Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance Has Little to Do With Museums or Tolerance

In contrast to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Jerusalem museum — built on an ancient Muslim cemetery — will stay away from the Holocaust. Instead, the grandiose project will host conventions, food festivals and concerts

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The Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. 'We’ll be a house for everyone, from Abraham’s tent to Noah’s ark,' says its directors.
The Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. 'We’ll be a house for everyone, from Abraham’s tent to Noah’s ark,' says its directors.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

For the last 18 years, Jerusalemites have been kept out of the huge compound standing between Hillel and Menashe Ben Yisrael streets in the heart of the city. Only after a litany of woes — including scandals, crises and legal wrangling — has the enormous Museum of Tolerance finally been completed, with a gradual resolution of the riddle: what is the actual purpose of the large white edifice?

The term “museum” is misleading here. Even the site’s directors admit it. The compound may include two small museums, but they make up only a tiny portion of the allocated space and designated purposes of the center. Most of the planned activities here will be cultural and educational: performances, conventions, movie screenings and food-related events. “We’ll revive the city’s center,” promise the museum’s heads. Meanwhile, they have to settle one more dispute with the municipality.

'We wanted to become a site that would attract Paul McCartney to Jerusalem, a place that would open a cultural gate in the city'

The story of the Museum of Tolerance started all the way back in 2004, following an agreement between then-mayor Ehud Olmert and Rabbi Marvin Hier to allocate land for a special new project. Hier is the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a founder of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He has extensive links with donors, politicians and U.S. celebrities. The original vision was to build a museum designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry on an empty lot, between Independence Park and the colloquially-named Cats’ Square.

The cornerstone-laying ceremony was attended by then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised that museums of tolerance would promote the idea of tolerance just like gyms promote health. But despite the Hollywood glamour, the project encountered troubles from its very beginning: the laying of the structure’s foundations revealed that the old parking lot had been built on part of the city’s ancient Muslim cemetery, with hundreds of skeletons cropping up. This delayed the museum’s construction by several years, after the Islamic Movement turned to the High Court of Justice.

The court ultimately allowed construction to continue. The skeletons were removed in a controversial archaeological dig and the museum started to take shape. Then came the economic crisis of 2008, causing the Wiesenthal Center to run into financial difficulties. Gehry decided to abandon the project because of the financial disputes, and was replaced by Israeli architects Bracha and Michael Hayutin. They too ran into conflicts with the developers and left, with architect Yigal Levi taking over. Construction resumed, and the large white building grew upwards.

The project underwent another crisis following the outbreak of the coronavirus. While other construction companies continued working despite the pandemic, work stopped for almost two years at the museum because it was being built without using a contractor company. Developers bought an Israeli construction company and built the structure using workers and experts who came mainly from China. When the pandemic erupted, the workers were stuck in China, unable to return to Israel. Last year the work resumed and the building was almost completed.

While it will remain controversial, it's also an exceptional project on Israel’s architectural scene. New and innovative techniques were used in the museum’s construction. For example, tens of thousands of stones covering the exterior were imported from Portugal. They hang over with a system of hooks, with stairwells that look as if they’re hanging in midair. The museum directors take pride in the high quality of the finish, unknown in Israeli public buildings.

The laying of the structure’s foundations revealed that the old parking lot had been built on part of the city’s ancient Muslim cemetery, with hundreds of skeletons cropping up

This includes special acoustic plaster imported from Germany, laminated floors imported from the U.S., fancy accessible washrooms, with cutting-edge lighting, sound and multimedia systems, as well as exclusive furniture imported from Italy and Spain, smart windows, soundproof doors, multi-use auditoriums that can adapt to different purposes, floating ceilings and more. Sources at the Wiesenthal Center are not saying what the total costs were up to now, but they are estimated at over half a billion shekels ($150 million).

The ritzy character of the building serves to highlight the years-long uncertainty about its uses. In contrast to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, devoted mainly to the study of the Holocaust, the Jerusalem museum will stay away from the subject, based on demands by Yad Vashem. As construction continued, city hall officials realized that this was no ordinary museum, but a combination of a culture center, a convention hall, an entertainment venue and a city plaza.

Archaeological digging next to the construction site for the Tolerance Museum in Jerusalem, in 2010.Credit: Tal Cohen

In an interview with Haaretz, museum directors reveal their future plans, asking for a bit more patience from Jerusalem residents, promising that the venue will become the city’s throbbing heart. “We’ll be a house for everyone, from Abraham’s tent to Noah’s ark. Imagine taking the Peres Center for Peace from Jaffa and transporting it to Jerusalem,” says Jonathan Riss, whose title is operations manager but who has accompanied this project for 21 years. “The museum will revive the city’s center,” he promises.

According to the strategic plan being prepared by Ayelet Frisch, a former adviser to Shimon Peres, the building will serve as a culture center with an attached entertainment venue. At the front is a garden commemorating leaders and Nobel Prize laureates. The garden leads to an amphitheater seating 1,000 people.

Between the seats and stage is a glass floor, covering parts of an ancient aqueduct that was discovered in the course of construction. On the stage is a film and sound system. The amphitheater will turn into an open-air cinema, a space for events and performances and a meeting area. Inside the building is another theater with 400 armchair imported from Italy. In the walls and ceiling is a light system that can change the atmosphere in the auditorium. The auditorium, according to developers, will be a conference center holding corporate events and staging performances. Behind the stage are rooms for artists. Other intended uses for the building are food and wine festivals, children’s events and art workshops.

Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance.Credit: Emil Salman

The building has other auditoriums, lecture rooms, space for a gift shop, a restaurant, three gigantic kitchens (meat, dairy and parve), balconies overlooking the Muslim cemetery and Independence Park, a religious study hall with a separate floor for women, and even a area for police, intended to counteract possible trouble from Cats’ Square. The building’s levels are connected through a system of hanging stairs and an elevator with a capacity of 80 people. The walls of the elevator are covered in LED screens.

The two lower floors will house the two museums, the Museum of Tolerance for children, and a Museum of Tolerance for adults. They will feature holograms and multimedia systems telling of tolerance in Israeli society. These two spaces have the furthest to go toward completion. Museum officials say that even if the building is opened soon, it will take another year and a half before parts of the museum are opened to the public. The museum hopes the site will become a destination for pupils, soldiers and policemen in Jerusalem, a leading draw for local economic and cultural activity.

Museum officials reject charges that the building’s purpose gradually changed over the years, and that instead of a museum of tolerance, Jerusalem has acquired a fancy convention center. They say all the current designated uses were in the original plans submitted almost 20 years ago. They admit that the name “museum” is somewhat misleading, and that the main ultimate uses will not be related to the museum.

“We wanted to become a site that would attract Paul McCartney to Jerusalem, a place that would open a cultural gate in the city. If it weren’t for the delays caused by the pandemic and the bureaucracy, the building would be bustling by now, with food festivals, performances and events that are suitable for an ultra-Orthodox mother and a Muslim child,” says Frisch.

Inside the new museum.Credit: Emil Salman

The museum rejects another claim – that it is tied to the right wing. Eight months ago, the first event was held there, a ceremony marking the establishment of the Friedman Center for Peace. David Friedman was the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration. Attending the event were a list of senior officials from that administration. A CNN correspondent described the event as “falling into Alice in Wonderland’s mirror,” into an alternative reality in which Trump is still president and Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended the ceremony, was still prime minister.

The fact that the museum committed to dealing with tolerance in sports and in the health and education systems, while seemingly reluctant to deal with Jerusalem’s real problems, such as the occupation, discrimination and human rights abuses, has contributed to its image as a right-wing institution. “I don’t ignore the Arab problem,” says Riss.

“Our goal is to help people understand the distress of others. I cannot undertake the mission of changing Israeli society, but I am trying to find a bridge for cultural dialogue through movies and multimedia.” Museum directors promise that there are some projects in the pipeline that challenge their image as rightists. They ask not to publish the names of people who are planning on participating, only noting that they are from the liberal side of America’s political map.

A skeleton found at the location where the museum was erected.Credit: ted

In the meantime, the museum has found itself in another conflict with Jerusalem City Hall. Many people at the municipality are fed up with the museum’s foot-dragging. They say the Wiesenthal Center received the most desirable and expensive plot of land in the city, but it remains closed behind fences, inaccessible to Jerusalemites for too long. “The gap between their declarations and actions is very big,” says a senior city official.

A conflict over Cats’ Square, across from the museum, broke out due to this frustration. The original plan called for this plaza to be part of the museum compound, with yet another auditorium built on it. But this required the city to transfer the square to museum developers, something it refuses to do. Last year the museum turned to the District Court, requesting that it instruct the municipality to transfer the land. While legal proceedings continue, the city passed a sharp motion against the museum last week.

The motion determines that the agreement with the museum regarding the transfer of the square is null and void. The city council demanded that the museum open within four months. City officials admit that they cannot force developers to open, but said they could make things difficult for them. Meanwhile, the city is refusing to permit the holding of any further events at the location. A large Independence Day party that was scheduled there was canceled. Facing these problems, the developers are not committing to an opening date, but say it will happen within months, not years.

“The museum has broken a host of commitments,” says city council member Laura Wharton (Meretz). “Not only did they not meet schedules, they changed the main mission of building a museum, for which the land was given. Developers now admit that the building will serve as a convention center, with a possible secondary use as a museum. There is no transparency regarding content, which until now remains secret. Leaving aside the question of whether a Muslim cemetery is an appropriate venue for a museum of tolerance, what about the question of whether a city center is suitable as a convention center or a venue for flashy events?”

The developers are convinced that the conflict with city hall will be resolved. They heap praise on Mayor Moshe Leon, promising that after all these years, the building’s construction is in its final lap. “What makes a city a capital is its social and economic activity – that’s what we’re contributing to Jerusalem, and it will be amazing,” says Riss.

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