New Museum of Tolerance receives initial nod

Construction could begin in as little as three months at controversial Jerusalem site, claimed to be 12th century Muslim cemetery.

By MELANIE LIDMAN, GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
June 9, 2011 17:51
3 minute read.
The Museum of Tolerance site

The Museum of Tolerance site 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The empty site in downtown Jerusalem intended to accommodate the future Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance came a step closer to the start of construction on Monday, when the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee approved plans for the new building.

The Center had previously completed the long approval process following a four-year legal battle over the controversial location. Palestinian leaders claim the site, opposite Independence Park, is an ancient Muslim cemetery from the twelfth century.

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The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the State of Israel, which gave the land to the museum.

Following the economic recession which dried up donations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center scrapped the original building plan, which was designed by architect superstar Frank Gehry, in favor of a $150 million cheaper version offered by Tel Avivbased Chyutin Architects, which was revealed last September.

Because the building plans changed, the Center was forced to resubmit the plans for an abbreviated approval process. Normally, this abbreviated approval process is only used if there are small changes to the building. The committees can also decide that the building has changed significantly enough that it must be submitted from the beginning of the approval process, a complicated procedure that can take three years to a decade.

However, the municipality committee ruled on Monday that the plan did not need to be resubmitted, allowing it to progress to a hearing with the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Construction Committee. Architect Miki Chyutin, one of the founding partners of Chyutin Architects, was confident that the District Committee would also approve the new structure without the need to resubmit from the beginning. He was also optimistic that construction could begin in as little as three months.

Because all the state-required archeological excavations have already been completed on the site, which has sat empty for years, construction can begin immediately after receiving final approval. Chyutin added that he did not anticipate problems with violence or tensions surrounding the start of construction on the site. “The Supreme Court has already said their part,” he told the Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

The Jerusalem municipality echoed Chyutin’s sentiments.

“All of the issues of ownership and politics in connection with the Museum of Tolerance have already been discussed by the courts,” a municipality spokeswoman said.

Kais Nasser, an attorney for the Muslim Committee, a heritage body that aims to protect Muslim holy sites, said he was filing public opposition to the project with the District Committee. He added that he was confident the district committee would accept their opposition, considering the project was totally different from the project that was filed.

“The area is a Muslim cemetery, and there are political and ownership issues with that, and in addition they are building a totally different building from what the Supreme Court approved, while minimizing the opportunities of the public to oppose the project,” said Nasser. While noting that the committee had been unsuccessful with the appeals to the Supreme Court, Nasser said he would continue to fight the approval at the District Committee.

“There will be a serious conflict [if the project goes ahead], not just with the Arabic community, but also with the Israeli community,” said Nasser.



Palestinian-American activist Prof. Rashid Khalidi, who is part of a group that has challenged the legality of constructing the museum on its current designated site, said the decision by the local municipality was a violation of Muslim religious rites.

"As a member of a group of 60 members of families whose ancestors are buried in the Maman Allah (Mamilla) cemetery, we remain firmly opposed to any building in the oldest Islamic cemetery in Jerusalem, as should any persons of good conscience and moral integrity," he wrote in an email. "It is nauseating, and especially hypocritical, that this desecration is carried out in the name of 'tolerance' and "human dignity.'"

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