A Pitch for Coexistence (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A museum in conflict-torn Jerusalem stresses tolerance How serene Jerusalem looks from the third-floor rooftop of the Museum on the Seam, located next to what was once the Mandelbaum Gate, the only border crossing between Jordan and Israel in divided Jerusalem before 1967. After viewing an exhibit within the building that deals with yet another example of humanity's appetite for enmity, it is both a literal and a figurative breath of fresh air to escape to a spot from which the conflicted capital can appear to accommodate all the diverse spiritual and political claims upon it. St. George's Cathedral and the church spires of the Old City's Christian Quarter vie for skyline dominance with the golden Dome of the Rock and countless minarets as well as more modern edifices such as the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus - the potpourri of architectural styles spreads throughout the 360º view in a way that would suggest - from up here, at least - that Jerusalem is a seamless city. But at street level, Jerusalem was, and remains, a divided city. The Mandelbaum Gate itself may have vanished, but the divisions are still there. Route 1, a busy north-south thoroughfare leading from the Old City to the northern suburbs and the West Bank city of Ramallah, effectively isolates the eastern Arab part of the city from the west. On the museum's side of the street are the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Me'a She'arim and Beit Yisrael, themselves cut off by invisible seams from the rest of the Jewish city. But seams are not only signs of division. More than that they are atempts at repairing divisions. The Museum on the Seam was founded in 1999, with the mission of mounting exhibits of socio-political contemporary art that both point out social injustice in the world and examine ways of bridging gaps to promote coexistence. In Jerusalem itself, "coexistence" is elusive, not only between Arabs and Israelis, but between secular and religious Jews. In the nearby Musrara neighborhood, there is a microcosm of the clash between poorer Sephardi Jews who have lived there since the middle of the last century and wealthier Israelis, bent on gentrification of the picturesque neighborhood. The impressive exterior of the museum reinforces the seriousness with which it attempts to reach its goal of harmony. Greeting the visitor is a once elegant three-story Renaissance-style façade of pink stone, projecting portico, Corinthian columns and a convex staircase that reaches out as a welcome mat. The pockmarks of shrapnel and bullets from two wars have intentionally been left unrepaired. The interior echoes the pronounced verticality of its façade. The walls are high, and the floor space is narrow in the three ground- floor exhibition rooms. Each room is at right angles to the other, creating a slow movement from one chamber to another, each one revealing surprises before leading you to the main treasure. The gray and white walls evoke a sober, dignified atmosphere. The exhibition space continues on two more floors, above and below the entrance hall. The current exhibit, "Bare Life," is the third in a trilogy created by museum curator Raphie Etgar on the theme of coexistence. "The exhibit deals with the loss of civil liberty in times of national emergency," he says. "It is a hard-hitting presentation of the variety of abuses of civil liberty and the ease with which they can be invoked when national security is threatened. "Bare Life" follows last year's "Equal and Less Equal," which focused on the plight of migrant workers, and "Dead End," a 2006 exhibit about physical and verbal violence. "Bare Life" attracts and holds your attention the moment you enter its space. On the wall opposite the entrance is "Observance," a 16-minute video by American Bill Viola, which represents a crowd of figures craning over each other's shoulders in agonizing slow motion to look at an unknown, terrible event. Individuals pass by to be replaced by others, who share their muted sorrow. They are beyond hysteria, emotionally spent and unable to turn away. The video's message becomes the exhibition's leitmotif. Whether the object of the crowd's mesmerized attention is a single death or large-scale loss of life, whether it is the result of terrorist, police or military action, it is sufficiently grave to usher in a period of curtailed liberty. Viola's unseen tragedy is the catalyst for government excess, and the other works in the exhibition detail how these abuses are meted out. The conflicts that the museum points out in its exhibitions are reflected in its own troubled history. The Museum on the Seam is housed in a formerly sumptuous villa, built in 1931, by the Christian-Arab Baramki family as a private residence. At the outbreak of the War of Independence, the Hagana (the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces) confiscated the Baramki home in 1948. Due to its strategic location, the building was an important position, and became known as the Tourjeman Outpost, named for the Jewish owner of a nearby building. For the 19 years between 1948 and 1967, when the building was in no man's land between Jordan and Israel, it served as the location for meetings held by the Israel-Jordan Armistice Committee. In the euphoria that followed the Six-Day War, at the initiative of mayor Teddy Kollek, the building underwent renovations in the early 1970s and became "The Tourjeman Post Museum," owned and funded by the Municipality, with a permanent exhibit on the reunification of Jerusalem. Its director was Danny Shalem. In 1993, Etgar, a prominent graphic artist, now 60 years old, who had contributed to the Tourjeman exhibition, approached Kollek (who had that year been replaced as mayor by Ehud Olmert), in his role as founder of the Jerusalem Foundation, an independent non-partisan community foundation supporting social, educational and artistic projects in the capital since 1966. Etgar relates, "Israel was in the wake of the first intifada and Jerusalem was still not united, so I said to Teddy, 'This museum is not relevant anymore. It has neither the glamour nor the message.'" It was an auspicious time for a change; the Oslo Accords had been signed, and negotiations with the Palestinians seemed to be within reach. Kollek agreed and gave the go-ahead for a museum redesign, but Etgar pressed for a museum with entirely new content, dedicated to tolerance rather than military victory. Eventually, the Tourjeman exhibition was removed to the museum at Ammunition Hill, an official memorial symbolizing the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem. Renovations began and the Museum on the Seam opened its doors in 1999. Editorial Assistant Lara Berman contributed to this report. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.