Even though it isn’t open to the public yet, the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem held two prestigious events last week. In fact, even though 17 years have passed since the museum’s cornerstone-laying ceremony, partly because of legal wrangling, it isn’t expected to open for another year and a half, say its operators.
Last Monday, the museum, erected on public land in the middle of the capital city, hosted the launch of the Friedman Center for Peace through Strength, founded by David Friedman, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a close associate of former President Donald Trump. Senior members of the Trump administration participated in the ceremony, including Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin.
Covering the event, CNN reporter Hadas Gold described it as having “an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel, as if those present had tumbled through the looking glass and into an alternate reality where Donald Trump was still President of the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu was still Prime Minister of Israel.”
The other event was the 10th Annual Jerusalem Post Conference, which invited politicians and journalists, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Larry Mizel, the chairman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the organization behind the Museum of Tolerance, said at the conference that the museum is a “significant step to eradicating the evils of racism and antisemitism from the world.”
These weren’t the first events at the museum. In 2019, it hosted a reception for the philanthropist Morris Kahn.
Meanwhile, the museum’s administrators have been fielding mounting criticism, on the grounds that the building is just sitting there like a white elephant in Kikar Hahatulot in downtown Jerusalem. Local residents and municipal officials too say they’re increasingly suspicious that what was meant to be a tourist attraction in the heart of the city will function de facto as a ritzy convention center – fears arising in part because, from the looks of it, large portions of the vast structure aren’t slated to be used as museum space.
“Basically, the whole part of the building visible above ground isn’t a museum,” says one person involved in the project. “These are three conference halls, a cafeteria, a synagogue, and a shop. The museum is in the underground levels.” Another complaint is that, to date, the museum’s content has only been outlined in general terms.
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A cascade of controversies
The Museum of Tolerance is a branch of the museum by the same name in Los Angeles, founded by the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation. The Los Angeles museum focuses mainly on content connected to the Holocaust, but the developers acceded to pressure from Yad Vashem not to deal with the Holocaust at the museum in Jerusalem. According to a presentation made to the Jerusalem municipality two years ago, the museum section will offer seven routes on the theme of tolerance, using interactive methods.
A source familiar with the subject says the routes will mainly be intended for visits by organized groups and are not being planned specifically with families in mind.
The project generated a public outcry practically from the get–go, after the discovery of hundreds of Muslim graves while digging the foundations. The site had been serving as a parking lot for years, but before construction on the museum began it was part of the Mamila cemetery that extends over large portions of Independence Park in central Jerusalem.
The Israel Antiquities Authority helped the developers rebut petitions against the project by the Islamic Movement and others and a decade ago, the Supreme Court approved the works. Excavation of the graves was conducted in secret in 2010. Tens of thousands of bones were extracted.
Shuka Dorfman, the director of the Antiquities Authority at the time, later wrote that “heavy and often intolerable pressure was brought to bear on the Antiquities Authority team to speed up the excavation work and finish it quickly.”
Dorfman admitted then that the excavations were done in an unacceptable manner and also wrote in a book that was published posthumously: “Obviously, as director of the Antiquities Authority I should have halted the excavation in its initial stages… It is possible that the heavy pressure that was exerted on us somewhat clouded our judgment.”
Originally, the museum building was supposed to have a striking, unusual design conceived of by architect Frank Gehry. But due to financial disputes, Gehry parted ways with the project and the design was instead drawn up by architects Bracha and Michael Chyutin.
“For over 20 years, the tycoons have exploited their influence to get the authorities to submit to their interests,” says Jerusalem city council member Laura Wharton from Meretz. “What was approved as a public museum atop a cemetery will apparently not be used as such, but rather as a conference and event center.”
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yosi Havilio says, “I think that in its form, the building does not mesh into its surroundings. This key piece of land could have been used for more important public needs. And once the museum was built on public land, it should have been open to the entire public from the first day, not be used as a private club for sundry events.”
Attorney Oded Berry, who represents the museum’s developers, says: “The museum is expected to open to the general public a year and half from now. Right now, work has only been completed on part of the museum. The museum’s designated purpose in its original plan is to be an experiential museum center and conference center.”