Jerusalem Approves Revised Plan for Contested Museum of Tolerance Site

The controversial project by the Simon Wiesenthal Center is located on a medieval Muslim cemetery, which opponents say defeats the museum's goal of building tolerance.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

After a two-year delay the Jerusalem municipal planning committee approved on Monday the plan to build the Museum of Tolerance in the city center.

The controversial project by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, based on a similar museum in Los Angeles, is located on a medieval Muslim cemetery. During the construction work, as Haaretz reported, hundreds of ancient skeletons were evacuated from the area.

A rendering of the new plans for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, slated for construction on the site of the original plan.Credit: Rendering courtesy of Chyutin Architects

The substantial changes made in the original plan of the museum have rekindled objections to the project, whose opponents demand the new plan be submitted for reapproval.

The original plan was designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry. But the Simon Wiesenthal Center halted the project due to the 2008 economic crisis. The center subsequently held a competition for a new design which was won by Tel Aviv based Chyutin Architects, who came up with a very different structure on a much lower budget.

In order to prevent further delays, the Weisenthal Center did not submit the new plan for approval; instead it merely asked the city for building permits and for changes in the original plan.

The new building will have three floors and two additional underground ones, compared to the five floors above ground in Gehry's design. An archaeological garden, with a Roman aqueduct discovered at the digs on the site, will be built in the museum center.

The museum is expected to change the entire area. "The square is designed with an archaeological garden and a depressed amphitheater serving as a link between the urban street and the museum structure," the entrepreneurs wrote in the request for a building permit.

"The museum structure is designed as a linear chunk, part of which is submerged in the ground and facing the archaeological garden, and another part floating above the surrounding street level," they wrote.

Opponents say there is a need for a debate on the entire plan and the museum in general. Municipal opposition head Yosef Alalu, of the Meretz faction, says the original building was approved because it was designed by Gehry and it would not be fair to take advantage of that to construct another building on such a sensitive site.

"The Museum of Tolerance should have been a model of understanding and coexistence among all religions. It should have sent a message of tolerance and patience to all populations. But building it on the site of a Muslim cemetery defeats that goal," says Alalu.

To this day, he says, the museum's content is not clear because Yad Vashem - the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority insisted the museum refrain from dealing with the Holocaust. Presumably, political and religious pressures will prevent the museum from dealing with gay rights or Jewish-Arab relations, says Alalu.

The Muslim Council, an organization that manages cemeteries and holy sites, also objects to the museum plan. The council said in a letter to the city that the new plan consists of a "considerable divergence" from the original plan and ought not to be approved.

The Wiesenthal Center said in a statement "the approved plan is for building a tolerance museum on a certain site with certain functions. No change has occured in this purpose and site and there is no need or point in presenting a new plan. The design changes are not a matter for a planning procedure but for a permit procedure and will be managed in keeping with the decisions of the authorized planning institutions - Jerusalem's local and regional committees."

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