Museum of Tolerance gets final go-ahead

The building permit was awarded by the Interior Ministry, rather than the Jerusalem Municipality, due to the sensitivity of the site.

Construction at Museum of Tolerance 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Construction at Museum of Tolerance 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
After more than a decade of sitting empty in downtown Jerusalem, the controversial Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance received final approval for its new campus on Tuesday.
The building permit, from the Ministry of the Interior’s District Planning and Construction Committee, means that work can begin on the site immediately.
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“The project presents architecture that is modest and thoughtful, and contributes to the creation of a public space that is fitting for the area on a local and urban level,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
The building permit was awarded by the Interior Ministry, rather than the Jerusalem Municipality, due to the sensitivity of the site.
Palestinian leaders said the site, opposite Independence Park, is an ancient Muslim cemetery from the 12th century.
The Wiesenthal Center was engaged in a four-year legal battle over the controversial location with Arab activists. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the State of Israel, which gave the land to the museum.
Last month, the project received initial approval from the municipality for the new architecture plan, designed by Chyutin Architects.
The new plan is $150 million cheaper than the original project, designed by architectural superstar Frank Gehry.
Kais Nasser, an attorney for the Muslim Committee, a heritage body that aims to protect Muslim holy sites, argued that because the new project was completely different from Gehry’s plan, it must go through the full approval process, which can take several years. The new plan went through an abbreviated approval process instead, which concluded on Tuesday.
“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,” Nasser said last month.
An Interior Ministry spokeswoman added that the only way to stop work on the project would be an injunction from the High Court of Justice, which is a remote possibility since the court already discussed the project in length and it has passed two approval processes.
The Museum of Tolerance will include an amphitheater, exhibit halls, classrooms, a stone plaza and a parking lot. As part of the project, the Wiesenthal Center will also renovate Chatulot Square, a neglected plaza where young people drink and use drugs at night.
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 e-mail last month when it was approved by the municipality.
“It is nauseating, and especially hypocritical, that this desecration is carried out in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘human dignity.’”