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Scholar Resigns Holocaust Museum Post Amid Dispute

History: Detractors assailed articles by Claremont college professor. Backers say attacks were unjust.

July 06, 1998|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John K. Roth can perhaps be forgiven for not expecting controversy when he won a high-ranking federal position in Washington. He was, after all, going to direct research and scholarship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a job more academic than political.

But before Roth, a Claremont McKenna College philosophy professor and respected Holocaust scholar, could even head East, he came under attack by no less than the Jewish press, national columnist George Will and a couple of congressmen.

Whether a victim of character assassination--as the museum and his supporters insist--or his own careless words--as his critics assert, Roth has decided to stay put. He withdrew from the position last week, a month before he was to start his new job as director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

"I guess I took one of the shorter leaves of absence in Claremont McKenna history," Roth said, his sense of humor, if not his job plans, intact.

While Roth's detractors lodged several objections to his work, their ire was directed primarily at parallels that he has drawn between the Holocaust and contemporary events and political situations.

They were particularly incensed by a 1988 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece Roth wrote in which he reflected on the Israeli elections and Kristallnacht--the night when the Nazis burned hundreds of synagogues, arrested Jews by the thousands and plundered their property.

"Kristallnacht," he wrote, "happened because a political state decided to be rid of people unwanted within its borders. It seems increasingly clear that Israel would prefer to rid itself of Palestinians if it could do so. Their presence in Gaza and the West Bank is a liability and a threat to many Israeli intentions. . . . It seems equally clear that not many other nations in the world want the Palestinians either. As much as any other people today, they are being forced into a tragic part too much like the one played by the European Jews 50 years ago."

The Forward, a New York-based Jewish weekly, quoted from the piece early last month in an article that carried the headline, "Museum Nominee Once Compared Israel to German Nazis." Roth engaged in a public mea culpa, sending a letter to the editor of The Forward apologizing and retracting the op-ed piece because, he said, it created an impression he never intended. Any comparison of Nazi treatment of the Jews to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians "would be historically inaccurate and morally outrageous," he wrote.

The apology had little effect. Other writings were criticized, including passages from a 1980 Claremont colleges magazine article in which Roth mused about Ronald Reagan's election.

"I could not help remembering how 40 years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism--all intensified by Germany's defeat in World War I--to send the world reeling into catastrophe that virtually annihilated the Jews of Europe and altered the face of the Earth forever."

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Two Republican congressmen, Jon Fox of Pennsylvania, who is on the museum's governing council, and Michael Forbes of New York, wrote to the museum's chairman, questioning Roth's appointment by the "federally funded institution" and arguing that his remarks would play into the hands of "anti-Israel propagandists."

Columnist George Will skewered Roth as "someone who has been too-much marinated in the flaccid leftist consensus of the campuses, where reckless rhetoric enhances prestige." Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, pressed the attack.

"He doesn't understand the factors leading up to the Holocaust or the Holocaust or the United States of America," Klein, the child of Holocaust survivors, said last week. "He doesn't know what he's talking about."

Roth's supporters have been equally emphatic that a devoted scholar of the Holocaust has been unfairly maligned by distorted sound bites of his work.

"They've gone after a man based on misrepresentations of his work. . . . It's been a smear campaign," fumed Michael Berenbaum, a University of Judaism professor who helped create the Holocaust Museum, directed its research center for several years and co-authored a book with Roth.

Berenbaum pointed out that the critical citations of Roth's 1980 magazine article omit the next paragraph, in which Roth continued, "No doubt I was thinking about the Holocaust too much. The United States of the 1980s is far from Germany of the 1930s, and to discern clear parallels between the two would be fantasy, not insight."

In Berenbaum's view, the Roth controversy was fueled by a previous flap over a decision to invite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the museum. "The museum has been drawn into the cesspool of Israeli politics and American-Jewish politics," Berenbaum said. "Is there now a political criteria for holding an academic position at a federal entity?"

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