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Museum of Tolerance sparks outrage, inspiration

April 29, 2010

Chancellor Linda Katehi chats with Mark Katrikh of the Museum of Tolerance against a backdrop of photos of Holocaust survivors.

Chancellor Linda Katehi, during her April 25 visit to the Museum of Tolerance, makes her way up the spiral ramp in the museum's rotunda. She is pictured with Mark Katrikh, the museum's program manager, against a backdrop of black-and-white photographs of Holocaust survivors who volunteer as speakers at the museum. The museum commissioned 60 portraits in all by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Marissa Roth for a permanent exhibit titled Witness to Truth, which opened in January. (Dave Jones/UC Davis)

By Dave Jones

LOS ANGELES — The 30 or so people in a classroom at the Museum of Tolerance listened intently as 83-year-old Cathy Weiss talked about hiding from the Nazis.

In the classroom next door, on the other side of a glass wall, Chancellor Linda Katehi and nine other delegates from UC Davis talked about the swastika — symbol of the regime that Weiss was hiding from, the regime that exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II.

The UC Davis group visited the museum on April 25, on a trip that Katehi organized. She did so as part of her effort to see the campus become hate-free — no swastikas carved into dorm room doors; no words like “homo” and “fag” spray-painted on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center; no fear.

“Hate has a very ugly face, and a lot of people don’t want to talk about it,” Katehi said. “And yet it is critical in our effort to inspire our students to be better people, our future leaders.”

The chancellor traveled to Los Angeles with four of her top administrators and five students — all of whom returned to UC Davis with new insight about how to encourage those difficult conversations and how to spur people to action, to foster a climate of civility and respect. A Dateline reporter accompanied the delegation.

“An affront to any member of the campus community is an affront to all of us,” said Rahim Reed, associate executive vice chancellor for Campus Community Relations.

Reed said the museum shows that “you can do more than just stand up and speak out.”

Responding to hate

He referred to what is perhaps the simplest exhibit in the museum — no video screens, no buttons to push, no bells and whistles. Just a single panel with the headline “Assuming Responsibility” — and a litany of ways to respond to hate:

Remember. Dialogue. Lobby. Learn. Envision. Take a stand. Commit. Initiate. Assist. Support. Educate. Reach Out. Hope. Lead. Celebrate. Listen. Unite. Contribute. Participate. Act. Empower. Respond. Create.

“This is the kind of message that I want to bring back to the campus community,” Reed said during a discussion after the UC Davis group toured the museum.

Added Police Chief Annette Spicuzza: “Think of the campaign this could be if everyone took responsibility.”

Katehi spoke of an ongoing partnership with the Museum of Tolerance, and, while acknowledging that she cannot send everyone on campus to Los Angeles to experience the museum and its interactive exhibits, she wondered aloud about bringing a portion of the museum to Davis.

“We cannot be hopeful about defeating intolerance unless we are talking about it,” she said.

Apathy among other students

The students lamented what they see as apathy in other UC Davis students, including some who were unaware of the recent acts of intolerance.

“If we don’t let people know these things are happening, then we’re not going to learn from it,” said Hailey Ferroni, a third-year student. This year she is spreading the word as an adviser in a residence hall; next year she will be an intern at the Cross Cultural Center.

Some students choose to ignore the problem, hoping it will go away, said Netta Gal-Oz, a second-year student and an intern at Hillel House, a center for Jewish students. Gal-Oz, who is Jewish, said others of her faith are reluctant to talk about the swastikas — as evidenced by a low turnout for a discussion at Hillel.

Gal-Oz wished it were otherwise, because, she said, “Hate does turn into action.” She grew up in Israel — she was an infant during the first Gulf War, and years later she went to middle school with a gas mask in hand.

This was her third visit to the Museum of Tolerance, and “every time it’s very tough for me,” she said.

Rabbi Aron Hier, campus outreach director for the Simon Weisenthal Center, which runs the museum, said Jews have seen what hate can do. “Certainly, as Jews, we have a right to be sensitive” to seeing a swastika, he said. “But all of us have a right to be sensitive.”

Added Liebe Geft, the museum’s director: “There’s a reason why symbols and slogans are sensitive — and they cannot be dismissed.”

As a branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, the museum includes one wing dedicated to the Holocaust. But the museum is dedicated to all intolerance, past and present.

Courage to fight segergation

For example, through Aug. 23, the museum is hosting an exhibition titled Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, the Guts to Fight for It, about the circumstances leading up to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education to rid the country of “separate but equal” schools.

The case title refers to the school board of Topeka, Kan. But Brown vs. Board of Education actually comprised five lawsuits, one of them from Clarendon County, S.C., where a black pastor, J.A. De Laine, sought a school bus for his children — to save them from walking nine miles to school.

The name Clarendon jumped out at Malaika Singleton. The doctoral student, who is chair of UC Davis’ Graduate Student Association and historian of the Black Graduate Professional Student Association, has family in Clarendon County.

“I felt inspired, I felt morally outraged,” Singleton said of her visit to the museum.

The museum stresses activism and the power of ordinary people to make a difference. “Terrible things happen when we choose to forget our shared humanity,” Geft said.

The museum, described by Geft as a “crucible for change,” includes the Point of View Diner, where museum visitors sit at a 1950s-style lunch counter, knowing that “coloreds” at one time were not allowed to sit at some counters. A racist scenario plays on a video screen, and the “diners” are then asked survey questions about the video, pressing A, B, C, D or E answer buttons on a jukebox-like device.

Returning from the exhibition hall to the classroom, the UC Davis delegation made their way up a spiral ramp in the museum's rotunda, walking past black-and-white portraits of 60 Holocaust survivors, including Weiss, all of them volunteer speakers at the museum. This permanent exhibit is titled Witness to Truth.

The label on Weiss’ photo identifies her as a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and includes this quote: “The 6 million innocent people, including my parents, should not be forgotten.”

On the Net

Museum of Tolerance

Witness to Truth

Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, the Guts to Fight for It

“Campus reaffirms Principles of Community” (Dateline, April 23, 2010)

“UC eyes diversity action in wake of hate” (Dateline, April 2, 1010)

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