Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance remains a mystery

Museum of Tolerance Photo: Lior Mizrachi
Museum of Tolerance Photo: Lior Mizrachi

The Jerusalem Municipality and the Simon Wiesenthal Center are refusing to talk about planning and content of the new museum.

The high fence concealing the site on which the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance is being built does not really keep passersby from seeing what is going on there. In central Jerusalem, on the site of a Muslim cemetery that is part of Independence Park, stands a huge oddly-shaped and proportioned concrete building. What will it look like? What will happen in it? What does its design mean? What will it contribute to the urban environment? None of this is clear, and it seems that there is a conspiracy of silence about it.

When I tried to ask the Jerusalem municipality spokeswomen about this, I was referred to Jerusalem architect Yigal Levy, who wanted to speak, but instead referred me to the representative of the developer, the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They called me from overseas, made inquiries, got back to me, and said that the financers were suffering from "press trauma," and would not talk.

A perusal of the Simon Wiesenthal Center website shows that it calls itself "a global human rights organization researching the Holocaust and hate in a historic and contemporary context." The organization's main offices are in Los Angeles, but it has branches all over the world.

The organization is headed by Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier. Jared Kushnir, President Donald Trump's son-in-law, selected Rabbi Hier to recite a prayer at Trump's inauguration. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, founded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1993, is described as a "human rights laboratory" and educational center for increasing awareness of the Holocaust of the Jewish people and tolerance. According to the museum's website, 250,000 people visit the museum yearly, including 130,000 students.

The Jerusalem museum is portrayed as "a multi-faceted educational institution and social laboratory in the heart of Jerusalem that speaks to the world and confronts today’s important issues - like global anti-Semitism, extremism, hate, human dignity, and responsibility, and promoting unity and respect among Jews and people of all faiths." According to the US website, the building will house experimental museums for children and adults, a center for art seminars, an educational center, and a theater.

Utilizing the Frank Gehry brand name

The design history of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem is complicated, to say the least. Early this century, the Jerusalem municipality initiated plans for revitalizing the city center, including a site with a cultural center and courthouse in the area adjoining Independence Park and the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood.

The first basic plan for the museum compound was by architect Amir Kolker in 2002, but the architect selected to design the building was renowned US architect Frank Gehry, who designed the Gugenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. As expected, the design he proposed was an extravagant silver and blue-tinged building coated with glass and stone.

In 2005, at the beginning of the construction project, the Al Aqsa Company for Development of Muslim Holy Properties petitioned the High Court of Justice for an injunction against construction, after remains of graves and bones were found on the construction site. In a precedential ruling, the Supreme Court said that the land had been zoned decades earlier as open public land, and that a distinction should be made between a visible and recognized cemetery and the exposure of ancient graves of whose existence the public was unaware, and to which there had been no emotional relationship for many generations. It is unclear whether this was a factor, but Gehr announced his withdrawal from the project in January 2010.

Several months later, it was learned that architects Bracha and Michael Chyutin had won a closed design competition organized by the management of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in which the Kolker Kolker Epstein and Yasky Mor Sivan architectural firms had also participated. Chyutin has vast experience in designing public buildings. The firm designed the Tel Aviv University gallery, the Haifa courthouse, and buildings at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

The design proposed by the Chyutins was on a smaller scale than Gehry. Access was more modest and connected to the municipal concept. The building was planned like an L-shaped beam floating above a public plaza facing the intersection of Hillel and Ben Menashe Streets facilitating free passage to the park. The building facade facing the city and its urban texture is covered with stone, while the facade facing the cemetery or the park is transparent.

After two years of hard work, however, the Chyutins unexpectedly decided to withdraw from the project. The explanation for the termination of their involvement was a commercial dispute. Even now, incidentally, the images of the Museum of Tolerance decorate and dominate the home page of the Chyutin firm's website. Michael Chyutin refused to speak with us. He says that he is in an arbitration proceeding, and the matter is sensitive and difficult.

After the Chyutins announced their withdrawal, the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that it owned the rights to their proposed design, and that construction would continue with other architects. A written message on the tin fence surrounding the building says that the building's new architects are the Aedas architectural firm, in cooperation with Jerusalem architect Yigal Levy. Aedas is an international firm with 12 branches and 1,400 employees. Its projects include the Shenzhen Airport Satellite Concourse, the China World Trade Center Phase 3C Development in Beijing, the Dubai Metro, and Abdul Latif Jameel's Corporate Headquarters in Saudi Arabia. The firm's projects are on a very large scale, and it is difficult to associate it with a specific architectural style. In any case, the Museum of Tolerance does not appear on its list of projects.

Levy keeps a low profile, but has become a brand name in his city over the years. Among other things, he is responsible for designing the Mini Israel park near Latrun, a hotel above the Jerusalem Central Bus Stations and the "Little Hadassah" urban renewal plan in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood in Jerusalem. He was also a partner in the Pyramid Tower in Jerusalem with architect Daniel Libeskind.

Question marks

Jerusalem City Council member Laura Wharton (Meretz) is angry about what has been happening with the project. "It's outrageous that space zoned for public buildings in the heart of Jerusalem was given away without knowing what is planned for it and whom it will serve. According to the museum's website, the place will be managed by rabbis. Even though the building involved is supposed to serve the entire public, an orthodox religious building will be built there, with separation between men and women. Despite my inquiries, we received no explanation of the content that will be there."

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch, a cofounder of the Hitorerut B'Yerushalayim movement, is responsible for economic development, culture, and the city center. He says that he tried to contact the developers several times, but they refused to cooperate. "This is a foundation that is ostensibly very serious. They raise a lot of money, and this is an enormous building. I asked for the plan and the content, and proposed building a museum of Israel music there… They didn't answer me, and that's worrying. It arouses questions and doubts," he complained.

14,000 square meters, six floors above ground, and four floors below ground

The building covers 14,000 square meters (for the sake of comparison, the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum covers 18,000 square meters), is 23 meters high (six standard floors), and also has four floors below ground. The bottom floors have storage and parking space, as well as the children's museum, offices, etc. The entrance level has a cafeteria, the museum store, and the entrance lobby. The rest of the museum has space for exhibits, an auditorium, and multi-purpose space.

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on April 4, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

Museum of Tolerance Photo: Lior Mizrachi
Museum of Tolerance Photo: Lior Mizrachi
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