Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is a happy man. After waiting for more than a decade, he has received the green light to go ahead with his campaign to build a Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem.
First, the High Court of Justice ruled in favor of the project after a lengthy legal battle with Muslim groups, unanimously rejecting petitions against it. Then, last Thursday, the Jerusalem City Council approved the contract, after which the mayor personally telephoned the Los-Angeles based Hier to tell him the good news.
"We got a call from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat after the city council voted to say that the deal is done," Hier said in an interview at the King David Hotel on Tuesday. "Construction is now under way, and we are hoping to open in three years' time, if there are no further delays.
"The museum's location adjacent to a 12th-century Mamluke cemetery has angered some Muslim leaders, including Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel. But their petitions to the High Court against the museum were rejected unanimously by the court, which even slapped a fine of NIS 75,000 on them for wasting the court's time.
"For 50 years, the site served as the municipality's car park. Muslims, Jews and Christians parked their cars there every day since the 1960s. Do you think that Muslims would park their cars there every day if they thought it was a sacred cemetery?" Hier asked.
"The Supreme Court ruled that the Muslim community for 50 years has not regarded this as a cemetery. That was their ruling. The court found no documents in any of the ministries, no letters, nothing objecting to the municipality having constructed a parking lot on this site. Now either Houdini made the documents disappear, or they never existed."
Asked about the morality of building a museum near a Muslim cemetery, Hier responded emphatically: "All the Muslim graves have been removed; they've gone. The site has been clean for more than a year. Let me make clear that the land was given to us by the government and the municipality. The Wiesenthal Center didn't come and choose this land. You assume that it's a legitimate thing."
Next, Hier said, "we're building the Museum of Tolerance, which is a lot more necessary and could contribute much more to the State of Israel and the harmony of the people of Jerusalem than the parking lot."
He noted that fundraising has begun, and has been doing well so far. "Now we can call people and say we have a green light when we didn't have a green light," he said. "The first phase will cost $100 million, and we have already collected half of this."
Hier said that the idea is to build "a great center" and the biggest project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to date.
"The epicenter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center will now be in Jerusalem, bigger than its facilities in Los Angeles and New York. This will be about 175,000 square feet [16,250 square meters], including the whole facility," he said.
"It will comprise a children's museum of tolerance and an adult museum of tolerance, an international conference center, a theater for important motion pictures and documentaries, and an outdoor amphitheater which will be able to seat 1,000 people."
Inside the museum, Hier said, there will be two principal sections: A people's journey, "which will ask: 'How did the Jews survive for 3,500 years?'" and a social lab, "which will confront Israel's issues as they are today, domestic and international issues, but not the Middle East peace process."
Hier stressed that the Wiesenthal Center is a United Nations NGO, and has vast experience in training students about tolerance. "We're not novices in this area. We're doubly proud, not only to support tolerance, but to support Israel. In a very short time, the majority of the Jewish population of the world will be living in the State of Israel. Our institution will reflect that. Its biggest project is now taking place in Jerusalem, and for the American Diaspora, that's unique."