The National Academy of Public Administration has just made recommendations that can protect the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from being misused for diplomatic purposes. The academy's study was mandated by Congress after the State Department tried for the second time to manipulate the museum as a diplomatic tool.
The State Department's first manipulation was at the museum's opening ceremony in 1993, to which it had the museum invite Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian leader, hoping to shore up his image. Despite Tudjman's antisemitic writings and his assertion that the Holocaust had been grossly exaggerated, museum officials complied -- to a chorus of condemnation by Holocaust survivors, including Elie Wiesel.
Its second happened last year when State Department officials had the museum invite Yasser Arafat when he would be here for negotiations at the White House. The initiative was made by the State Department's Middle East negotiating team, Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller -- who were, then as now, presidentially appointed members of the museum's board, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Miller asked the council's chair, Miles Lerman, to invite Arafat; and Lerman, without consulting either the council or the museum's director, agreed. Arafat was invited and accepted the invitation.
Lerman then asked me, as the director of the museum, what I thought of the State Department's idea of inviting Arafat -- withholding the crucial information that the matter had moved well beyond the idea stage. My response was clear. The museum has the duty to educate; but why had Arafat never taken the short helicopter ride from his headquarters in Gaza to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum -- which had, in fact, invited him?
The State Department was motivated not by its desire to educate the Palestinian leader but by its wish to burnish his image during negotiations at the White House. This was a naked attempt to use the museum as a prop for a photo opportunity, and a manipulation of both the museum and the Holocaust itself. It wasn't a question of supporting the Middle East peace process, which I strongly did; it was a question of using the museum, and the dead, for tactical diplomatic ends. Hearing this, Lerman had Arafat disinvited.
The disinvitation was leaked by the aggrieved Palestinians -- which is how I discovered that Arafat had been invited in the first place. A public furor ensued. Under pressure from the State Department and the White House, Lerman reinvited Arafat -- again without telling me.
The council's executive committee asked me to escort the Palestinian leader. I refused -- it was a matter of conscience in a museum of conscience. I then resigned.
The just-released study -- commissioned in the wake of the Arafat scandal by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the museum -- strongly vindicates my position. It cites concerns that "federal institutions, especially one that carries the moral weight of the Holocaust, are vulnerable to political pressure from the executive branch or the Congress" and that the museum "should not be used as a tool to achieve particular political purposes," as it had in the Arafat affair. Most tellingly, the report concludes that "presidential appointment of State Department officials as full Council members may be inappropriate because conflicts of interest may result."
The report also deals sharply with council chairman Miles Lerman's behavior that contributed directly to the Arafat scandal. It notes that he has often functioned "both as chair of the Council and chief executive officer of the Museum" and cites complaints about his "tendency toward unilateral action." It concludes that "the tendency of the chair to make important decisions and enter into agreements without adequate consultation or sharing of information with the Council or Museum" is among the museum's most serious governance problems. A longstanding and deeply vexing problem has been what the panel terms the council's "intrusion into management." And this kind of management -- especially by the chairman -- has led to embarrassing mismanagement.
The report's focus on the dangers of State Department manipulation -- and on the ways in which the council and its chairman manage rather than govern -- will be, if Congress responds with the required legislation, immensely salutary. Protected from diplomatic misuse and led wisely, the museum can teach powerfully and well -- and memorialize with fidelity and dignity, as well as profound contemporary meaning, the agony of the dead.
The writer is the Yitzhak Rabin memorial professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University. He was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998.