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From the Executive Director: Even When You’re Right, You Can Still Be Wrong

By September 22, 2022October 11th, 2022No Comments

David Inouye

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Israel as a part of AJC Project Interchange, a program whose goal is to communicate the 70-year-old nation of Israel’s profoundly democratic character, complex security situation and diverse and innovative society. The group I was a part of included leaders from other Asian American organizations that partner with AJC, as JACL has for many years.

While the trip was with the obvious intent of promoting Israel in a positive way, we were afforded the opportunity to meet with diverse representatives of Israeli citizens and some from the Palestinian-occupied territories.

Going into the trip, I had hoped for greater clarity on understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I came away with further questions and concerns about whether peace is truly possible between these two sides.

Unfortunately, we often fall into absolute dichotomies — one must either fully support Israel or Palestine. The reality is that neither side is blameless in the obstructions to achieving peace.

The deep divisions and acrimony on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often play out in other conflicts. In particular, I have seen this play out painfully in our own community over the discovery and subsequent removal of the James Hatsuaki Wakasa Memorial Stone at Topaz.

Upon the discovery of the stone — something unimagined given what we had known about the history, but incredibly fortunate — the Topaz Museum moved the stone somewhat unceremoniously and without consultation with appropriate preservation experts.

Some members of the Topaz survivors community and other interested individuals formed the Wakasa Memorial Committee to advocate for the preservation of the stone. An initial list of demands was provided to the Topaz Museum, which was slow to respond, leading to further agitation to the Wakasa Memorial Committee.

Unfortunately, the rancor that developed has reached the point where even as the Topaz Museum is now making many efforts to meet the original demands of the Wakasa Memorial Committee, it’s being met with tactics that seem to seek to discredit and delegitimize the Topaz Museum. Publicly insinuating that the museum’s leadership is incompetent and putting its museum holdings in danger is not the way to achieve engagement.

The actions of the Wakasa Memorial Committee can be incredibly effective in bending the will of an antagonistic nemesis in the court of public opinion and are not dissimilar to tactics JACL has used against companies and political leaders with whom we have had disagreement. But is the Topaz Museum truly such an adversary that must be ridiculed in this way?

I believe that different tactics must be taken, or the viability of the museum is put in question. I believe the board recognizes the previous errors and the need to atone and evolve as an organization to prevent such unforced errors from happening again. We need to work in concert as a community to support that evolution.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes down to two sides with claims to the same land. Similarly, the Wakasa Memorial Stone under law belongs to the Topaz Museum, but in spirit, it belongs to the community.

As we all stake our claim to retelling of the legacy of James Wakasa, we must work together to preserve the physical reminders and the underlying story that gives the memorial its power. If we focus too much on the ownership of the stone, we lose sight of the story.

In just the past week, the Topaz Museum has made several announcements, which I hope the Wakasa Memorial Committee will take to heart and use as a place to work to re-engage constructively to ensure the preservation of the Wakasa Memorial Stone.

The Topaz Museum still has much that it can do to continue to express its remorse for what it has done with the memorial. Ultimately, what is important is that the stone be preserved and presented in a way that honors the memory of Mr. Wakasa.

I sincerely hope that the Wakasa Memorial Committee and the Topaz Museum Board can find this common goal as a means to work together with the united support of JACL, as well as the Japanese American and Delta, Utah, communities.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.