A not-so-tolerant wait

Will Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance prove to be a cultural masterpiece or another downtown eyesore?

museum of tolerance 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
museum of tolerance 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mamilla. Where is that exactly? Is it somewhere by the luxury shopping mall, the ghost town of empty apartments owned by North American Jews, near the Muslim cemetery, or perhaps somewhere in between? In fact, it's all of the above. Geographically, Mamilla runs westward from the Old City's Jaffa Gate, through to Independence Park and Rehov Hillel in the "new city." But the formerly mixed Jewish-Arab business district represents a microcosm of many of the changes that Jerusalem has undergone in the last century. Photographs from the 19th century display a radically different landscape: The Herodian-era Mamilla Pool half filled with water, surrounded by gravestones on the bare ground stretching to the Old City. The view of the ancient city walls, just 10 minutes away by foot, has long been obscured by roads, shops and offices, including the United States Consulate on the opposite side of Rehov Agron. The moss-encrusted stones of the dilapidated tombs, most of which are crumbling from erosion by the elements or neglect, mark the spot where the district ends and Mamilla's newest, not to mention most controversial, arrival begins: the Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance. After a decade of searching for a site, let alone three years of being held up at the High Court of Justice following objections by Jewish and Muslim activists, construction has finally got under way on the $250 million project. The Museum of Tolerance has already hit the headlines due to the bitter controversy surrounding it, stirring anger for being built on part of the Muslim cemetery; but much less is known about the content of the museum or its potential impact on the economy and aesthetics of this historic Jerusalem district. Now that the green light has finally been given, the initiators of the museum - the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) - hope that the project will be a component of the much-lauded rejuvenation of downtown Jerusalem. Local businesses, however, are less optimistic and are more concerned that yet another building site on their doorstep will add to the disruption caused by the light rail project and the global economic downturn. One thing that remains certain is that, despite having lost the legal battle, opponents of the controversial building still remain determined to fight it to the bitter end. The Museum of Tolerance represents one of the biggest physical transformations that central Jerusalem has experienced in recent years, second only to the beleaguered light rail. Designed by Frank Gehry, the renowned architect behind the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Jerusalem museum will consist of an inorganic assembly of abstract blue and silver discs and rectangular structures, towering over the 19th-century architecture of the adjacent Nahalat Shiva quarter. Currently, the site on the corner of Hillel and Menashe Ben-Yisrael streets is noticeable only for the tall white fence and heavy presence, including armed soldiers, encircling it. Aerial views reveal a site resembling a cross between agricultural polytunnels and an archeological dig. The work at the site originally began more than three years ago when the cornerstone was placed and recommenced one month after the High Court judgment on October 29, said a spokesman for the Moriah Company responsible for executing the project. Currently only excavations are taking place and building is yet to commence. "The license holder is making arrangements for the building works in conjunction with the relevant authorities and the companies for this purpose," said the spokesman. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based SWC, predicts that it will take four years before the museum's doors open to the public. In the meantime, he is keeping his cards close to his chest regarding the actual content of the building. "We won't give the specifics for years. If something changes in the world, then we will have to change the projects," says Hier. "The best way to get a glimpse is to visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and watch the impact on non-Jews." He explains that the Jerusalem museum will follow a similar format to its sister institution in the US, which is divided into two themes: 50 percent of the space is dedicated to the Holocaust, while the other half focuses on events and issues across the globe, including genocides. However, the Jerusalem venture will not deal with the Holocaust because "Yad Vashem already does a more than adequate job." Instead, it will include a "Social Laboratory," focusing on internal and external issues facing Israel in the 21st century. The museum's other main component, "A People's Journey," will go back in time to "examine issues of tolerance and intolerance throughout history," Hier explains. According to the SWC's Web site, this 1,860-square-meter space uses the metaphor of the Exodus ship to take visitors on a journey through Jewish history including the Golden Age of Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, the Dreyfus Trial and Theodor Herzl's Zionist Congress in Basel. Other facilities include a 500-seat theater, as well as education and conference centers. BUT JERUSALEM isn't exactly a city short on museums. It is already home to the Israel Museum, the Bible Lands Museum, Yad Vashem and the Tower of David Museum, not to mention dozens of smaller institutions such as Rabbi Kook's House and Museum on the Seam. So is there really space for another museum in Jerusalem? Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) and one the voices leading Jewish opposition to the project, thinks not. "Jerusalem doesn't need a Museum of Tolerance; we need to turn Jerusalem into a city of tolerance," maintains Baskin. "If you were talking about a Jerusalem that everyone wants to live in, then you'd be right," argues Hier. "But people are leaving Jerusalem, and how can we reverse that trend? Does a Frank Gehry project hinder or help that process? I think it helps." The Los Angeles museum has attracted more than four million visitors since it opened in 1993. "People asked the same questions then. How can such a museum have an impact? It's just going to have an impact on Jews, but no impact at all on race relations and other minorities. That was the debate in the papers, and now there's no discussion," says Hier. "Ninety percent of all visitors are non-Jewish. It has had an impact on the Latino community, African-Americans, Koreans, Asians and Japanese. Here's a project to enhance Jerusalem and make people want to visit and live in Jerusalem. It's just a block away from hotels - you don't have to take a bus or taxi, it's in the middle of the city," Hier says, adding that, apart from light refreshments, the museum will not feature a restaurant. "It's located on restaurant row; there are 50 or 60 in the area, so why not let them have the business?" Such declarations, however, fall on deaf ears of some local businesses that are more concerned with staying afloat during the financial crisis. At the Guilda Ceramics Gallery, less than 100 meters from the construction site, Igor finishes wrapping hand-crafted mezuza cases and pomegranates for a group of American tourists. He says he has never heard of the Museum of Tolerance but that many local businesses are already suffering from the impact of the light rail construction which has strangled access to the area. Across the street at Riff Raff, a restaurant popular with tourists, the staff are well aware of their new neighbor-to-be. "It's unnecessary at the moment," says Tuli. "There are all kinds of problems right now, and we don't need this, too. I don't know what is more disturbing - the railway or the works on Rehov Shamai; and now there is this museum that took over the biggest parking lot in the city center," she says, complaining that the construction is also creating noise and dust. "There are not many routes into the city center, and Rehov Hillel is one of them. They've closed the whole area around us. When they closed the parking lot a year and a half ago, we called the municipality to ask what the alternative would be. They told us that there wouldn't be any and that there is already parking near the Prime Minister's Office [2 km. away in Givat Ram]." During the course of the interview, the restaurant's only two customers settle their bill, leaving the place empty until another one finally arrives. "It's possible that it will be great when the museum is built, but I just hope that there will still be some people left here," Tuli says, adding that the entrepreneurs were not consulted about the museum. ON THE opposite side of the cemetery, a thin layer of rainwater covers the rocks and plants lining the bottom of the Mamilla Pool, a deep rectangular reservoir dug during King Herod's reign to supply water to the Old City. The handful of birds wading in the pool seem more concerned with the slim pickings in the near-empty reservoir, left dry in the mild winter, than the activity in the construction site 50 meters away. But their indifference goes against the grain. Despite the odds stacked against them, anti-museum campaigners, both Jewish and Muslim, maintain that they won't give up without a fight. But what do they hope to achieve at the 11th hour? "Our goal is to stop the museum from being built at that location. We don't think it's too late," says Baskin. Three months ago, Baskin and other Israeli activists set up an ad hoc task force that included Shimon Shamir, professor of Middle Eastern Studies and former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Jordan; Danny Zeitman, attorney and founder of Ir Amim; Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a geography professor at Hebrew University; and Meretz city councillor Pepe Alalu. Their two-pronged plan of action includes creating public pressure on Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, following an invitation by various council members. "Barkat is really unhappy about it being built there, but he doesn't know how he can stop it," believes Baskin. This process began with a debate last month at the Van Leer Institute, to be followed by an open letter. The task force's second approach is to join forces with activists in Los Angeles fighting against the planned expansion of their local Museum of Tolerance, as well as targeting donors funding the Jerusalem development. In response, the Jerusalem Municipality said: "Barkat asked the initiative [SWC] about its position regarding the museum's location and clarified that he is not opposed to its intention to remain at the location, which was authorized by all the planning authorities. It was agreed between the mayor and the representatives of the museum to work together for the development and promotion of suitable educational content for Jerusalem in the field of tolerance. The mayor also agreed to visit the museum in Los Angeles during his forthcoming visit in March with the objective to learn about the potential of the museum from close up." The task force largely comprises Jewish Israelis, many of whom are motivated by the belief that the legitimacy of the Jewish state as sovereign power is measured by its treatment of other faiths. Professor Ben-Arieh believes that the issue is much more than a legal one. "The High Court only dealt with the issue from a judicial point of view. Muslim groups asked them not to move bones from the graves, but the court said that Muslim shari'a law is not Israeli law and according to Israeli law it is permitted to move graves, Jewish or Muslim," he says. "It is a moral, cultural and public issue. Does Israel have to build a Museum of Tolerance on a historic Islamic cemetery? It sets a precedent. If you can build on a Muslim cemetery, then why not build on the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives?" Muslim groups have also been vocal in their condemnation of the desecration of graves. "Our religious-Shari'a judgment according to the shari'a regarding the sanctity of cemeteries is that this sanctity is eternal, and this is an inseparable part of Muslim faith and belief," wrote Qadi Ahmad Natour, president of the Shari'a High Court of Appeals, in a 2006 letter to Baskin. "Therefore, it is stated that there is an absolute prohibition on digging up graves, and this is according to the learned opinion of Shari'a scholars without exception… We hope that the initiators of the project will understand that they cannot build the Museum of Tolerance while trampling the emotions of millions of Muslims in Israel and around the world." However, the Shari'a High Court told In Jerusalem that it has almost ceased its activities since the Israeli Supreme Court ruling. "It's a law, and they have stopped us from a legal point of view," said the spokesperson. But other Muslims are still determined to fight the project. "We are continuing in every way we can; we want to stop this," says Fadi Hajyahay, director of the Al-Aksa Association for the Preservation of Islamic Consecrated Properties (Wakf). "It's a holy place, no less holy than Al-Aksa Mosque. They are trying to Judaize all of Jerusalem, and this cemetery is an obstacle to the State of Israel," he says, adding that he plans activities including letter writing, going to the United Nations and enlisting the support of Arab states and Arab MKs in Israel. "I don't think that it will go out quietly. It's a cemetery, a holy place. It's hutzpa to build a Museum of Tolerance there. I hope that we will succeed. This really hurts us," he continues. "It's no good for us and no good for you [Jews], either." The chances that opponents to the museum will succeed in their aim of halting it become slimmer each day, as the piles of earth in and around the construction site continue to rise ever higher. "It's getting down to the wire," concedes Baskin. "As soon as they finish the excavations, the plan is to cement over the area. I don't know where the point of no return is." JEWISH-ARAB relations aside, the new building is destined to have a huge impact, for better or for worse, on central Jerusalem's built environment. Hier takes prides in the fact that architect Gehry is behind the museum's design. However, Baskin balks at the graphic simulation of the futuristic 37,000-square-meter museum illuminating the computer screen in his office. "It's out of context," he says of the amorphous glass and titanium structures. Won't the new museum give downtown Jerusalem a much-needed economic boost? "Maybe," contemplates Baskin. "Or it could be a scar on Jerusalem for decades. We just don't know." Indeed, one thing that skeptics, whether local businesses or political activists, can agree on is that the proof will be in the pudding. "Maybe in five years it will bring tourists, but we need to deal with what is happening today," says Tuli. In a contrast that typifies the polarized debate over the project, the SWC sees its investment as part of securing the future of Jerusalem. "Jerusalem wants to be a city of the 21st century, not just a city built 3,000 years ago. And I think that's the vision of the new mayor," says Hier.