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Friday, March 14, 1997 | return to: news & features


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Rabbis attack gay inclusion in Shoah museum

by DEBRA NUSSBAUM COHEN, and LESLIE KATZ

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Two right-of-center groups of Orthodox rabbis are threatening to boycott the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as long as the Washington, D.C., institution includes material about gay victims of the Shoah.

In a congressional hearing last week, Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a representative of both groups, urged Congress to withhold the annual $25 million to $30 million in federal funds to the Holocaust museum until it finds "a way to stop elevating the status of homosexuals to Jewish people."

"It's a perversion" to include material about gay victims of the Holocaust, Levin told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Related Agencies. "Do we have a prostitutes' exhibit?"

If Congress does not comply, Levin said, the rabbinical groups plan to issue a religious edict banning visits by its members to the museum.

The boycott threat, however, has sparked reproach from more mainstream Orthodox rabbis nationally and in the Bay Area.

"Any statement by Jewish leaders, particularly rabbinical leaders, calling to not attend a place like the Holocaust museum is inappropriate and inexcusable," said Rabbi Howard Zack of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland.

Rabbi Jacob Traub of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco warned that the groups' position should not be viewed as indicative of an Orthodox rabbinical consensus.

The stance "paints an unrealistic and unclear picture of the priorities of Orthodox Jewish life," he said.

The Washington museum "remains a recollection of the horrors suffered by all the victims of Nazism," Traub added, including "Jews and gentile, straight and gay, religious Jew and secular Jews."

Issuing the boycott threat were two New York-based groups, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada and the Rabbinical Alliance of America, each of which claimed to have more than 600 members.

A local source, however, said the groups have far fewer members and are considered fringe among mainstream Orthodox rabbis, who are mainly affiliated with the New York-based Rabbinical Council of America.

Representatives of gay and lesbian Jewish groups responded to the boycott effort with incredulity and anger.

"I think they're beyond the pale of the American community, and I don't think we should give them the time of day, frankly," said Rabbi Yoel Kahn, former leader of S.F.'s Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue with outreach to gays and lesbians.

Lee Walzer, vice president of the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations, echoed Kahn's sentiments. "To call for a boycott of such an august institution as the U.S. Holocaust museum is regrettable in the extreme," he said. "These rabbis should know better than to engage in this type of hateful, incendiary rhetoric."

The World Congress reportedly represents 15,000 people in 65 gay and lesbian Jewish groups in North America, Israel and around the world.

Officials of the Holocaust museum, meanwhile, declined to comment on the new rabbinical campaign, but said the museum has taken pains to ensure that exhibits accurately reflect the extent of persecution of different communities.

This is not the first time there have been efforts to exclude material about gay victims of the Holocaust from memorials.

The chairman of the Family Defense Council, Howard Hurwitz, has protested plans to include information about homosexual victims in New York City's Holocaust memorial, which is scheduled to open later this year.

In a statement issued Monday, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, said, "We strongly urge people not to visit museums that maintain exhibits glorifying homosexuality.

"We declare that the Torah absolutely prohibits the viewing by anyone, especially children, of such homosexual exhibits that insult and desecrate the memory of the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust."

Between 10,000 and 15,000 homosexuals were killed by the Nazis.

To compare that number "with 6 million Jews or even Gypsies and others targeted for elimination is an outrage," Levin said in an interview.

Homosexuals "were not rounded up, were not gassed, and many were paramours of guards" at the labor and death camps where they were imprisoned, said Levin, who last year served as honorary chairman of Republican Patrick Buchanan's presidential campaign.

Each year, Levin addresses the anti-abortion protesters who march in Washington on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Levin, who lives in Brooklyn, also ran for mayor of New York City in 1985 on the Right-to-Life ticket, and is considering a run in the city's upcoming Democratic mayoral primary.

He said inclusion in the Holocaust memorials is part of a strategy by a "political homosexual network" to gain mainstream acceptance.

Representatives of gay and lesbian Jewish groups dismissed that claim.

"The only pressure that exists from the gay and lesbian Jewish community is that the truth be told and that the historical record be clear," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Manhattan's main gay and lesbian synagogue and a member of the Holocaust museum's gay and lesbian campaign fund-raising committee.

The committee has raised about $1.5 million for the Holocaust museum in the last two years, she said.

"Nobody's trying to equate" the scale of Jewish and gay suffering under Nazism, she said.

Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, including Traub and Zack, also took issue with Levin's groups.

"No one has a right to kill someone else and annihilate them no matter what their beliefs are," he said.

According to Orthodox Judaism, homosexuality is "an aberrant lifestyle and cannot be accorded any type of legitimacy," Dworken said. "However, to try to dissuade the U.S. population from learning the lessons of the Holocaust because of this would be a mistake."

A spokeswoman for the museum, Mary Morrison, said there is no special section singling out homosexual victims of the Nazis.

One example of their inclusion, she said, is a wall in the museum's permanent exhibit full of small photographs of Holocaust victims, the overwhelming majority of which are Jews. Some of the photographs are of men who were gay and persecuted for that reason.

"The primary focus is on Jewish victims because that's primarily who it happened to," she said. "It is impossible to leave the museum and not know that the overwhelming number of victims were Jews."

Even if the Orthodox rabbinical organizations start boycotting the museum, Morrison added, it likely would hold little sway over attendance.

Some 80 percent of the 2 million people who visit the federal institution each year are not Jewish, she said.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Leslie Katz is a Jewish Bulletin reporter.


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