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."