No Place for That Photo-Op

By Walter Reich
Sunday, September 23, 2007

For a moment last week it looked as if, once again, a memorial to human atrocity would be hijacked for political purposes. Thankfully, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's plans to lay a wreath at the site of the World Trade Center were quickly condemned and canceled. But it seems that memorials will always be tempting targets for misuse.

At first, some applauded the prospect of the visit. Even though Ahmadinejad has questioned whether the Holocaust happened, has threatened to wipe out Israel and attack the United States, provides the munitions that kill U.S. troops in Iraq, is furiously trying to build nuclear weapons and is president of a country that Washington has declared the world's chief state sponsor of terrorism, some argued that he should be allowed to visit Ground Zero and see for himself the consequences of terrorism. Why not give Iran's president a chance to be educated and transformed?

That misguided thinking is strikingly familiar to me.

In 1998, the Clinton White House and State Department invited the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Washington to lay a wreath in memory of the dead at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process had hit a rough patch. Palestinians had been blowing up buses. Arafat's involvement in or condoning of those events was becoming evident. American Jews were growing increasingly distrustful of Arafat's intentions. And the administration wanted to show Jews that Arafat could be trusted.

White House officials hoped that photos of him looking mournfully at images of dead Jews would convince living Jews that he genuinely felt their pain, truly understood their anxieties about Israel's security and could be trusted to protect the Jewish state in a final peace deal. In this they were joined by Miles Lerman, the presidentially appointed chairman of the Holocaust Museum.

When, as the museum's director, I learned of the invitation, I immediately objected to it. I said that the visit had been set up as a photo-op, and that neither the museum nor the dead should ever be used to advance political or diplomatic ends.

Lerman changed his mind, supported my objections and disinvited Arafat. But a chorus broke out, a chorus of wishful thinking that the Palestinian would become a changed man after visiting the museum. On "Meet the Press," then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said she regretted that Arafat had been disinvited. Lerman received political pressure to restore the invitation.

He did. He and his colleagues on the museum's board of trustees, all of them presidential appointees, convinced themselves that the Palestinian leader would be educated and transformed. In a meeting, board members repeatedly asked me to escort him on a VIP tour and a wreath-laying ceremony in front of the museum's eternal flame, set atop a plinth containing soil from concentration camps and ghettos. I refused. Not long after that, I resigned.

In the end, the Arafat visit never took place. On the day he was to come, he canceled. The Monica Lewinsky scandal had just broken and the media had decamped to the White House to cover it. There would be no photo-op. And therefore no political advantage to the visit.

Last week's Ahmadinejad fiasco is eerily similar to that earlier one. True, in this instance it was Ahmadinejad, not the Americans, who wanted to misuse Ground Zero for political purposes. He has been getting heat in his own country, suffering economic and diplomatic consequences as a result of his Holocaust denial, his genocidal threats against Israel and his nuclear saber-rattling. A visit to Ground Zero could have softened his image.

In fact, a miniseries featuring an Iranian diplomat who saved Jews in France during the Holocaust, presumably aimed at repairing Ahmadinejad's image, is playing on Iranian TV. This is deeply illogical: There was no Holocaust, but there was an Iranian who saved Jews from it. But never mind logic.

Still, as in the Arafat affair, some here thought that perhaps Ahmadinejad should be given a chance. Memorials can change men's souls. And if abusing memory can achieve something good, then it's a worthy abuse.

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