Visit Jerusalem's New Museum of Tolerance. Feel Your Blood Boil

Why, in Jerusalem, the neediest of Israel's cities, is an American rabbi spending some 100 million donated dollars to build what appears, more and more, to be a monument to himself?

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

As the roots of its name suggest, Jerusalem should be a City of Peace. But it is what it is.

Visit the city. Downtown, you'll likely pass a huge, high wall, ten vertical feet of white metal, much too long to see around, sealed as securely and as secretively as a missile base.

Who owns this place? What is behind those walls, which have no signs or marks of identification? Why, of all the construction sites in the city, is this one off-limits to public view, on penalty of arrest?

And why, in Jerusalem, the neediest of Israel's cities, is an American rabbi spending some 100 million donated dollars to build what appears, more and more, to be a monument to himself?

It was supposed to be otherwise. It was supposed to be a Museum of Tolerance and a Center for Human Dignity. Eight years ago, when Rabbi Marvin Hier, flanked by then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, broke ground on the project, it was certainly not the rabbi's intention to fan old enmities and open new wounds in a troubled city.

But, every step of the way, that is what his still-unbuilt museum has done.

From the outset, the choice of the site outraged Arabs and Jews alike. The walled complex was carved from the land of Mamilla cemetery, a compound declared by Israel's Religious Affairs Ministry in 1948 to be “one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholar."

"Israel," the ministry said at the time, "will always know to protect and respect this site.”

Scores of Palestinians whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery, among them Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi and Abdul Qader Husseini, son of the late Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini, have appealed to Hier to relocate the museum to a new location – in Khalidi's words, "a move that would showcase genuine tolerance."

Rabbi Hier's answer is no. That refusal, and his defense of the Mamilla cemetery site, have infuriated Jews as well.

Supporters of his life's work, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which Rabbi Hier has headed since he founded it in 1977, have argued that the site choice also undermines the Wiesenthal Center's worldwide efforts to protect Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish sacred sites from desecration.

Work on the museum has been halted time and again, at first because hundreds of skeletons were unearthed at the site. In 2010, the museum initiative suffered a major blow when celebrated architect Frank Gehrywithdrew from the project. A year later, Gehry's successors, the Tel Aviv-based Chyutin Architects firm, also resigned in a dispute with the Wiesenthal Center.

Lack of donations have also plagued the museum project, originally budgeted at a quarter of a billion dollars.

Another primary concern has been the educational direction of the museum. Although it may be argued that the central issue of tolerance in Jerusalem is the tension between the city's some 500,000 Jews and 300,000 Palestinians, the Israeli-Palestinian divide will not fall under the museum's purview.

"It's not about the experience of the Palestinian people," Hier said of the museum
in 2004. "When they have a state, they'll have their own museum."
What, then, will the museum address? There will be two principal sections within the museum, Hier told the Jerusalem Post this week, after the Jerusalem City Council cleared the latest in a long line of legal red lights.

The first section, he said, will deal with the question of "How did the Jews survive for 3,500 years?"

The second is to be a "social lab" which "will confront Israel's issues as they are today, domestic and international issues, but not the Middle East peace process."
Building the enormous, 175,000 square foot complex ("It will comprise a children's museum of tolerance and an adult museum of tolerance, an international conference center, a theater for important motion pictures and documentaries, and an outdoor amphitheater which will be able to seat 1,000 people") has become a point of pride for Rabbi Hier, and, no less, a test of his standing and his clout relative to his peers.

In 2007, when Newsweek published its first annual list of America's 50 most influential rabbis, Hier came in at number one. "Hier is one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head," the magazine said at the time.

But as he has doggedly pursued the white whale of his Museum of Tolerance, his standing has steadily declined. This year he shares eighth place.

"Recently," Benjamin Netanyahu writes on the museums' website, "Rabbi Hier, my good friend, came to visit me. He is absolutely irrepressible; you can’t stop him."

It may be time for Rabbi Hier to realize that one of the marks of true greatness in leaders, is that you can, in fact, stop them. The great leader can listen, can learn, can appreciate when errors have been made. The great leader can change course.

The great leader is flexible enough to relocate when necessary. The great leader doesn't wait until it's too late.

Rabbi Marvin Hier.Credit: Kobi Zaig

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