After more than a decade of standing empty, bulldozers were hard at work at the controversial Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem on Sunday.
The foundations are nearing completion, though the museum isn’t expected to finish construction for another four years.
Last Thursday, the museum came to the forefront of the city’s agenda when city council members voted to approve a new contract with the museum.
The contract, which made minor changes, was necessary because it has been over 10 years since the municipality signed the original agreement with the museum.
The contract was approved with the support of only six city council members, out of a total of 31 city council members.
Three Meretz members opposed the new contract, and the rest of the city council members, who are part of a unity coalition, abstained or left the room when it was brought to vote.
The museum’s location next to the Mamilla cemetery has drawn the ire of Arab leaders, who claim the site opposite Independence Park includes a 12th century Muslim cemetery.
Similarly, haredim (ultra- Orthodox) are also concerned about the possible presence of graves, which is why the haredi council members did not support the proposal.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which also runs a Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, engaged in a four-year legal battle over the location and whether or not the museum’s site was a Muslim cemetery.
After exhaustive archeological excavations, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the State of Israel, which gave the land to the museum.
Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu, who holds the cultural portfolio, called the project a “white elephant” and questioned the wisdom of putting a museum on prime real estate in downtown Jerusalem rather than the museum quarter near the Israel Museum and the Bible Lands Museum.
“This museum was born in sin,” he said on Sunday. “There won’t be tolerance, we will only suffer from this.”
Alalu said that the city initially supported the project because they were dazzled by the architect superstar name of Frank Gehry, who designed the original building. The city fell in love with having a Gehry building in the central downtown area, especially after Gehry came to Jerusalem and presented his idea, which was based on the contours of a crumpled piece of paper, Alalu said.
But donations to the Simon Wiesenthal Center dried up due to the global recession. In 2010, the center scrapped Gehry’s building for a $150-million cheaper plan offered by Tel Aviv-based Chyutin Architects.
Last September, however, Chyutin resigned from the project due to “disagreements in planning,” according to chief architect Michael Chyutin.
The museum has hired a third architectural firm based in Israel and America which will use Chyutin’s plans, though spokesman Lior Chorev refused to reveal the firm’s name.
Chorev stressed that the museum received all the permits and approvals necessary to build on the site. “This will be a cultural and innovative addition, it will be really important to center of city, perhaps the biggest investment anyone has made in the downtown, and we are expecting tens of thousands of visitors each month,” he said.
According to the Chyutin plans, the Museum of Tolerance will include an amphitheater, exhibit halls, classrooms, a stone plaza and a parking lot.
As part of the project, the Simon Wiesenthal Center will also renovate Hatulot Square with new infrastructure and a youth center.