Simon Wiesenthal Center

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SIMON WIESENTHAL CENTER

SIMON WIESENTHAL CENTER , Los Angeles international human rights organization originally aimed at Holocaust remembrance. Founded in 1977 by Rabbi Marvin *Hier, as The Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies the center opened its doors in Los Angeles two years later.

Named for Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon *Wiesenthal, the center's initial mission was to promote remembrance of the Holocaust, its victims and its perpetrators. With widening interest in other fields, the name was shortened to Simon Wiesenthal Center; it defined its status as an international human rights organization, with a membership of more than 400,000 families. It continues its emphasis on Holocaust remembrance "by fostering tolerance and understanding through education, outreach and social action," and the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. It membership was gained by the skillful use of direct mail, just as the science of direct mail was beginning to flourish and was becoming an integral part of American political life. Thus, unlike B'nai B'rith, which has lodges, or the adl, which has individual chapters and boards, and Hadassah, which is shaped by local and regional chapters, Simon Wiesenthal's membership is its base of contributors.

In expanding its original mission, the Center confronts contemporary issues, including racism, antisemitism, terrorism, and genocide. It monitors and acts on developments in Israel and the Middle East, extremist groups, neo-Nazism, and hate on the Internet.

The first major American Jewish institution to establish its headquarters in Los Angeles and on the West Coast, the center maintains offices in New York, Toronto, Miami, Jerusalem, Paris, and Buenos Aires, and is accredited as a nongovernmental organization (ngo) to the United Nations and UNESCO. Its Jerusalem office, headed by Efraim *Zuroff, is the one arm of the center that is actively engaged in hunting Nazi war criminals; it was instrumental in engaging post-communist East European countries in focusing of their war-time record of collaboration and cooperation with allied or occupying German forces in implementing the final solution. Its Paris office, headed by Shimon Samuels, organizes its efforts with the ngo and has been active in the fight against antisemitism in early 21st century Europe.

In 1993, the center opened the Museum of Tolerance, adjoining its Los Angeles headquarters, as a high-tech, handson experiential museum, which uses interactive exhibits to involve visitors in two major themes: the dynamics of racism and prejudice in America and the history of the Holocaust. The museum is called Beit Hashoah in Hebrew and the Museum of Tolerance in English, thus giving differently shaded emphasis to its double mission. The Holocaust part of the exhibition is portrayed not through artifacts but through innovative dramatization of key themes, which, by the use of sound, light, and action, pulses the visitor through each exhibition at a set pace.

During the first decade of its existence, the Museum of Tolerance received some four million visitors. An additional 110,000 public school students annually tour the exhibits as part of their studies.

The museum's Tools for Tolerance program conducts courses for American and foreign law enforcement officers, educators, judges, and other professionals, while many more people are reached through Internet programs, documentaries, teaching guides, conferences, and collaborative projects with ethnic community groups.

Using its own in-house production facilities, the Wiesenthal Center's Moriah Films division won Academy Awards for two of its feature documentaries, Genocide, narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles, in 1981, and The Long Way Home in 1997. These accomplishments forged close ties with glamorous Hollywood stars, who grace the center's banquets and public events.

In two major expansion moves in 2005, the Wiesenthal Center opened its New York Tolerance Center and broke ground in Jerusalem for the Center for Human Dignity–Museum of Tolerance, scheduled to open in 2009. When completed, the new complex, designed by Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry, will consist of seven buildings, including a museum, theater complex, international conference center, education center, and library. The idea of the Jerusalem center was met with considerable opposition by many Israelis and by Yad Vashem, the state's official Holocaust memorial authority.

Partially in response to such objections, the Wiesenthal Center pledged that its new project would not deal with the Holocaust, but stress tolerance among the different ethnic and religious groups within Israel, and between Jews and adherents of other faiths.

The New York Center in Manhattan functions mainly as a multimedia training facility, which has adapted the Tools for Tolerance program in courses for police, teachers, and others.

From its very beginning, under the leadership of Hier and his closest associate, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center's modus operandi has been characterized by bold, aggressive actions in response to perceived antisemitism or neo-Nazism anywhere in the world. Barely opened, the center in 1979 launched a successful national campaign to pressure the German chancellor and administration into rescinding the statute of limitations on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. It played a highly public role in advancing the Office of Special Investigation of the Department of Justice, which was the arm of the American government that was responsible for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Martin Mendelsohn and Zuroff, who formerly served on the osi staff, now work with the Wiesenthal Center.

The campaign's success put the center on the front page of the New York Times and on the map of Jewish organizational life. The center has never joined the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is perceived as a lone actor, and has often used this outsider status to its own advantage.

In other well-reported interventions, the center brought wider recognition to the World War ii rescue efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, prodded Chile and other South American countries to extradite resident Nazi fugitives, offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the capture of Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele, and sent a mission to the Soviet Union to investigate the plight of Jewish refuseniks.

In 1985, the center was part of the international protest against President Reagan's visit to a German military cemetery in Bitburg. Two years later, the center gathered 250,000 signatures on a petition to the Vatican to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Following a fact-finding mission to Japan, the center drew attention to the proliferation of antisemitic works in Tokyo bookstores.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hier helped organize an international conference on Jewish solidarity with Israel and engaged in a correspondence with Chancellor Helmut Kohl on the obligations facing a reunified Germany. Hier himself personifies the more aggressive and often more militant attitude of contemporary American Orthodoxy, though on the issue of tolerance, his is a strongly moderating influence in the Orthodox community.

Other campaigns have targeted anti-Israel actress Vanessa Redgrave, Holocaust deniers, Russian skinheads, Swiss banks, and black extremist Louis Farrakhan.

Exhibits have dramatized, among other topics, genocides of Armenians and Rwandans, the civil rights movement, and immigrants in the United States. In the early 21st century, the center was accused of diminishing its consideration of the Armenians in order not to gain the disfavor of the Turkish government, an important moderate, democratic Muslim ally of the United States and Israel.

The Center's high profile has drawn the attention of numerous critics from the very beginning. A Los Angeles group of survivors, which had been planning its own Holocaust museum for many years under the auspices of the Jewish Federation Council, the communal umbrella organization, was deeply resentful when the quick-acting Hier preempted their plans and secured the endorsement of Simon Wiesenthal.

In subsequent years, the Wiesenthal Center and its leaders have been criticized for a variety of reasons.

Hier's dual role as head of the center, as well as "dean" of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, has come under fire, especially in light of some $50 million appropriated by the State of California for the Wiesenthal Center up to 2005, which critics contend violates the separation of church and state.

An early criticism, which has somewhat lessened with time, centers on the high-tech, interactive approach of the Museum of Tolerance exhibits, which, some complain, has given Holocaust remembrance a touch of Disneyland.

However, the popular success of the Museum of Tolerance has spawned some imitations and appears to endorse its 21st century multimedia approach.

The Wiesenthal Center has also earned the dislike of older established defense and communal organizations for allegedly encroaching on their "turf," assuming the role of spokesman for the entire Jewish people, and purposely exaggerating the dangers of antisemitism. Regarded as alarmist by some, its scholarly resources and achievements have also been challenged by critics.

[Tom Tugend (2nd ed.)]