An Intolerable Spot for a Museum


By Buzzy Gordon

Published November 20, 2008, issue of November 28, 2008.
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In the Jewish community, the name Simon Wiesenthal is sacrosanct — which is why Rabbi Marvin Hier chose to establish his West Coast empire on the bedrock of the Nazi hunter’s reputation when Hier entered the institutional Judaism vacuum of Los Angeles 30 years ago. Over the course of the past three decades, the Simon Wiesenthal Center brand has been enhanced by its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, but recent developments in Israel have begun to tarnish the institution’s reputation.

For more than two years now, the Wiesenthal Center’s plans for a new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem — on land that was a Muslim cemetery and still contains gravestones — have been the focal point for Jewish-Muslim tensions that have escalated into legal wrangling that has been both bitter and expensive.

Israel’s Supreme Court has now finally ruled that the center may resume construction of the $250 million museum, designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry, on the contentious site — provided it refrain from building on, or disturbing, the resting places of human remains.

Predictably, the court’s decision has strained already fractious Jewish-Muslim relations even more, a development that never bodes well for Israel. The court did its best to walk the tightrope between the letter of the law and the spirit of respect for the dead; the judges cannot be faulted for finding that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is technically in the right, since the cemetery had been officially deconsecrated by Muslim religious authorities decades earlier, when the burial ground had fallen into disuse.

But is being in the right, especially when it depends on a technicality, the same as doing the right thing? This is well worth asking, particularly when the party in question has set itself up as the standard-bearer for the highest possible moral ground.

For one thing, The Jerusalem Post has reported that the center has spent millions of dollars in legal fees. Is this really what its donors to the causes of perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust and promoting the values of brotherhood and coexistence had in mind when they contributed to Hier’s vision? To line the pockets of Israel’s elite corporate law firms?

(It should be noted that only the Los Angeles headquarters and not the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is involved in this controversy. Israel office director Efraim Zuroff focuses all his energies on perpetuating the fundamental legacy of Wiesenthal — tracking down the last surviving Nazi war criminals, shaming the governments of Central and Eastern European countries that would relegate the Holocaust to the dust bin of history, and mentoring victimized peoples of Africa on dealing with the aftermaths of genocide.)  

Second, does Jerusalem really need another tourist attraction in the heart of its small downtown, whose infrastructure is already overtaxed, where parking is already next to impossible, and where increased traffic in the proximity of the Old City walls presents yet another threat to the foundations of the greatest treasures the Eternal City has to offer?

Does the center of a city already blessed with beautiful venues and world-class museums really need yet another conference center, theater and museum complex competing for a limited number of congresses and a circumscribed revenue pool? Is there no alternative site in the Jerusalem corridor for such an ambitious campus that might be more environmentally and visitor friendly? Could not such a project built near the Kennedy Memorial on the city’s outskirts perhaps resurrect a stunning monument that was once a mecca for American pilgrims and that has since fallen into shameful neglect and disrepair?

Most important, is it truly possible for a building bearing the name Museum of Tolerance to live up to that august mandate when its very existence will be decried (whether justly or hypocritically) by an entire ethnic group as a blatant symbol of arrogance and intolerance?

Can a museum that plans to display exhibits that portray “Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors” hold itself up as a beacon of coexistence when the next three years of its construction are likely to be marred by protests and demonstrations?

Can a city whose fabric is so intertwined with symbolism afford to be home to a museum built with Diaspora money on the site of Muslim graves, even as Israeli tour guides invoke the specter of Arab desecrations of Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives?

Can a museum under the mantle of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stand up to comparisons with efforts in Europe to erect modern buildings on land that was once Jewish cemeteries or concentration camps? Imagine that kind of outcry!

Jerusalem is too fragile a place for a flamboyant building, however well-intentioned, that creates ill will among a significant sector of the population that shows no signs of accepting it. As one call to action put it: “The legal battle has been lost… we must move on to the political battle.” Is a so-called Museum of Tolerance worth turning the Holy City into a battleground once again, in the 21st century?

Instead of such a grandiose scheme, let the center invite Arab architects to collaborate in designing a tasteful Garden of Tolerance on the disputed site, as an extension of the existing belt of green that is Independence Park.

At the same time, let the ambitious Gehry museum be built in an area where the most benefit can be derived, such as near the Jerusalem Forest’s Kennedy Memorial, or where Jews and Arabs can welcome it equally, such as on the road to Bethlehem or in the Galilee.

Buzzy Gordon is a former spokesman for the Israeli government and the winner of two national awards for commentary.

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