By Natasha Mozgovaya

Ha'aretz e/museum-of-tolerance-special-report/museum-of-tol erance-special-report-emotional-games-1.290970
May 18 2010

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles may be gimmicky, filled with
celebrity cameos and interactive displays, but many visitors walk
away feeling truly affected.

LOS ANGELES â~H' Upon entering the exhibition devoted to hatred and
prejudice at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the visitor
is asked to choose between two doors. One is marked "Prejudiced"
and the other is marked "Unprejudiced."

But when you go to the door marked "Unprejudiced," you find it is
locked and the inscription that lights up asks you to think, then
go through the other door. When the Dalai Lama planned to visit the
museum, staff members recall, his representatives were uncomfortable
with the fact that he would have to walk through the door marked
"Prejudiced." The Dalai Lama himself, however, did not hesitate for
a moment.

At a museum devoted to clarifying the individual's personal
responsibility in the most palpable way possible, officials take pride
in the fact that they cause "everyone to feel equally uncomfortable."

Only thus does a person begin to ask himself the hard questions and
understand, among other things, the ordinary person's responsibility
for horrors around the world.

The discomfort stems mainly from the very direct emotional
manipulations of the visitor, including a set replicating the entrance
to a death camp in the Holocaust exhibit, as well as the selection
process at the camps, when the visitor is again asked to choose
between two entrances, one for the "able-bodied" and the other for
"children and others."

A guide explains to a group of 10th-graders from a local school that
if you were directed through the second door, you were sent straight
to your death. In the end it turns out that both doors lead to the
same spare concrete hall where recordings of Holocaust survivors'
testimonies are played, accompanied by pictures from the period.

The effect worked, and only three adolescents dared to walk through
the door for children and others. A few more peered in suspiciously.

At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors receive a magnetic
card with the picture of a child, whom they are able to read about,
learning about where he or she was born and grew up. Only at the end
of their tour do the students find out the fate of "their" child.

The visit to the darkened Holocaust exhibition lasts more than an
hour. At the museum, which declares that 90 percent of its five
million visitors since 1993 have been non-Jews, they start with the
assumption that the visitors know nothing about the Holocaust.

The guide asks the students, many of whom are children of
Spanish-speaking immigrants, how many Jews were killed in the

"Six million," replies a chorus of voices.

"And who else apart from Jews were killed?"

"Poles?" one girl replies.

The guide explains that among the 15 million people who were murdered
in the Holocaust were also handicapped people, gays, communists, Roma
and many others. "Remember," she says, "it could happen anywhere,
even in my city and yours. History has a tendency to repeat itself."

The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is screened against a set constructed
to look like ruins, and in a chilling three-dimensional model of
Auschwitz, a spotlight roams over the prisoners' barracks as in the
background a pillar of thick smoke rises from a crematorium.

Following that, the students go to the computer stations, where they
can find out what happened to "their" child. The exhibition ends in
a recreation of Simon Wiesenthal's office, where a film describes
his activities, and explains that the world-famous Nazi hunter was
seeking justice, not revenge.

Afterwards, only five raise their hands when the guide asks whether
the child survived.

"It doesn't say whether my child survived," says Abigail, a teen with
a bright purple streak in her hair. "It says they don't know what
happened to him. We learn about the Holocaust in school but this has
been very powerful. For me the hardest thing was the part where they
told how the Nazis threw babies out the window."

Among the emotional responses in the visitors book, one can also
read those of students who noted, "I had fun!" "Cool, dude!" and also
"They are beasts just like me."

"The majority of the young people are overwhelmed by the experience,"
says Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which
runs the museum. "But we don't censor anything, we like people to
put out what their real feelings are. In this museum were people who
actually wrote: 'We didn't kill enough Jews.' We left it in the book
so people should see there are still people like this in the world.

Some of them come with prejudiced feelings, and you cannot replace
these feelings in three hours. They take it with them as part of
their baggage."

Interactive tolerance

Hier says he believes interactive means are needed to attract an
audience. He quickly realized the error of displaying only pictures
from the Holocaust â~H' the students walked by them quickly, barely
looking at them. They weren't strong enough to attract the young
people of today.

"You can't make the use of technology a sin. That would be ridiculous,
it is 2010," he says.

For a relatively small building, the museum tries to cover a long
list of issues â~H' from the civil rights struggle in America
and women's suffrage though the "genocide board" covering horrors
throughout history. The Armenian community has protested that their
genocide should also be highlighted more prominently in the exhibit,
but museum director Liebe Geft states that, "the Armenian genocide
appears on the genocide board, and in our films, even if this isn't
a popular perception and not what the State Department says."

Global issues are presented in the "Millennium Machine," as visitors
sit in groups facing tables with built-in video monitors to watch
films about child labor in the developing world, child pornography
and so on. The visitors respond to issues posed in the films by
pressing buttons.

The survey of issues is comprehensive, but one could ask whether
too many topics are thrown at the visitor too quickly. Some museum
exhibitions have been taken down, such as the "Whisper Gallery," where
voices hissed various racist curses. Geft says people didn't want to
take in things passively, they wanted to be challenged and involved.

Now, in the "Point of View Diner" exhibition, which focuses on local
issues, a large screen shows visitors films with scenes of extortion
in school, domestic violence, drunk driving and the like. Some say
the massive interactivity simplifies the message, but in light of
the visitors' responses, there is no doubt the format works.

Serious researchers might complain that the Museum of Tolerance is
too gimmicky, but teachers, who see how engaged their students are,
are very enthusiastic about it.

The museum has also become a major institution for tolerance training
for professionals, including police officers and FBI agents. It keeps
close tabs on feedback to improve the programs. Geft says she always
tells the employees that if they are taking the professionals' most
precious asset â~H' time â~H' it has to be meaningful.

The content of the museum planned for Jerusalem still remains to be
determined. It will not include a Holocaust exhibit, in keeping with
the agreement with Yad Vashem. Beyond the permanent exhibitions,
the museum in Los Angeles also presents temporary shows, including
one dedicated to the victims of the poison gas attacks by Iraq on
the Kurds of Halabja, in 1988, and a photo exhibit about the Israeli
delegation's work in Haiti.

One exhibit, targeting Los Angeles' huge Hispanic community, describes
California's segregation of Hispanics until the 1940s.

Star turns

Hier takes me to one of the upper floors in the museum, where there is
an exhibition devoted to the childhood stories of several prominent
American cultural personalities. The tour begins with a pile of
suitcases in various sizes and colors and a monologue by actor Billy
Crystal on a screen.

Crystal spent three years working on the project, says Hier, and
it provided him with inspiration for his autobiographical one-man
Broadway hit "700 Sundays." The exhibit features nine personalities,
including a Muslim, a Jew, an Italian and an African-American.

"In Hollywood they know how to reconstruct things," says Hier. Each
room addresses a different issue. Because the downstairs exhibitions
are so disturbing, elementary schools prefer to bring the children
to these exhibits.

The museum has reconstructed in detail the general store owned by poet
Maya Angelou's grandparents, who raised her after her parents abandoned
her. One of the store windows serves as a screen for a film about
Angelou's childhood made especially for the museum, notes Hier proudly.

Then visitors enter a reconstruction of Dodgers manager and legendary
baseball player Joe Torre's living room. He tells his story of a
childhood in New York filled with domestic violence.

Billy Crystal's room is also scrupulously reconstructed, including
the crooked floor where they had to tie down the sofa so it wouldn't
slide. Musician Carlos Santana brought not only his story to the
museum but also his first guitars.

The celebrities featured in the exhibition, which ends with Oprah
Winfrey calling upon young people to make something of their lives,
often bring their own guests to the museum. Visitors are also invited
to participate in a project to find their family's roots.

Hier says the Israeli Museum of Tolerance will have a similar
exhibition, with the same methodology and appraoch, but that Israeli
experts will be consulted about the content.

He expresses amazement that people want to know what will be inside
the museum even before construction has begun, and suggests this is
like asking Amos Oz what will be in his next book.

"This is absurd," he says, adding that they will get the answer in
three years, and refusing enter debates at this point.

He says many Israeli teachers and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar
visited the museum in Los Angeles and found it hard to leave. Even if
the Israeli museum does not have an exhibition about the Holocaust, it
will have another historical section, and when they tell a historical
story it will be reconstructed, the way they did with the Shoah in
Los Angeles.

"In [an earlier] exhibit ... we called Yigal Amir a terrorist,"
he says. "We don't mince words.

It is not an ideological museum. It opposes fanaticism. Mutual
respect and social responsibility â~H' these are the two pillars of
the Museum of Tolerance that we teach. Those who don't like it can
go somewhere else."

So will the Palestinians be represented there?

"Will the whole museum be about the Palestinian people? Absolutely
not. Without any apologies to anybody. Look in here â~H' is this a
museum totally on the African-American civil rights movement? No. Does
it include things about African-Americans? Yes. Latinos? Yes. But
it's not predominantly about it."

The Museum of Tolerance will deal with contemporary issues, he says.

If the "set" takes you back in time, he suggests, in movie parlance,
that's only a prologue to the social laboratory concerned with the
issues of today's world.

"Israeli teacher, philosophers and historians should tell us: 'These
are our biggest issues, now use your know-how to get the message
across,'" says Heir.

In this way, he says, it will be different from Yad Vashem and the
Israel Museum, because it will be dealing with issues that appear
on the front page of Haaretz, the New York Times and the Wall Street