If only those who were crammed into the damp boxcars could see us here today,” he said, talking about the Holocaust. “If only those in the camps could know we have them in our hearts half a century later.”

Later in the day, Schwarzenegger also visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The glowing light of the eternal flame cast an orangey shadow on the governor’s yarmulke-clad head as he lay a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance, which commemorates “the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.”

How deeply personal is the governor’s quest for tolerance? How much is it related to his father’s Nazi past?

The governor’s relationship with Rabbi Hier began 20 years ago, six years before the center investigated Gustav Schwarzenegger.

“Just out of coincidence, I was invited to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and at that point, I had no idea what it was all about,” he said. He attended the dinner and promised to help Hier with fundraising in Hollywood entertainment circles, which had lots of Jews but not lots of donors at the time.

“Before I met them, I did not know much about a lot of the history, because, you see, when you grow up in Austria and Germany, you don’t have the same kind of teaching and education that you have over there in America, where you feel much more openly about all this, about tolerance and the Holocaust,” Schwarzenegger told me.

The governor recounted his history with the center and his special relationship with Hier, in response to criticism from some within the L.A. Jewish community who are worried about being politically locked out.

“They are my close friends, and they are dear to my heart,” he told me, but noted that now as governor, while that relationship will continue, they will expand it to the rest of the community.

Schwarzenegger talked about his father’s Nazi past and how his involvement with Hier helped him.

“I remember when stories came out about my father, and this is the late ’80s, about my father’s Nazi past, and I then called [Hier] and I said, ‘Can you check it out? You know you guys have the access through good research.'”

The revelation came as a surprise to Schwarzenegger.

“My father, and this was a common thing, he didn’t talk about the war. No one likes to talk about their losses. No one ever talked about the war; no one ever talked about what happened. So there was really not much information,” he said.

“He would only talk about his back injury, Stalingrad or something like that … but never anything else. He never wanted to talk about it.”

Hier’s research found that while Schwarzenegger pere did officially belong to the Nazi Party, there was no record he committed any war crimes.

Inasmuch as a cynic might point out how Schwarzenegger’s relationship with the Museum of Tolerance has been beneficial to the governor and his reputation, it’s really the governor’s relationship that has proven this week to be equally — if not more — beneficial to the Museum of Tolerance.

Put aside Schwarzenegger’s own personal monetary contributions — which he admitted on Sunday night was a “certain percentage of my income” — and his involving other celebrities and their checkbooks. It was Schwarzenegger’s presence here that drew the plethora of media and coverage to the center’s giant project. It would be forever enshrined in the walls Frank Gehry will build.

Schwarzenegger’s trip — not his first — to Israel endeared him not only to Hier, Rabbi Abraham Cooper and everyone involved with the new Museum of Tolerance, but to the politicians and the man on the street — including a group of Special Olympics teenagers who wore their medals as he insisted on speaking to each one of them personally.

The warm feelings Israelis had for Schwarzenegger seemed to be mutual.

“Am Yisrael Chai!” Schwarzenegger called out at the groundbreaking, using the Hebrew phrase for “Israel Lives!” But he couldn’t leave the stage without a signature parting shot.

“I’ll be back!”