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Ongoing human rights struggles inform work of Holocaust History Center

On Feb. 21, 2020, the Jewish History Museum will mark four years since the opening of the Holocaust History Center and the expansion of the museum’s campus. The creation of the Holocaust History Center marked the realization of a decades-old community aspiration that began in the 1960s when local Holocaust survivors spoke of building an institution to preserve personal and familial histories and educate future generations about the horrors of the past.
When the capital campaign to build the Holocaust History Center was launched, the question was asked: “Do we really need a Holocaust History Center in Tucson?” After all, there were already dozens of museums dedicated to educating the public about the Holocaust across the country. But Tucson responded with a clear priority: educating students in Southern Arizona would be the cornerstone of the Holocaust History Center, a priority that could not be left to museums in Los Angeles or Washington, D.C.

That goal has been more than reached. Since opening, our Holocaust History Center has educated thousands of students who have experienced deeply meaningful Holocaust education and learned about Jewish history and values. When our Holocaust History Center was being designed, it became clear that addressing contemporary human rights abuses was a standard feature of Holocaust museums in the United States. This aspect of Holocaust museum programming and architecture was solidified at the groundbreaking of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum when Elie Wiesel turned to President Clinton and said, “A memorial unresponsive to the future violates the memory of the past.” Since Wiesel made this statement, connecting the abuses of the past to the ongoing struggles for human rights has become increasingly ingrained in the work of Holocaust education and memory. Not surprisingly, the 55,000 square foot Holocaust museum that recently opened in Dallas is named the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.

The work of the JHM has evolved in numerous ways since its inception. Our programs and exhibitions are deeply rooted in Jewish values, connected to Jewish tradition, and steeped in the history of Jewish people in Southern Arizona. Contemporary human rights issues and abuses are seen through the lens of Jewish values such as pikuach nefesh (saving a life), tzedek tzedek tirdof (pursuing justice), and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Moreover, the JHM is committed to representing Jewishness in expansive, inclusive, and global ways as recently showcased at a three-day Sephardic and Mizrahi Culture Festival. Expanding our sense of Jewish community and exploring Jewish inclusivity opens pathways of engagement with many in our community who are otherwise unengaged, disenfranchised, or unfamiliar with Jewish life. The museum serves a dual purpose of opening minds and educating those within and without the Jewish community, thereby deepening and strengthening Jewish life in Tucson.

The JHM is committed to building community and confronting anti-Semitism, work that is often done simultaneously. On Jan. 12, we responded to escalating anti-Semitism by convening a safety in solidarity rally in partnership with our neighbors at the Prince Chapel AME Church and Consulate of Mexico in Tucson.
The inspiration for this event came from our communal past. In the 1940s, during another period of heightened anti-Semitism, Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, who led the Temple Emanu-El congregation in the historic temple that is now the flagship building of our museum, invited the Prince Chapel AME Church choir to perform on the bimah of the sanctuary.

The moral courage of Gumbiner, who also hosted a regional meeting of the Urban League in the temple during the era of Jim Crow segregation, inspires our work today. Gumbiner faced skepticism and confronted questions about the importance of building community partnerships over 75 years ago. And while some of those same issues and questions are asked today, it has become evident from the work of the JHM over the past four years that building community relations through programs and educational opportunities enhance awareness and understanding between our local Jewish community and the community at large. We are breaking down prejudices and building positive relationships with our neighbors one program at a time.

As we continue to develop the mission and impact of the JHM, we invite you to join our efforts to create a more just, expansive, and inclusive future together.
Bryan Davis, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center.