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In the cause of Tolerance

Times Staff Writer

SINCE THE Museum of Tolerance opened in 1993, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Darfur have been inscribed in the book of mass extermination.

Clearly, there is no lack of work to do for an L.A. institution dedicated to documenting the human race’s blood lust while fighting prejudice in hopes of remaking homo sapiens in a more humane image.

“I was not that naive to think that evil would be expunged,” says Rabbi Marvin Hier, looking back on the 31 years since he founded the museum’s parent human rights and Holocaust remembrance organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But I never thought that so soon after the world became aware of the ovens of Auschwitz we would have places like these . . . that people would have the chutzpah to say, ‘So what? We can do what we want,’ and get away with it.”

He says this without gloom. At 69, Hier remains a resourceful, insistent, upbeat and well-connected partisan for his cause and his institution. As he sits talking affably in his office, he is surrounded by photographic multiples of himself in the company of presidents -- and by baseballs signed by Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra, the boyhood heroes he cheered from the cheap seats at Yankee Stadium. The Orthodox rabbi never has been afraid of controversy, and the museum’s agenda never has been more ambitious, nor more controversial, than it is right now.

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At home, having just finished a $13-million makeover of its auditorium and several exhibits, the Museum of Tolerance is pushing to build a new wing for conferences and large gatherings. The plan, which also seeks to extend operating hours beyond the current 5 p.m. city-imposed limit, is under review at City Hall. Some neighboring homeowners object to the 20,000-square-foot expansion. Besides complaints about traffic, parking and loss of peace and quiet, they have questioned the propriety of putting social functions in a museum dedicated to the Holocaust.

Contrary to what the opponents say on their website, Hier promises there will be no weddings or bar mitzvahs -- only functions, including performances and film premieres, that are in tune with the museum’s mission.

In Jerusalem, a proposal to build a second Museum of Tolerance, designed by Frank Gehry and costing more than $200 million, is being deliberated by Israel’s Supreme Court. Should it go forward, some fear, the project could further aggravate Israeli-Palestinian relations. When construction began early in 2006 on what had long been a parking lot, builders found bones from an abandoned Muslim cemetery said to date from the time of the Crusades. Israeli Arab groups sued to stop the project. Hier says he received an e-mail from the Supreme Court two months ago saying it would render a decision soon.

“We expect to win handily,” he says, and with $115 million already raised, construction would resume immediately upon a favorable ruling. “You’ll have protests for two or three days,” then things will go back to normal, he predicted.

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Ran Boytner, director of international research at UCLA’s Cotsen Institute for Archaeology, is not so sure. As head of the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group, the Israeli-born scholar is trying to write ground rules for cooperation between the sides to protect ancient sites. Building on a former Muslim graveyard could be “a galvanizing event,” says Boytner, who thinks protests could be vehement “because of the symbolic importance of who is building the building. This is the Museum of Tolerance.”

While its global and local initiatives remain unsettled, the Pico Boulevard museum has its makeover to celebrate and promote. The second floor has been transformed into the Youth Action Lab, a high-tech classroom and exhibition space for teaching elementary through high school kids about prejudice. The floor is airy and sunlit, aiming to brighten visitors’ experience of a museum whose core exhibit -- designed for ages 12 and older -- remains a dark, subterranean walk through the history of the Holocaust.

Artifacts and documents from the Holocaust, formerly housed together on the second floor, now are deployed separately in the exhibits downstairs to add immediacy to the story being told on video screens.

One case holds uniforms, weapons and an officer’s cap with death’s-head insignia from Nazi SS units; another houses burlap or striped-cloth garb worn by death camp prisoners, the whips and truncheons they endured, the canisters of Zyklon-B poison that killed them, and, perfectly preserved with every hair still neatly twined, the light-brown braids and pigtails cut from the heads of two young girls before they were gassed.

There’s a typed note labeled “from one mass murderer to another” -- a 1939 message from Heinrich Himmler, overseer of Hitler’s Final Solution, to Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who would supervise the roundup of 100,000 Dutch Jews. In a 1933 letter, recently acquired for more than $50,000, Albert Einstein, beginning his exile, salutes fellow Europeans who “advocate unconditional tolerance and freedom of conviction . . . the most important foundation of our culture.”

Some of the interactive electronic exhibits that dominate the museum got updates. A new computerized display called Hate.com lets visitors peer into crannies of the Internet that are receptacles for intolerance. The Point of View Diner, where 1950s-style decor includes tabletop jukeboxes that spin ethical questions instead of 45s, now includes a filmed scenario on high school bullying.

The American History Wall, formerly a simple timeline, now consists of 15 large, glassed-in panels, illustrated with pictures and quotations. Pushing color-coded controls, viewers can change the windows’ content to shift among the exhibit’s three historical themes: intolerance, diversity and the struggle for equal rights. Particularly disturbing is the June 1978 cover of Hustler magazine, with its infamous image of a nude woman being fed headfirst through a meat-grinder.

“I haven’t heard any comments of outrage or horror, but it certainly turns everyone’s stomach, and that’s what it needs to do,” says museum director Liebe Geft. “We don’t sugarcoat.”

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Even in the second-floor children’s domain, which features movable, pastel-colored screens showing the portraits and idealistic words of human rights heroes including Cesar Chavez, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., a visitor eventually must confront destruction and heartbreak. A display case reserved for art by children features a temporary exhibition of crayon and pencil drawings by refugees who escaped Darfur. Helicopter gunships and attackers on trucks and horseback are common motifs. In one picture, three corpses lie beside a burning row of huts, while three living people -- or perhaps their spirits -- rise heavenward above the violence.

“History goes on. So does man’s inhumanity to man,” says Hier. But he thinks the renovation -- along with the homey, humorous installation “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves,” which debuted in 2003, produced by Billy Crystal and his wife to celebrate American diversity and the immigrant experience -- provides an answer for a common visitors’ question: “ ‘Where’s some area for respite?’ We now have two floors that lighten the load.”

Geft cites a Hebrew proverb as guiding wisdom for the latest changes at the museum: “It implores people to stay away from evil and do good. We very much wanted to strengthen the message of empowerment, the ‘do good’ part, so that people don’t leave with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, but with a feeling that each person can make a difference.”

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and Sun. $13, adults; $11, seniors; $10, students; free, ages 5 and younger. (310) 553-8403, www.museumoftolerance.com


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