The Unorthodox Rabbi : By Invoking the Holocaust and Bullying the Establishment, Marvin Hier Has Made The Simon Wiesenthal Center the Most Visible Jewish Organization in the World
LAST YEAR, WHEN the Berlin Wall fell and the word reunification was murmured in the halls of power, the American Jewish community held its breath. Nobody had to be reminded of what happened to European Jewry the last time Germany was one. Reluctant to risk sparking world ire by opposing reunification while television transmitted dramatic pictures of the decimated Berlin Wall, most American Jews were content to let the British, French, Poles and Soviets express concern on their own behalf. Not so Rabbi Marvin Hier. The 51-year-old dean and founder of The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles quickly fired off a missive to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl articulating his own fears, and those of the Jewish community.
“I must tell you I am not among those in the cheering section applauding the rush towards German reunification. . . . You are undoubtedly aware, Mr. Chancellor, the great fear that German reunification brings to the community of victims of Nazism. . . .”
Kohl responded, albeit coolly. “The vast majority of young people in Germany are fully aware of the inestimable value of a free democracy. . . . Relentless political measures to combat right-wing extremism will continue in a united Germany. . . .”
Hier wasted no time offering the exchange of letters to the New York Times, turning Kohl’s response into a public statement of political policy, putting The Wiesenthal Center on the front page once again and, not incidentally, making Hier himself look like the leader of American Jewry.
Which he may well be. By concentrating on the Holocaust and hyping the threat of anti-Semitism, Hier has, in the span of 13 years, turned his brainchild, The Wiesenthal Center, into the fastest growing, highest-profile Jewish activist organization in the world today. He has certainly become America’s most fearless public enemy of aging Nazis, youthful neo-Nazi skinheads and those Jewish soft-headed naifs who don’t perceive anti-Semitism an as imminent danger.
Through the center’s offices in Toronto, Paris and Jerusalem, Hier keeps an endless vigil against anti-Semitism in world politics, international business and even rap lyrics: It was Hier’s second-in-command, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who last year condemned Professor Griff of the rap group Public Enemy for its pronounced anti-Semitism and gave its leader Chuck D. a much-publicized tour of the center’s Holocaust Museum. This year, The Wiesenthal Center forced various European airlines, including Air France and British Air, to stop omitting Israel from the maps they had printed for their Middle East in-flight publications.
Even more celebrated is the center’s pursuit of former Nazis. Last year, it was instrumental in the capture of former S.S. officer Josef Schwammberger in Argentina. Hier was credited with bringing world attention to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who had selflessly rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. Hier and his center were also key figures in last year’s protest against the location of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.
Most recently, Hier’s attentions have been focused on the increasing incidents of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe; the center has people in various countries working to separate fact from rumor. After a trip to Poland a few weeks ago, Hier met with Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel to discuss Jewish concerns. Havel assured Hier that he considered the apparent resurrection of anti-Semitism “a plague and a scourge” and pledged to do what he could to quell it.
In the process of gaining such influence and prestige, Hier has stepped on more than a few toes. An Orthodox rabbi from New York’s Lower East Side, he came to Los Angeles in 1977, by way of Vancouver, to build a yeshiva. What this city got instead was a world-renowned Jewish-defense agency. And, whether it likes it or not, Los Angeles also got Hier, a shrewd and canny operator who, in his subsequent pursuit of success and power, has managed to alienate many of the city’s established Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation Council, the umbrella organization for the city’s Jewish agencies, and the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League.
Hier is an anomaly within the Los Angeles Jewish scene. He is Orthodox where most leaders are assimilated. He is confrontational where they are loath to publicly acknowledge discord; Hier will speak out against his own in the mainstream press while other Jewish leaders prefer to voice their differences only within the community. He is cantankerous and blunt where most are polished, street-wise and suspicious where many are reserved.
“We are very naively optimistic,” says Hier of his fellow Jews. “We’re always looking for the sunshine. Jews say they feel so secure in America. This is such a wonderful country--and it is. But they have lost all touch with reality. Things could change.”
Most important, Hier remains unfettered by the bureaucracies that keep the others hidebound; he plays by his own rules. And his marked Lower East Side accent, his Orthodox regalia and his refusal to bow to secular trends make him a constant reminder of exactly what many local Jewish leaders, with their tans and Southern California cadence, wanted to escape when they, or their predecessors, moved west.
“Marvin Hier and the center will always cry anti-Semitism,” says a renowned scholar whose previous criticism of Hier’s use of the Holocaust drew Hier’s wrath. “And they always make sure their name is spelled right.”
Yet he has apparently become something of a folk-hero among the city’s 700,000 Jews; the center is perpetually deluged by $10 donations from even the most non-observant. Last year, when many other Jewish organizations had to cut corners and go begging, the center pulled in $9.7 million in contributions, and another $5.3 million for its new Museum of Tolerance (scheduled to open next year adjacent to the center on Pico Boulevard). And Hier has powerful friends who might withhold their significant contributions to many of the city’s other Jewish organizations if they felt it would benefit, or avenge, him. Hier knows this. In all these ways, he has used his muscle to become one of the most imposing figures in world Jewry.
“Rabbi Hier,” says Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, “is one of the foremost spiritual leaders in the United States, and in the entire Jewish world.”
THE TENSION BETWEEN Hier and the Jewish Federation Council reached new heights last November when Prime Minister Shamir refused to reschedule his visit to Los Angeles after he was told that federation bigwigs would be out of town. But Shamir made time for Hier; the two had a two-hour heart-to-heart schmooze in Hier’s study. The symbolic blow was soon returned. A few months later at federation headquarters, former federation president Stanley Hirsch buttonholed David Peleg, a high-ranking official from the Israeli Embassy in Washington, who had just finished briefing ranking members on “the Situation” in Israel. According to several onlookers, including former Anti-Defamation League executive Hyman H. Haves, an angry Hirsch loudly protested Shamir’s scheduling, insulted the prime minister’s height and said, in effect, that the next time Shamir wanted contributions or financial support, he could forget the federation and go straight to his friend Hier. (Peleg confirms there was a public disagreement; Hirsch denies being there.)
Never has anyone with such genius for publicity headed a Jewish organization in Los Angeles. Hier, a slight, dark-suited, fedora-donning rabbi, has regularly pulled end-runs around the city’s established Jewish agencies and organizations. Hier has accrued unprecedented clout in the Legislature, on Capitol Hill, in the city’s boardrooms and even in Hollywood. He has so effectively mastered the art of headline-grabbing that the federation, insiders say, has trouble getting comparable publicity, even from its own house organ, The Jewish Journal.
“Success is not a crime,” says Hier. “It’s not a sin to be successful. My style is you take a point of view. The worst thing in the world is to go to a football game and see both teams refuse to move off the 50-yard line. You’ll leave after five minutes.”
He ignores all charges of sensationalism and designs the center’s fund-raising mailings with great marketing savvy. A typical piece notes that the head of a little-known Canadian fringe party seeks a “constitutionally racist state,” a rock concert involving neo-Nazis and skinheads held near London included a song denying the existence of the Holocaust and a Cairo newspaper alleges that Israel is exporting AIDS to Egypt.
Not everyone appreciates Hier’s tactics. Some accuse him of throwing oil on the flames of anti-Semitism to scare people into opening their wallets to The Wiesenthal Center. Hier, however, cares little about community approval. Though Orthodox in his religion, he employs highly unorthodox tactics, including riding roughshod over the established channels and methods of the Jewish community. He openly courted Republicans before it was fashionable in Jewish circles--to Hier, political party is incidental, recognition for his center is everything. He voted for Ronald Reagan for President, Tom Hayden for the Assembly. He even cultivated a friendship with Menachem Begin when the former Israeli prime minister was still considered tref , or unclean.
He also has no compunction about asking government officials for funding, which many Jewish leaders view as a step toward a dangerous marriage of church and state. Five years ago, when The Wiesenthal Center received $5 million from the California Legislature for its $46.7-million Museum of Tolerance, several Jewish leaders complained bitterly--but not publicly. (The center will also receive $5 million from Washington, through legislation sponsored in the House of Representatives by Democratic Congressman Henry A. Waxman.)
Politicians eager to capture Jewish votes and money regularly visit the center--in recent years the center’s guest book has been signed by President Bush, Sen. Ted Kennedy, gubernatorial candidates Dianne Feinstein and Pete Wilson and other luminaries. The massive federation headquarters is all but ignored.
“They talk about a recent improvement in relations,” says the liaison to the Jewish community for a prominent legislator, “but I can tell you that Hier, the federation and the ADL (B’nai Brith’s Anti-Defamation League) are still at each other’s throats, no holds barred.”
HIER WAS BORN with the soul of an activist. Since he was child, he dreamed of taking revenge upon the Nazis who wiped out most of his parents’ families in Poland. For Hier--as for most Jews--the Holocaust was the searing event of the 20th Century. But later, as a student of history, he saw the Nazis’ war on European Jewry as part of a horrific pattern.
“I remember thinking about the Book of Esther, the story of the first genocide--Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews. I was always fascinated by the historical validity of that narrative--how it repeats itself in generation after generation,” he says. “There was always a plotter out there who wanted to destroy the Jews.”
Unlike Holocaust survivors and authors Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, Hier’s tools are not pen and paper but museums, speeches and movies. In 1982, he won an Oscar for “Genocide,” a documentary about the Holocaust, narrated by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor, that he co-authored with distinguished British historian Martin Gilbert. (Hier accepted the award wearing his yarmulke.) Hier trades on emotion, not intellect. He realizes that the center’s vast majority of members are not steeped in the culture and traditions of Jewish life. To get people to pay attention to his battle against anti-Semitism, Hier refuses to let anyone forget the Holocaust even for a moment. For Marvin Hier, it is simply “the minimum where otherwise unaffiliated Jews weigh in.”
“It’s a sad fact,” adds Hier’s chief financial backer, Canadian financier Sam Belzberg, “that Israel and Jewish education and all the other familiar buzzwords no longer serve to rally Jews behind the community. The Holocaust, though, works every time.”
Hier gives the Holocaust a uniquely California spin. He likens the potential of another such cataclysm to predicting earthquakes. “If you chart the history of earthquakes,” he says, “you find that some are more severe than others. You also recognize that they are not freak accidents. No one would conclude that we shouldn’t have any research into earthquake prediction, or that we shouldn’t prepare ourselves for the possibility that there might be another.”
To that end, Hier has dedicated himself to, among other things, Nazi hunting. In 1979, when the center was in its infancy, Hier successfully lobbied West Germany to rescind a proposed statute of limitations on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Since then, the center has forced the Canadian government to set up systems for pursuing resident ex-Nazis and other war criminals. And he has urged identical legislation in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He was also instrumental in publicizing and promoting the career of Viennese Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. “Before meeting up with Hier,” says one Wiesenthal Center insider, “Simon was nickel and diming it in Vienna. He couldn’t even pay his phone bills.”
In the deadly serious business of protecting Jews around the world, Hier is an affable, charming activist. He can seem quite childlike--offering Cokes and candy to important visitors--and, when not battling anti-Semites, he follows his beloved Chicago Cubs on his office TV. He and his wife, Marlene, an urban planner who is director of membership for the center, live in West Los Angeles, in Beverlywood. His oldest son, Ari, 26, was just appointed director of the Hillel Student Union at USC. Avi, 25, is a vice president at Baer, Stearns, a stock-trading house.
And despite his mission, “Moish,” as Hier’s friends call him, doesn’t always take himself too seriously--at a 50th birthday party for Bill Belzberg, Sam Belzberg’s brother, the good rabbi jumped out of a cake.
Michael Berenbaum, project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, believes that the style and message of “Genocide” are completely indicative of Hier. “ ‘Genocide ' is a substantive piece of work,” Berenbaum says. “But watching it is like sitting in a dentist’s chair where the drill begins at the first moment and doesn’t let up till the end of the two hours. If it had, it might have been more effective. In a real sense, that is Marvin Hier.”
Yet Berenbaum has nothing but praise for the man’s achievements. “Hier has essentially taken what could have been regarded as a small, parochial, peripheral institution and transformed it into the largest single membership organization in American Jewish life.”
For the 380,000 families worldwide who support the center with their contributions, Hier is refreshing. They cheer his abrasive public manner, his fondness for confrontation and hyperbole, his doom-and-gloom pronuncimentos and even his lapses into Holocaust shtick: For example, Hier returned from a visit to the site of the Treblinka death camp in Poland bearing ash-covered stones uncovered in a field. “Moish used to shlep those stones around on satin pillows,” a Hier intimate says. “He was perfectly sincere, but it was awfully kitsch.”
“He’s a ballsy little guy,” says producer Dan Curtis, who raves about Hier’s creative input into his acclaimed TV miniseries, “War & Remembrance.” “He hangs in there; he’s tougher than hell, and he won’t take bull from anybody.”
Simon Wiesenthal is even more effusive. “He’s dynamite,” says Wiesenthal, in his broken English, from his home in Vienna. “The man is never quiet. He is always trying to do things no one else has ever tried. I know that he makes other Jewish organizations nervous. This center is young and aggressive. I hope this aggressivity will survive me.”
By all indications, it will. In fact, the center’s newest project, designed by James Gardner (who also designed The Museum of Diaspora in Tel Aviv), is rising now on Pico Boulevard. The Hebrew name of The Museum of Tolerance is Beit Ha’Shoah --the House of the Holocaust. However, its focus will extend, in substance and appeal, beyond the Holocaust and document other genocides, including those of the Cambodians and the Armenians. As planned, the first floor of the museum will trace the history of racism and prejudice in the United States and relates the story of the Holocaust. The second floor will have a bank of 33 interactive computer consoles linked to videodiscs containing, among other resources, the center’s newly published, four-volume “Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.” The third floor will include a 324-seat theater that will regularly show motion pictures relevant to the themes of the museum. The museum will also house one of the country’s most complete Holocaust archives, containing 500 hours of videotaped interviews with survivors, liberators and others, and 1,200 archival collections of historical documents, correspondence, photographs, diaries and artifacts.
There is no doubt that Hier intends the museum to become a tourist attraction. This is not, he insists, a place just for Jews. “Hatred did not die in the bunker with Hitler,” he says. “These are not dinosaurs that you can walk away from at the Museum of Natural History and then forget about. The haters are still among us.”
THE SON OF a Polish immigrant lamp polisher who arrived in the United States on the White Star ship in 1917, Hier was not always eager to take on the world’s assorted Jew-haters and baiters. Certainly not in New York, where he was raised in the city projects. Young Hier spent his early life within three circumscribed blocks along Cannon Street, his birthplace, among, he recounts, largely “Sabbath-observant look-alikes and think-alikes.”
He was studious, not a street fighter. “I’d like to claim that when we were 13 or 14, we fought back. But when the gangs (from other neighborhoods) pounced on us,” he says, “we just ran.”
Hier did well in school. Soon after he was ordained at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Theological Seminary, his teachers recommended him to an emissary from the fledgling Jewish community in Vancouver, Canada, who had come to New York looking for someone to take over the city’s premier Orthodox synagogue. For the newly married 22-year-old rabbi and his 19-year-old wife, swapping the insular streets of their neighborhood for Canada’s lush and laid-back Pacific Coast was like moving to the moon. But Hier was adventuresome, and discouraged at the prospect of achieving prominence in New York’s long-established Jewish community. For Hier’s Yiddish-speaking father, who had never heard of Canada, the move was incomprehensible.
“My father did not know geography very well,” recalls Hier. “When I told him I was going to Vancouver, he thought I told him I was going to ‘Van-Cuba.’ He said, ‘What Jewish boy goes to a communist country?’ ”
In 1962, some 7,500 Jews lived in Vancouver. In salmon-rich British Columbia, these truly were bagel-and-lox Jews: They drove to shul on the Sabbath, in violation of strict Jewish law; most did not keep kosher homes, and intermarriage was not uncommon. Other Orthodox rabbis would have been dismayed at this lack of piety. Hier saw opportunity. As rabbi of Congregation Schara Tzedek, Hier discovered a facility for inspiring young people. It dawned on him that through the synagogue youth movement he could reshape the lives of all his congregants.
Marc Belzberg was one of Hier’s first disciples. A child of startling self-assurance, Marc would become scion of a financial empire that grew out of the furniture business that his grandfather, Abraham, had established in Edmonton. He would also become Hier’s inside track to Sam Belzberg, Marc’s father and the man who would make The Wiesenthal Center financially possible.
When Hier met Marc, Sam and Fran Belzberg were happily non-observant newcomers to Vancouver. Because of Marc’s fascination with Hier, however, the curious Belzbergs joined Hier’s congregation. But they became angry and perplexed with the boy’s sudden and forceful swing toward Orthodoxy.
Fran Belzberg’s distress over her son’s religiosity grew daily. And soon her other children, under Marc’s influence, began to fall into strict religious observance “like dominoes.” “Travel was especially tough,” she recalls. “We’d go to Maui, and I’d have to bring along 50 pounds of kosher meat.”
Despite Fran’s demands that Hier stop “brainwashing” the children of the community, the Belzbergs eventually warmed to Hier. In the Canadian business community, the Belzbergs were outsiders with a seldom-appreciated instinct for making profitable corporate acquisitions. Hier, too, was an outsider. The couples became friends.
When Hier began to engage in open political activism, Belzberg was his most fervent supporter. Vancouver Jews were alarmed at Hier’s outspokeness, especially at the spectacle Hier provided to Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin in 1975: When Kosygin arrived at the Vancouver Hotel, Hier, with the city’s Reform and Conservative rabbis, all replete in prayer shawls and tefillin , or phylacteries, greeted him with loud prayers for the consolation of their oppressed Jewish brethren in the Soviet Union.
Soon Hier was hobnobbing with royalty, but even then on his own terms. On one occasion there was a noted Jewish Canadian jurist who took issue with Hier over the yarmulke he insisted on wearing at a Victoria reception for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. To his dismay, the royal couple was captivated by the head covering, engaged Hier and his wife in friendly conversation and ignored the judge.
In 1975 Hier took a year’s sabbatical in Israel. There, he encountered the Or Same’ach (“happy light”) Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Or Same’ach’s scouts used to scour the city for the many young, disheveled Jewish Westerners who flocked to Israel during their travels. They would bring them to the yeshiva where the youths would be bombarded with Sabbath good feeling and haimish ness. Eventually many would enroll as students, and some would become ba’alei tshuva (newly observant Jews).
It occurred to Hier that if the key to spreading Orthodox Jewish observance was young people, then he was wasting his time in Vancouver, where he was preaching to the converted--the same people who flocked to his synagogue week after week. When Hier returned home in September, it struck Sam Belzberg that the fire had disappeared. Belzberg decided the man needed a drink and a sympathetic ear and invited him into his study. “Hier said, ‘I don’t drink,’ ” recounts Belzberg. “I said, ‘You’ll have one anyway.’ ” He drank. And Belzberg heard his story. Los Angeles, said Hier, was becoming a vibrant center for Jewish life. And that’s where he wanted to move.
Hier and Belzberg flew to Los Angeles in early 1977, where they quickly snatched up the old Reiss-Davis Center building on Pico Boulevard; real estate maven Joe Tannenbaum of Toronto had agreed to match Belzberg’s half-million-dollar contribution to open a West Coast branch of Or Same’ach.
Word quickly reached the ears of Rabbi Maurice Lamm, then head of the Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the western United States. He reportedly got his brother Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University in New York, to call Hier and offer an affiliation with Yeshiva University. L.A.'s nascent Orthodox community was virtually kvelling that, finally, there would be an Orthodox college for their children. Hier was equally delighted, having unexpectedly upgraded his operation from a yeshiva to a university affiliate called Yeshiva University at Los Angeles (YULA).
HIER DROVE TO LOS Angeles with his wife and two young sons in July, 1977. During the course of the summer, Hier enlisted real estate developers Roland Arnall and Esther Cohen, who became his lay leaders, and Mara Kochba, a native New Yorker who had worked in communal public relations and fund-raising. With Sally Arnall and Marlene, they sat in the courtyard of Hier’s rundown building and planned a fund-raising banquet. A cursory glance at the calendar revealed that Nov. 12--the date of the banquet--was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi’s first pogrom. Upon discovering this, Hier chortled with childlike glee. “We’re in business,” he declared.
It was during the next month that the idea for a commemorative museum for the Holocaust with a strong activist, Jewish-defense orientation jelled. Then, while planning the banquet Hier proposed honoring Simon Wiesenthal. Hier and his associates realized that if they could convince Wiesenthal to back their efforts, they could have both a school and a center. With characteristic decisiveness, Hier got on the telephone and set up a meeting in Vienna.
Upon arriving a week later, Hier discovered that his luggage had been lost. Unable to shave, he went down to the hotel barbershop. As Hier sat in the barber’s chair, he noticed a framed, autographed photograph of Adolph Hitler. He doesn’t remember what he said to the barber, but, for Hier, this was clearly an epiphanous moment. Although in the post-Holocaust world it was impolite to be openly anti-Semitic, there were clearly people out there who regretted that the Final Solution had not been final.
Wiesenthal was flattered. The center would become America’s answer to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. And Hier assured Wiesenthal, who detested the idea of a museum in which files and photographs would merely gather dust, that it would be run as an activist operation. “If they had said they wanted to set up on the East Coast,” Wiesenthal says, “I’d have said no. It is built up already. But the West Coast was, from the Jewish point of view, a spiritual desert. And I felt that something should be done.”
Although Weisenthal’s support of the center was what Hier wanted, it immediately embroiled the center in controversy. A few years before, a group of Holocaust survivors led by wealthy Jewish financier Abraham Spiegel, chairman of the board of Columbia Savings, had invited Wiesenthal to a dinner aimed at funding a Holocaust memorial in the federation’s headquarters. What came out of that event is still debated. There are those within Spiegel’s group who contend that they had cut a deal with Wiesenthal, that he had agreed to back their proposed memorial. Hier says that Wiesenthal had never agreed to lend his name to the Martyrs’ Memorial Museum, and Wiesenthal concurs. Wiesenthal’s withdrawal cost the group some $25,000 (but the memorial was eventually built). Although Hier reimbursed them, he was accused of underhanded dealings.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of the Hillel Jewish Student Union at UCLA, recalls confronting Hier at the time. “I asked Hier why he was doing this when the Martyrs’ Memorial had been in the works for 10 years and was reaching its culmination. His response was: ‘We will do it bigger, better, faster--and without the survivors.’ There was no regard on his part for communal niceties or respect for the survivor community. It was a venture that he viewed as competitive. Whoever had the biggest center would be king.”
What’s more, after the euphoria of the first dinner faded, the local Orthodox community became disenchanted as members recognized that Hier’s commitment to the college was overshadowed by his commitment to the center. “He had a new toy,” says one former center employee, “so Moish put aside the old toy.”
Their fears were well-grounded--the school never evolved into a full-scale affiliate of Yeshiva University in New York. Today, YULA is, in essence, a high school. Indeed, when Hier recently made his appeal for a further $5 million in federal funding for his museum, some parents of YULA students threatened to withdraw their children, and there was serious talk of building a new Orthodox Jewish high school. Hier responded to this threat with customary aplomb; in late May, he outbid the city’s Sikh and Sephardic Jewish communities for a school building on Robertson Boulevard, into which he plans to move at least the girls school. Heir says it cost the center $2.25 million.
Indeed, Orthodox Jews have never been givers to The Wiesenthal Center. Hier, for his part, has not actively sought their support. “My appeal was always beyond the Orthodox community,” he says. At times it has seemed that Hier has gone out of his way to offend his fellow Orthodox. Some academicians were reportedly disturbed when Hier, who possessed no academic credentials beyond his yeshiva ordination, had appointed himself “dean” of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. And that, despite his lack of academic standing, he would not permit the parent organization in New York to exert any influence on his operation.
Not all Jewish leaders keep their sentiments private. For the past several years, Hyman Haves has been Hier’s equal in tenacity and verve. The 74-year-old former ADL executive has publicly battled The Wiesenthal Center over its foray into California and federal politics. Haves believes the center--which was united with the yeshiva and thus a religious institution--has no business seeking money or favors from the government. Haves, in fact, testified before the Legislature against the approval of the $5-million grant in 1985.
Like Haves, UCLA’s Rabbi Seidler-Feller has not always hidden his criticisms of Hier and The Wiesenthal Center. Seidler-Feller claims that his outspokeness almost cost him his job. At a Yom Kippur service several years ago, Seidler-Feller lectured that the center was an aberration from traditional Orthodoxy. “In Orthodox communities,” says Siedler-Feller today, “you are never browbeaten with anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is not a force for promoting Jewishness. The agenda for Orthodoxy after the war was not to build memorials and not to cry, but to promote learning and create the positive capabilities for the survival of Judaism.”
As a result, he says, an irate member of the center tried to have him fired. Hier says he, himself, would never have done such a thing, and knew nothing of it.
In its fervid pursuit of anti-Semitism, the center also sometimes slips. Last February, Donald Dean Hiner, a part-time history instructor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indiana, taught that the Holocaust never took place and the Nazis had no plan to exterminate the Jews. Marcia Goldstone, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Indianapolis, worked behind the scenes on the Hiner case with university officials and the ADL. The university agreed to suspend Hiner with pay, indicating that he could be fired later. But a Midwest member of the center--unaware of these moves--called Cooper demanding action. Without telling the local Jewish establishment, Wiesenthal Center Director Gerald Margolis contacted the university and urged Hiner’s dismissal.
Goldstone learned of his effort from the newspaper. She was not happy. “From the outside it looks like the Jewish community doesn’t know what it’s doing,” she says. “From the inside it confuses and upsets people.”
Hier offered a grudging apology. But he hates the idea of having to observe Jewish organizational etiquette. “There is no such thing as somebody ‘handling an incident,’ ” says Hier. “Who pre-assigned it? Was it a group that got together 90 years ago and said this is our turf?
“Sometimes there is a danger of being too organized,” says Hier. “Being too organized sometimes stifles creativity, individuality. Sometimes the organized Jewish community, by its democratic nature, becomes too unruly. It’s hard to conduct a committee with 200 people.”
There have been occasions, however, in which Hier’s disregard for diplomatic prerogatives could conceivably harm the very Jews he has sought to protect. For example, in 1985, Hier decided to commemorate the Armenian genocide in his museum, despite criticism from some elements of the Jewish community. The Turks soon responded to Hier’s plan with veiled threats about no longer being able to “protect” the Jews living in Muslim Turkey. (Israel has been quiet regarding the Armenian genocide for precisely that reason.)
Hier says he took the position in service to historical truth. The Armenian genocide happened, he says. That, in itself, is sufficient to be commemorated in his museum.
“What Hier has done,” said Berenbaum, Washington’s Holocaust Memorial director, “which is an act of almost singular integrity, is not to allow the rewriting of history to the exclusion of Armenian genocide. He is saying if you can rewrite one history, you can rewrite another.”
As far as Israeli politics go, Hier believes it is not the place of American Jews to tell Israelis how to run their country. This does not preclude all criticism: He is aghast at the breakdown of Israel’s electoral system and at its inept public relations. But he says he will always profess unqualified support for the government in power--as long as certain lines are not crossed. For instance, Hier says he would never support or acquiesce to the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Having gone through the Holocaust, he says, Jews must never subject another people to similar horrors.
It all always seems to come back to the Holocaust, to Hier’s burning dedication to never let anyone forget, and his use of its horrors to rally Jews everywhere. Rosalie Zalas, an advisor to Sen. Wilson and a member of the center’s board of directors, believes Hier’s attitude is not fanatical, but necessary. In 1964, Zalas and her young children followed her husband, a doctor assigned to the United States Army, to West Germany. She knew German, and was shocked by what people said to each other about the Holocaust when they thought she couldn’t understand.
“It was appalling to find out there was such a large number of Germans, particularly older Germans, who never really regretted the Holocaust,” she says. “They only regretted that they had not finished the job and there were still people left to talk about it.” When she asked the location of the Dachau concentration camp, people feigned ignorance.
When Zalas moved to Los Angeles a few years later, she was distressed to find that the city’s Jewish community also largely ignored the Holocaust. “Before The Wiesenthal Center, nobody knew anything about the Holocaust, nobody talked about it.” The sole exception, she said, was Marvin Hier.
Of course, some people wish he would keep quiet about it once in a while. Seidler-Feller keeps a “Holocaust abuse file” in his office that is filled with news of The Wiesenthal Center’s activities. Raising the specter of the Holocaust at every turn lessens its horror and denies its singularity, Seidler-Feller says.
Nationally respected leader Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has his own misgivings: “Ideologically, I am concerned with the imbalance in the center’s regard for the Holocaust,” he says. “It is the predominant event in the Jewish psyche. Jews have the Holocaust clinging beneath their skin, in their nostrils. The majority of the people out there find their strong and their visceral identification through the Holocaust, and Hier has been able to tap into that.” That ability is harmful to Jews, he says. “I think there is that one-sided, mono-dimensional aspect to the center’s take on the Holocaust that I honestly believe is inimical to Jewish flexibility, creativity and innovativeness. It is a sad shortcut to Jewish loyalty.”
Hier finds these criticisms irrelevant. In his view, memory and warning are inseparable. The Holocaust must be recalled so as to never be repeated. His message is that Jews are never safe, that anti-Semitism is pandemic, occurring everywhere and in various degrees of virulence, and no matter the occasion, Jews must always stand up for themselves.
“I have experienced anti-Semitism in public life in a very profound way,” says Hier, harking back to his dinner with the Queen. Sitting at his table--Hier had ordered a kosher meal--was a kilt-clad Canadian admiral holding forth on the ethnicity he declared was ruining Canada. The admiral turned to Hier and said: “Take you, rabbi. Here we all are having dinner. And you have to eat differently.”
Hier turned to the admiral in disgust: “With all due respect, sir,” Hier said, “if you are not embarrassed to sit amongst us wearing a skirt, I don’t think I have to be embarrassed about what I choose to eat.”