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 recipient.

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 Teddy".

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.

The 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.

With 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.

Since 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 Israel.

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 Snyder..

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."

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