Cultural controversy

Many places get public funding but are open on Shabbat, so I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be the same with the Menora Center.

Pepe Alalu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Pepe Alalu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The outcome of this week’s city council meeting was anything but a surprise. Despite an attempt by the 17 religious and haredi council members to torpedo finance committee approval of municipal support for the planned Menora Art Center in the city center, the project was approved.
However, the real story behind this vote is what preceded it and what is going on behind the scenes.
The vast Menora Center project, spearheaded by the municipality, was first conceived and promoted by former city councilor Pepe Alalu (Meretz), who also promoted other projects aimed to bring the young generation – particularly students – back to the city center.
Alalu sought to consolidate the area as a stronghold for secular residents, to prevent it from becoming “just another brick in the wall of the haredim to keep the place free of any secular cultural or artistic character,” he explained more than once.
In this context, the nearby Beit Mazia theater project, also largely financed and promoted by the municipality (instead of former mayor Uri Lupolianski’s plan to use the building for haredi preschools), was also an issue with which Alalu was deeply involved. Faithful to his convictions, Alalu said that while he supported the rights of the haredi sector to provide for their needs in terms of preschools and other educational institutions in their neighborhoods, he was eager to fight to keep the city center open for secular activities.
The Menora Center project fits in exactly with this vision – a complex to be built for four local artistic institutions: the Sam Spiegel Film School, the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music, the Nissan Nativ Theater School and the School of Visual Theater – altogether 12,000 square meters in four buildings, with 450 parking spaces.
The vision behind this project is shared by Mayor Nir Barkat and most of the pluralist lists at city council. In order to keep art-school graduates in Jerusalem, one must provide them with stages to perform on and decent homes to live in. In that context, Beit Mazia was the first to herald the change, now followed by the new complex, located on Bezalel Street near the Gerard Behar Theater, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s architecture school and Beit Mazia. The cost of the project stands at NIS 150 million, a third financed by the municipality and the rest from donations. As a project promoted by the municipality, it has been decided that the four associations which manage the four art schools in the complex will be allowed to use the facility for 25 years.
Work on the Menora Center has been going on for a while with no interference at all. So what happened last week that suddenly raised the ire of the religious and haredi lists at city council? It started when city councilman Arieh King (Jerusalem United), a member of the committee for public structures and public moneys allocated to nonprofit associations and projects, refused to approve the funds. King says there is no precedent of approving such a huge sum funded by public moneys to build a structure that will serve a project of this nature, significant as it may be.
“We give money for projects of public interest, I agree. Arts schools are important, but why should we use taxpayers’ money to construct a building? That should come from private donations and philanthropy.”
Moreover, King refused to approve the extraordinary length of time given for these art schools to use the buildings built by the city. According to him, the decision originally approved at last week’s finance committee meeting was for 45 years; while ultimately the approved period was reduced to 25 years, King remains opposed.
“Usually, approval is given for five years, possibly 10 years, but 45 years? This is insane!” Then came the heavier issue: Will these associations respect Shabbat and refrain from any activity on the holy day? King is convinced there will be a lot of Shabbat desecration, and therefore has alerted haredi representatives to join him in a move to cancel the conditions in which the complex, when it is ready (apparently in up to three years), will be handed over to these secular associations that run the art schools.
Asked by In Jerusalem about the plan to vote against the project at the August 30 city council meeting, Deputy Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus at first sounds a little hesitant. Pindrus, the unquestionable leader of all the initiatives to prevent or cancel any activity in the city that desecrates Shabbat, cannot remain indifferent to that new threat. But Pindrus also knows that the Menora Center is important to Barkat, and therefore requires some caution.
Not that Pindrus – the architect behind the candidacy of Moshe Lion (competing against Barkat in 2013 and planning to run in the 2018 election) – has anything against making things a little difficult for the mayor, but the choice of such issues has to be made with lot of care. The Menora complex is by now a fact on the ground and nothing is going to stop it.
What remains is the issue of Shabbat.
Both Pindrus and King are convinced that since the municipality is so involved in the project and finances it at such a level, it should be clear that the municipal rule – stating that any organization which belongs to or is financed by public money should respect the Shabbat is observed.
“I don’t think we will inquire into the cost or the length of time given for the use of the complex,” Pindrus finally answers. “But we certainly request, by law, that these places not function whatsoever on Shabbat. We will see that a paragraph making that clear will be added before we vote for it [at the August 30 meeting].”
But this city council still faces opposition – though not a mighty one, since it consists of only one city council member, Laura Wharton (Meretz) – and she also plans to put up a fight on this issue.
“It is absolutely not true that all institutions sponsored by the municipality have to shut down on Shabbat.
How about the Israel Museum? The science museum? The Yellow Submarine? The cinematheque? They and many more places get public funding but are open on Shabbat, so I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be the same with the Menora Center – whose primary aim is to add life and activities to the city center, which should be open and active on Shabbat, too,” insists Wharton.
At the city council meeting on Tuesday evening, Wharton indeed tried hard, but the issue finally ended up satisfying the religious side: As a paragraph, considering the future center a “municipal institution” was added to the conditions for the project’s financial approval, ensuring it will not function on Shabbat.