Tolerable at last?

Now that the dust has settled, will the Museum of Tolerance live up to its name?

Museum of Tolerance site 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Museum of Tolerance site 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For quite some time, no one has heard about it – the Museum of Tolerance, a rather controversial initiative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center because it was to be constructed in the city center on a plot that once served as a Muslim cemetery.
Well, it seems that the project is still alive and kicking and has reached a new turning point with the recent approval of its new design by the local planning and construction committee. The approval, however, doesn’t mean that the fierce opposition to the project has abated.
The original idea was to build a monument to encourage tolerance among people. Who better than the Jewish people, and Jerusalem of all places, could house such a museum, thought the promoters of the project at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Thus they raised the necessary funds and obtained the municipality’s green light. Those were the good old days when Ehud Olmert was at the helm of the city.
The cornerstone-laying ceremony was a shining example of mixing politics and entertainment.
Let us recall that Arnold Schwarzenegger was chosen to honor the ceremony with his presence. The ceremony included speeches, promises and photo-ops with all the dignitaries of the city and the state, who were all speaking in the name of tolerance but neglecting along the way to pay attention to a few details. Like the fact, to give but one example, that the plot selected for the museum was an ancient Muslim cemetery, which had to be cleared before the foundation work began.
Tolerance, so it appeared at the time, could coexist in total disregard for others. Just try to imagine what would have happened if a museum for tolerance were planned somewhere in Europe in an ancient Jewish cemetery! The fact that world-renowned architect Frank Gehry was appointed as architect of the project just added to the impression that this tolerance project had all the right elements and no obligations whatsoever. After all, we were told, a Gehry monument would add so much to the prestige of Jerusalem, so why pay attention to petty details?
But as time went on, it appeared that a certain amount of ironic justice still prevailed. Besides the fact that the “news” about the problematic location leaked out to the international media, the fund-raising operation met some with disasters, such as the financial crisis in the US and the Madoff affair, and pretty soon the future of the project became seriously jeopardized. And then came the second plague. Gehry, whether due to criticism about the location or following the shortage of money, removed himself from the project, causing another delay.
Those were the days when the few locals involved in a large-scale attempt to cancel the project, or at least to move it to an alternative location, began to feel that their protest had a chance of succeeding. Ir Amim and Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, to mention just two, felt that there was still a chance for the project’s cancellation or at least relocation.
Alas, those happy days are over and the project, like our old friend the Terminator, is back. A new design worked out by Tel Aviv-based Chyutin Architects was handed to the local planning committee and recently approved, money has filled the project’s coffers again and the Museum of Tolerance – whatever that means – seems closer to fruition than ever.
True, the remains of hundreds – some say thousands – of Muslims buried over centuries in the graveyard have been removed and reburied, in full respect of Muslim tradition, in the area that is not included in the museum plot, thus debunking most of Israeli Islamist radical leader Ra’ad Salah’s claims. And it would be unfair not to point out that part of the site was used as a parking lot for decades with no objection from the Wakf. But the question about the wisdom of building an institution intended to enhance tolerance and respect among mankind on such a sensitive plot – of all places in the city – remains to be asked and must be answered, for once, beyond the emotions and accusations witnessed thus far.
For the municipality, this hot potato (Mayor Nir Barkat was less than enthusiastic about the project at first and even tried, for a very short time, to find another solution but had to drop the issue, since the bureaucratic procedure was duly accomplished) is finally losing its heat. What still remains to be seen is how a museum, well intentioned as it may be, can actually promote tolerance.