By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page A01
A month after he refused to escort Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Walter Reich has been removed as director, museum officials said yesterday.
Reich said in a statement yesterday that he will not seek to renew his three-year contract, which expires in June. Reich will "relinquish his duties" March 31, the museum announced. Senior officials at the museum said Reich's departure has been under negotiation since last month, when the museum's governing council and Reich clashed over the proposed Arafat visit.
"The minute Reich refused to greet Arafat, he was finished," said a senior museum official who asked not to be identified. Last month, during Arafat's visit to Washington, the museum informed the Palestinian leader that he would not be granted the VIP treatment routinely afforded official guests, then reversed itself after Clinton administration officials made plain their displeasure. Museum council Chairman Miles Lerman admitted the museum had erred, and he invited Arafat to take a VIP tour, blaming the controversy on "bad advice" from Reich. From that moment on, museum staffers were counting the days before the director would fall. (In the end, Arafat's staff said he did not have time to visit the museum, but left open the possibility of doing so on a future trip.)
Some museum officials welcomed an Arafat visit as a chance to contribute to the troubled Mideast peace process, but others protested vehemently that a visit would offend many Jews who consider Arafat a sponsor of terrorism. At a meeting to deal with the Arafat mess last month, members of the museum's executive committee instructed Reich to greet Arafat as he would any other world leader. The director refused, according to sources who attended the meeting. When several members of the committee reminded Reich that he was not acting as a private citizen but as an officer of the museum obliged to perform public duties, Reich reiterated that he would not greet Arafat. "I won't do it," witnesses recalled him saying.
At that moment, museum officials said, Reich's fate was sealed. Reich's lawyer, Nathan Lewin, said Reich originally expressed his opposition to a theoretical Arafat visit without knowing that the Palestinian leader had already been invited to the museum. "When Dr. Reich first learned about it, it was a done deal and he was not told that," Lewin said. In a letter to Lerman released by the museum, Reich said, "As you know, we have differed on the use of the museum, and of the memory of the Holocaust, in the context of political or diplomatic circumstances or negotiations."
"Walter's refusal to go on the tour . . . was a matter of conscience in a museum of conscience," Lewin said. "Walter thought it politicized the institution and was wrong as a matter of conscience."Although the Arafat incident was what pushed Reich out the door, "There has been broad and deep dissatisfaction with him for a long time," said the senior museum official. "The Arafat matter was simply what brought the dissatisfaction about his management style to the attention of a larger number of executive committee members."Lewin said last night that no one negotiating the director's departure raised concerns other than the Arafat incident. And Lewin said Reich "certainly has a very different recollection of events from those that have been reported."The museum's associate director, Sara Bloomfield, who has worked at the museum and before that at its organizing group for nearly 12 years, will become acting director April 1.
In a brief interview yesterday, Reich said his agreement with the museum precluded him from discussing his departure. Friends of Reich said he is angry that Lerman has portrayed him as the cause of the Arafat fiasco.
A museum official said the agreement requires both sides not to say anything disparaging publicly. The Holocaust Museum, which is privately funded but sits on federal land near the Mall, has been an enormous success, attracting far more visitors -- about 2 million a year -- than planners had anticipated. Under Reich, the museum created exhibits on the 1936 Nazi Olympics and the Polish Kovno Ghetto, where doomed Jews went to extraordinary lengths to preserve a record of their lives and extermination. In addition, Reich pushed to engage the museum in contemporary issues "for which the Holocaust provides important moral and historical lessons," according to a museum statement on Reich's tenure.
But the museum has been through a series of difficult internal struggles over its governance. While the director runs the museum's daily operations, Chairman Lerman frequently acts independently, according to museum officials. "It has seemed to me that having two executives in the structure of that museum is not a very good idea," said I. Michael Heyman, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. "Whenever you have a confusion about who the chief executive is, the potential for disagreements is very troubling.
[And the Smithsonian never had any problems with politics. Sure.]