Innovative Israel Museum Director James Snyder who was this year's recipient of
the Guardian of Zion award, though appreciative of the honor accorded him,
declined personal credit and said that he was accepting it on behalf of the
supporters and staff of the museum without whom he would not be able to achieve
anything. Instead of taking the prize money for himself, Snyder decided to give
it as an endowment to the museum for the establishment of an international
lectureship in memory of his parents.
The annual Guardian Zion award is
given by Bar Ilan University's Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
which was established in 1995 by American Jewish community leaders and
philanthropists Ingeborg and Ira Rennert.
In 1997, the Center inaugurated
the Guardian of Zion Award, with author,, philosopher, human rights activist,
promoter of peace and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel as the first
Wiesel, has attended every Guardian of Zion ceremony since
then, flying in specially from the US. He was seated opposite Israel's fifth
president Yitzhak Navon at the VIP table at the King David hotel on Monday night
when Snyder received his award from a radiant Ingeborg Rennert, who happens to
be a close friend of Snyder's as well as an admirer of the manner in which he
has transformed the Israel Museum.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who last
year, with the unanimous approval of the Jerusalem City Council, awarded
honorary citizenship of Jerusalem to Snyder, is also a personal friend, and
admitted candidly he frequently consults with him about how to upgrade the
cultural life of the capital. "James is one of the people I learned from most in
executing and articulating a vision," said Barkat, adding that while most people
know Snyder as "sweet and lovey dovey, he can also bite like a bull dog to get
things done on time and on budget".
Barkat is also cognizant of the many
contributions that the Rennerts have made to Jerusalem's cultural image, and in
appreciation of what they have done, are doing and will continue to do in the
future, presented them with the key to the city in which they already own a home
where they like to spend Jewish holidays. Barkat said that he did not know
friends of Jerusalem like the Rennerts. "We see you as partners and visionaries.
You always give, give, give and never take," he said, explaining that under the
circumstances he thought it would be "prudent, honorable and fair" to give them
the key to the city of Jerusalem.
Snyder, who when speaking of the
history of the Israel Museum, never fails to credit legendary Jerusalem Mayor
Teddy Kollek with being its visionary, mentioned Kollek several times in his
address and acknowledged the presence of Kollek's son and daughter-in-law Amos
and Osnat Kollek, who are making their own cultural contributions to the city,
and said that they had come "as part of the great heritage of
Never too serious to abandon his almost impish sense of humor,
Snyder said that it was daunting to stand before such a distinguished audience
and its main course and described himself as the second course.
Israel Museum, he said, was the reason that he and his wife Tina, were in
Jerusalem. He had never been to Israel before taking up his position in 1997.
"For us the museum is the antithesis to the geopolitical narrative that
overtakes the world," he said, noting that culture transcends all.
two video screens at opposite ends of the room, Snyder asked his audience to
look with fresh eyes at the narrative of culture and landscape and the way in
which they are integrated and harmonize with each other. The opening scene took
viewers back to just over half a century ago when the Hill of Tranquility on
which the museum stands was barren, and architect Alfred Mansfeld had prepared
his initial drawings of what he envisaged the future museum to be.
Snyder's arrival, the museum has undergone a massive overhaul and expansion that
was completed in 2010, but which said Snyder, "preserves Mansfeld's great
vision." Snyder credited Mansfeld with bringing international modernism to
Snyder doubted that Kollek was thinking of modernism when he
initiated the concept of the museum, nor of the synthesis of different kinds of
modernism, "but he created one of the most powerful sites of modernism of the
20th century." In talking of the way in which the museum is structured, Snyder
said: "You see landscape meeting architecture with harmony between older and
newer." He was also proud of the fact that Israel Museum is "many museums under
one roof" with some 500,000 objects, starting with archaeology from pre-historic
times well before the emergence of monotheism.
There are exhibits from
Byzantine times and from the beginning of pre-Islamic practice; and synagogues
from Europe, Asia and the Americas, with Snyder's favorite being the one from
Surinam which tells the story of Sephardic culture. In the modern art galleries
Picasso and Max Ernst share space with African masks which are completely
disconnected from Western culture.
Snyder's talk led to the current,
critically acclaimed Herod the Great exhibition, which Snyder said was the most
ambitious exhibition ever done by the Israel Museum. In its first few weeks, the
exhibition attracted 100,000 visitors and an average of 80,000 in both March and
April. On Israel Independence Day, there were 12,000 visitors. The average
number of visitors per year is 800,000, which according to Snyder is amazing
given that the number of tourists who come to Israel each year is around the
three million mark. This has been quite a remarkable year for Snyder. One of the
great highlights was the visit to the museum by US President Barack Obama, who
also visited the Dead Sea Scrolls which are important to all monotheistic
faiths. The fact that he went to see them sent a powerful message, said
It was an extraordinarily uplifting experience for Snyder as an
American to receive an American President twice during his career Jerusalem. In
the 22 years that he spent in the Museum of Modern Art in New York – 20 of them
as Deputy Director, he never once hosted a US President. In fact Obama admitted
to him that not only has he never been to MoMA, but he has also never been to
the National Museum in Washington.
As far as his own feelings for the
Israel Museum go, Snyder, harking back to his initial introduction to the museum
confessed: "I saw the museum and was smitten. Only years later did I go with
Tina to the Mahane Yehuda market. The museum has changed my life. Something
changed in our lives when we came to live in Jerusalem and continues to do so as
we continue to live here."