SACRAMENTO — A measure to earmark $5 million in state funds for a Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles easily cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.
The bill, authored by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), passed the Senate Governmental Organization Committee on a vote of 8 to 0 and was sent to the Appropriations Committee.
But one member of the Governmental Organization Committeee, Sen. Barry Keene (D-Benicia), questioned whether the grant might be viewed as using state funds for a religious purpose because the Wiesenthal Center is affiliated with Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, an Orthodox Jewish institution.
To sidestep the issue, he asked that the museum's board of directors be appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian and the legislative leadership.
"It ought not to be governed by a single institution. . . . After all, this is a museum for all Californians," Keene said.
In response, Roberti said the center is creating a board of directors separate from the university. But he doubted that it would become a "state-controlled board."
Roberti said that the museum would focus on the roots of prejudice, especially the events surrounding the Holocaust. But he and Wiesenthal Center officials said the museum would appeal to the entire public, not just Jews.
Roberti added that the center, named after the Nazi hunter, would operate the museum to "provoke and inspire reflection upon the dangers of hatred and its dreaded human consequences."
Center officials say they have already raised $10.3 million toward their goal of $35 million for the museum.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, argued that the state should become involved because of the "innovative" purpose of the museum.
Moreover, he said, without the $5-million grant, "it would take us much longer" to reach the museum's fund-raising goal. He emphasized that the request is for a one-time grant, not an annual appropriation.
The harshest criticism leveled at the proposal came from Hyman Haves of Pacific Palisades, a former national finance director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith who is active in a number of Jewish groups.
Haves argued that if Yeshiva University wants to build a museum it should do so without state funds. Otherwise, Haves said, the state could run the risk of violating the principle of church-state separation.
As an alternative, he suggested that the state establish a Holocaust commission to study the issue. Or, if the state wants to proceed now, Haves said the money should be used for a "total community approach to a museum" under the umbrella of a variety of groups, not a single institution.
In response to questions about church-state conflicts, center lawyer Ethan Schulman said, "The museum will not be used for religious instruction or worship, but as an historical and academic exploration of the causes and consequences of prejudice and discrimination."