tolerant is the Museum of Tolerance?
by Dr. Charlotte Mbali 17
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.