State Grant for Museum Divides Jews

Times Staff Writer

An opponent of the state's $5-million grant for the Museum of Tolerance at the privately supported Simon Wiesenthal Center on Wednesday said he may go to court to block the controversial measure signed this week by Gov. George Deukmejian.

But Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the institution named after a renowned Nazi hunter, said the governor's signature amounted to a "deeply gratifying" endorsement of his 7-year-old center.

"It puts on record California's recognition of the importance of the lessons of the Holocaust and its commitment to ensure that such tragedies never again befall any group of people," Hier said.

The bill provides a one-time allocation to help create a modernistic exhibit devoted to the mass murders of millions of Jews in Europe during World War II.

Armenian Memories

A special section will include memorabilia, pictures and written accounts of the slaying of thousands of Armenians in Turkey during World War I.

The museum will be housed at the Pico Boulevard complex of the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles--an Orthodox high school and college that is also headed by Hier although the two institutions were recently legally separated.

The measure sailed through both houses of the Legislature, speeded by its major sponsor, Los Angeles' David A. Roberti, president pro tem of the Senate, despite last-minute opposition from several major Jewish organizations.

These groups--which recently joined retired Jewish community official Hyman H. Haves, who had single handedly opposed the bill throughout much of the legislative process--argued that the Holocaust could be better commemorated in other ways.

"We hope that it does not become a precedent for people like . . . the Rev. (Jerry) Falwell applying to the Legislature for funds to construct a Museum of Morality or anything of that nature," said Doug Mirell, regional vice president of the American Jewish Congress.

Mirell said Roberti's support made it virtually impossible for other legislators to back away from the measure, which would add $5 million to the more than $10 million already raised from the Wiesenthal Center's private donors.

Asked about the opposition, Roberti said, "They are outstanding organizations and I, of course, would like to have their support on legislation I'm carrying. However, I don't agree with their objections."

He said that the state of California could not establish its own museum devoted to the Holocaust without allocating more than $50 million.

"I never viewed that as a practical alternative," he said. "You don't suddenly say, 'Let's get all the expertise, documentation and staff capabilities. It doesn't grow on trees."

A spokesman for Deukmejian said that the governor did not issue an official explanation of his decision to sign the bill but said the measure received "overwhelming support" from the Legislature.

Seeking Help

Haves, a retired fund-raiser for the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, which also opposed the measure, said he is seeking help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the state controller and state treasurer to block the expenditure of state funds.

"In essence, the state constitution suggests that if the institution is private or religiously sectarian, that institution or its instruments should not receive public funds," he said.

Beyond a possible violation of the separation of church and state, Haves said, the allocation amounts to bad public policy. He argued that such a museum should be publicly administered if it is to be supported by state funds.

Roberti said he sees no constitutional problem, citing state aid that supports California's old missions as museums while they continue to function as churches.

Paul Hoffman, legal director of the ACLU, said, "There is great concern in the ACLU, shared by many groups in the Jewish community and the community at large, that this kind of payment may violate the church-state separation principles, but it's a complicated question." He said the ACLU would study the relationship between the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Museum of Tolerance and the state before deciding whether to undertake any legal action.

David Lehrer, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, said the organization has no plans to join a possible court fight although the leadership may discuss the matter.

"We thought it was not a good precedent, that in terms of (the) church-state (issue) there was an arguable problem," he said. "The museum idea was excellent but it should be on public land, not on the grounds of a sectarian institution. We felt compelled to raise those issues. Apparently that was not significant to the fate of the bill, but so be it."

'Serious Misgivings'

The American Jewish Committee also opposed the measure but Howard I. Friedman, national president, said he doubted that it would join a lawsuit. Still, he said, "we made it clear that major segments of the Jewish community have serious misgivings on this thing."

Deukmejian's Armenian heritage may have been a key factor in his approval of the measure, according to Fred Diament, president of the 1939 Club, the city's largest group of Holocaust survivors.

Although speaking for himself, Diament said many fellow-survivors shared his anger at the allocation of $5 million to an institution that has few survivors in its leadership and does not coordinate its activities with the rest of the organized Jewish community.

Although the Jewish Federation Council's own museum struggles along with few funds, he said, the Wiesenthal Center has raised millions through what he called "tremendous PR gimmicks."

"My parents and brothers and sisters didn't die to be used for a vehicle to raise funds for a yeshiva (religious school)," he said.

Michael Nutkiewicz, director of the federation's Holocaust museum, called the allocation to the Wiesenthal Center a "pointless expenditure.

"The Wiesenthal Center certainly has the right to build this extravaganza. But the state has the responsibility in a period of diminishing resources to consider its priorities and I think those priorities are wrong in this case."

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