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How tolerant is the Museum of Tolerance?

by Dr. Charlotte Mbali
17 December 2001

It is not possible to explain the roots of racism without looking at political and economic causes as well as the tragic universality of inter-tribal hostilities. So to provide a view of the Holocaust stripped of these is ultimately not advancing the cause of greater human tolerance.

As a person who has worked and lived inter-culturally for most of my adult life, as a teacher with students from many parts of the world, and lastly as an international traveller who had just spent a month travelling in the USA post Sept 11th - I was looking forward to my visit to the Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles. Maybe this Museum would show how to bring about inter-ethnic understanding, and tolerance based on a deeper understanding of history. But I was disappointed. It is mainly a Holocaust memorial, with two small exhibitions at the ground floor and at the top concerning Black-White race relations in USA.

Rodney King incident
The ground floor exhibition, about the Rodney King incident and the ensuing riots in LA concerned events that would still be vivid in the minds of many of the local visitors. It was handled well, showing the various points of view on the incident, and even engaging the visitors in opinion polls and then matching these with totals of opinions tapped in thus far. It showed different perspectives on the same event: not only Black women appalled that a jury can condone photographed police brutality, but also the plight of a Korean shopkeeper whose shop was looted by the rioters. So this section gets the accolade on my criteria, which are - moving from the local to the universal; techniques which appeal both to adults and to school children; and perspectives that are multiple.

The Holocaust exhibitions also had varied techniques as much money had obviously been expended on photographic reproduction; models, and electronic machines to enable each visitor to follow through the story of an individual holocaust victim. The Berlin café scene also gave some multiple perspectives, as it related what happened to the supposed characters, from the doctor who ended up doing Nazi medicine in the death camps to the waiter who was executed for his clandestine communist journalism. But the exhibits focussed on the victims: the photos of the lines of Jews awaiting transit; the essays from the Warsaw ghetto, and finally a moving 45 minute talk by a woman who survived, although all her family were killed. Indeed the victims have a right to have their story told and this is the motivation of this Museum's benefactor, Simon Wiesanthal foundation - to stop such a holocaust ever happening again.

Holocaust should not dominate "education for tolerance"
Nonetheless the Holocaust should not be allowed to dominate "education for tolerance", especially not when a museum is used for pro-Israeli propaganda both in the remarks by the guide and in the distribution of the Simon Wiesanthal "response" magazine, with its biased report of "anti-Jewish" statements at the Durban World Racism Conference, and with its litany of Arab terrorist actions, but complete absence of any reference to killings by Israeli forces. Multiple perspectives are absent. At this point, lest we lose all Jewish readers, I should hasten to add that we need multiple perspectives in the face of Islamic propaganda too, perspectives, for example, from Bahai refugees from Iran and Copts in Egypt. The pity of the Middle East in recent decades is that previously tolerant and religiously mixed societies have been forced apart, neither Zionism nor fundamentalist Islam being able to co-exist peaceably with each other or with other minorities. One can be against the Holocaust and against Al Queda, but still try to understand both the determination of Jews to maintain their hold on the land, and the Arabs to regain theirs.

A Museum that would really be enlightening in post-Sept 11th would be one that extends Holocaust history into the next chapter of Israeli refugees settling in Palestine, complete with dated maps of borders, Arab villages and Jewish settlements. And in order to understand Al Queda, some history of Islamic fundamentalism would be desirable, as well as of Western oil interests and the Gulf States. All this is dangerously political, but it would contribute more to tolerance by educating the American public about the historic and current causes of terrorist violence.

Connecting the holocaust to other racist massacres?
If one just considers the merits of this museum as a record of Holocaust history, I still criticize it for failing to utilize the universalist implications in the story of how Hitler's final solution came to be imposed. First, it is important to CONNECT the holocaust to other historical instances of racist massacres. Hitler himself went ahead saying, "And WHO NOW REMEMBERS THE ARMENIANS?" There is a large diaspora of Armenians in America - maybe they might have been glad to contribute something of their memories of genocide to the museum.

One list in the Museum did in fact mention briefly the recent Hutu-Tutsi violence, but not in a way that connected to the holocaust story. There are many other episodes in the twentieth century of ethnic violence that could be compared to the holocaust, not of course in scale, but certainly in similar economic and social causation. Just as the Nazis seized on the Jewish conspiracy idea to justify their murderous inclinations towards a successful mercantile class, so did Idi Amin with regard to the Asian shop-keepers in Uganda, or the North Vietnamese against the Han merchants. Such references would broaden understanding of the roots of such violence.

The economic benefits of looting should not be disregarded (those Jewish bank accounts, and the jewellery) and slavery, as the war-effort was supplied on slave labour from occupied countries and the Jewish camps. Again this is an opportunity to point to other instances where empires grow to power and wealth via slavery, and also other historic episodes of massacre motivated by looting.

Other rejects of the eugenicist final solution
As it is, the tour of this museum leaves one with the impression that Hitler was mainly inspired by racist science and as if Jews were the only victims. More could have been said about the other rejects of the eugenicist final solution: the gypsies; the physically defective; the homosexuals. The museum also posed questions about ordinary Germans - they must have known what was happening, how could they be so complicit?

One answer to this is to be found in the superb museum now open on the site of the Gestapo torture dungeons in Berlin, with its photographs and stories in tribute to the 5000+ German political activists who were killed there in the early 1930s as Hitler rose opportunistically to power. After that, most people had no choice but to go with the dominant social force. Only a very few brave individuals plotted against Hitler as the war got worse ten years later. So this Museum lacks a German perspective on Nazism. And it is important to have a modern German perspective too - the same young Germans who recommended this Berlin museum to me are also active in movements against the neo-Nazis. In Germany, neo-Nazis thrive on anti-Turkish, anti-immigrant popular gut patriotism.

The need to include the story of immigration and settlement
In my view, it is futile to try to educate for tolerance unless one tackles frankly the story of immigration and settlement, whichever is most relevant to the region. In Britain, this means looking at the waves of immigration into the port cities, Black, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Bengali etc. In Sydney, stories of aborigines, then white convicts and then Chinese. In Durban, Zulus, whites and Indians. And so on - educating for multi-cultural tolerance in ethnically-mixed communities pushed into being by economic forces. In Los Angeles, this would mean MUCH MORE about the Latino/Hispanic heritage. As I travelled by bus to and from the museum, I noticed that about 80% of fellow bus-passengers were Hispanics, with a few Far Easterners.

Nothing about the mixed heritage of Southern California
The museum had NOTHING at all about the mixed ethnic heritage of Southern California, nothing about the banishment of the Native Americans, nor about how the Anglos marginalized the Mexican occupants. Yet the majority of LA school children who will be led through those exhibitions will most likely have Hispanic ancestry. They are not just Mexico-Americans: they are the children of the immigrants and refugees that have fled Central America, the backyard Empire of the USA. The way that race relations in the USA get stereotyped into mainly a Black -White issue (even in the media it is the same with the token Black actor but never the token Hispanic or Korean) was beginning to jar against my multi-cultural experiences and sense of the history of Southern California.

So am I saying that this Museum should also take on the history of US foreign policy in Central America? The answer is yes because what happens to Mayan peasant farmers in Guatemala has some similarities to what happens to Arab farmers in Palestine/Israel, as both are victims of changing land-use. That seems to be a tall order for the museum's governing body. Museums traditionally deal with the past from the perspective of the victorious: they are often monuments to imperialism. They do not take on what is still contested, that is too "political".

But it is not possible to explain the roots of racism without looking at political and economic causes as well as the tragic universality of inter-tribal hostilities. So to provide a view of the Holocaust stripped of these is ultimately not advancing the cause of greater human tolerance. And so it is a misuse or a misnomer to equip a "Museum of Tolerance" with mainly Holocaust items, excluding the variety of themes and exhibits that could be generated by making stronger references to the multi-ethnic features of Los Angeles itself.




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