TEL AVIV, Israel, December 1, 1999 — This article was originally published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper on December 1, 1999. It is reprinted here with permission.
Controversy surrounds Rabbi Marvin Hier’s use of supporters of the Israeli right as leverage for his plan to build a museum on some of the most-valuable land in Jerusalem and the alleged political contributions to help smooth the process.
Two months ago Avi Hier arrived in Israel to continue work on a rather ambitious, expensive and controversial scheme started by his father some years ago now. To do so, he is using the services of an attorney named Doron Cohen. Both can boast impressive family ties. Avi, 34, is the son of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the “dean and founder” of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Doron Cohen is the brother-in-law and close confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Seven years ago Marvin Hier conceived the idea of building a huge, state-of-the-art center for Holocaust research in Jerusalem, as an extension of a Los Angeles based organization he had founded more than 20 years ago. Hier, 61, wanted to establish an institution that would serve as a study center and museum for subjects related to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Alongside fundraising efforts for his Los Angeles project, he had acquired from Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal the right to use his name, like a businessman acquiring the rights to a brand name. He called the finished project the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Later, branches of the center were opened in different countries, including one in Jerusalem.
Hier gathered around himself a distinguished list of American Jewish community leaders, especially Hollywood names. Most, like Hier himself, are known as supporters of the Israeli right. In the past, they contributed large sums to Israeli parties and political figures.
While Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, Hier was unsuccessful in advancing the project. But after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, Hier found an open door in all the corridors of power in Jerusalem. However, the mayor of the city, Ehud Olmert, opposed the establishment of yet another museum in the capital devoted to Jewish history, which would infringe on Yad Vashem’s territory. When Hier changed the plan and decided to build a museum of tolerance, promising it would not deal with Holocaust issues, Olmert gave his support. He refused, however, to honor the commitment given by his predecessor, Teddy Kollek, to allocate free land for the project. “Hier wanted the most valuable land in the city, the land in the compound of the Museum of Nature in the German Colony,” says Olmert. The land is estimated at approximately 12 million dollars. “I told them that they can apply for the tender for the land or pay for it in full.”
When they realized they had difficulties with Olmert, Hier and his people approached the then-minister of national infrastructure, Ariel Sharon. They managed to enlist him on their side. Sharon wanted to place land from the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) at their disposal. Counter pressure from the director-general of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalem, caused Sharon to change his position.
But the indefatigable Hier circumvented Sharon and approached the prime minister directly. Netanyahu supported the idea. Bobby Brown, the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs, did his best to hammer out a compromise. He got Hier to write a letter of commitment, stating that the museum that would be built in Jerusalem would not deal with Holocaust matters. He also succeeded in convincing him to forget about his demand to receive land near Yad Vashem. Instead, in August 1998, the ILA decided to allocate the museum of tolerance ten dunams (four acres) of land in East Jerusalem. According to independent land assessors, the allocation is worth a few million dollars. Brown promised Yad Vashem’s Shalem that the land would not be handed over to the Wiesenthal Center before a representative of the prime minister’s office had made sure that the museum of tolerance would not deal with Holocaust issues. In fact, the land was allotted without any guarantee of this kind.
After that, the government again changed. In June 1999, about a month after the elections, Hier sent his son Avi to Jerusalem and engaged the services of an attorney, Doron Cohen, the brother-in-law of the prime minister through his wife Nava. “He came highly recommended,” says Hier. “I didn’t choose him because he is the prime minister’s brother-in-law.” Three months ago, Hier and Barak had a meeting regarding a documentary the Simon Wiesenthal Center was making at the time. It was their second meeting. The first was held about a year and a half ago, when Barak was leader of the opposition.
Since Doron Cohen was appointed to the task, he has been working at advancing the museum venture. Two attorneys from his firm have met with senior officials at the ILA in an attempt to convince them to improve the terms of the contract. Cohen does not believe he should disqualify himself from his involvement in the subject, despite the suspicion of conflict of interest. After all, the Barak government decided a month and a half ago to transfer the ILA from the Ministry of National Infrastructures to the prime minister’s office. Avi Drexler, the director-general of the ILA says that he insists that no changes be introduced into the contract with the Wiesenthal center.
Meanwhile, the services of a well-known American architect, Frank Gehry, have been hired, along with the services of the Eliezer Rahat Company, which coordinates and supervises construction. They are opposed by just a few organizations: Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, who hope to mobilize the support of Knesset members and ministers. One is Education Minister Yossi Sarid, who admitted that he first heard about the controversy from Ha’aretz.
The spokeswoman for Yad Vashem said, “It appears to us that the establishment of a museum of tolerance in Israel is unnecessary and it is most certainly unacceptable and irregular for the State of Israel to place land at the disposal of foreign nationals who do not represent any group but themselves within the Jewish people.”
Doron Cohen says, “I did not take part in any of the meetings between the representatives of the Wiesenthal center and the prime minister, and I don’t know if any such meetings have in fact taken place.” He added, “I did not take part in meetings with the ILA as the representative of the Wiesenthal center. Permission was given to the Wiesenthal center to plan their museum on a certain piece of land in Jerusalem before the center came to our firm. Two attorneys from our firm met with members of the ILA in Jerusalem to point out certain technical errors in the contract and to complete a legal examination of the rights to the land allocated for the project.”
Did any of those involved in the establishment of the new museum, including donors, contribute money to nonprofit organizations that you were in charge of before or during the recent elections for Ehud Barak?
“None of those connected to the Wiesenthal Center that I know contributed any money to an organization of which I am in charge,” responded Cohen.
Do you believe that your involvement in this matter and your close ties with the prime minister, including the fact that you accompany him on his trips and to meetings, is compatible with proper procedure?
“My representation of a client, no matter who he or she may be, has nothing at all to do with the fact that I am related to the prime minister,” answered Cohen.
The prime minister’s spokesman responded, “We have examined the prime minister’s diary since he entered office, as well as that of his secretary, and it turns out that the prime minister did not meet with any representatives of the Wiesenthal Center, except for a short meeting that was filmed for a short movie they are producing. The prime minister has never spoken to them about the museum. He does not know what it is all about, and has nothing at all to do with the matter. The prime minister does not recall ever having met Rabbi Hier when he was leader of the opposition.”
“The museum of tolerance is worthy of receiving land from the ILA, just like other Jewish organizations have received land,” maintains Rabbi Hier. “We have never contributed money to political organizations or figures in Israel, and we have never been asked to do so. We are an apolitical organization. Once the museum has been built, we only ask that we not be discriminated against in comparison with other institutions. Just as the government of Israel funds educational programs for children, sending them to visit other institutions, it will send them to us too. We have promised not to deal with the subject of the Holocaust.