Jerusalemites Clash With Gov't Over Future of Nature Museum

Area residents say plan to set up a new college will destroy the community park they built in the old museum's yard.

The cabinet is expected to decide next week to set up a new college run by the Shalem Center in the old Nature Museum building in the capital's German Colony, despite the neighborhood residents' opposition. The residents say the plan will destroy the community park they built in the museum's yard, one of the city's most beautiful communal projects.

The residents also fear the prime minister's close connections to the heads of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based conservative, right-wing think tank, will sway the cabinet to rule against them.

Nature Museum Jerusalem
Olivier Fitoussi

The Nature Museum, operating in the German Colony building since 1962, is to relocate to a new one on Givat Ram. The city originally planned to build an ecological center dealing with environmental control on the site. The plan was encouraged and commended by senior city officials, including Mayor Nir Barkat's deputy Naomi Tsur.

Some four years ago the residents built a community park on the site, which they operate as an activity center for Holocaust survivors, elderly people, children and psychiatric patients. The park is tended and maintained by volunteers, at the community's expense.

But six months ago Barkat suddenly agreed to the Shalem Center's request and earmarked the museum building, park and adjacent parking lot for a college. The college, the first of its kind in Israel, is planned to accommodate 1,000 carefully selected students and create a new social, intellectual and political elite.

"Students will be picked on the basis of outstanding academic prowess, intellectual ambition, personal initiative, integrity and willingness to serve the Jewish nation and humanity," the center's website says.

The new-conservative, rightist Shalem Center was founded by Dr. Yoram Hazoni, Netanyahu's former friend and adviser. People who worked there include Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, Professor Omer Moav, who serves as Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's adviser, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and others. Two of the center's donors are also two of Netanyahu's major contributors - Ron Lauder and Sheldon Adelson.

Following the residents' protest, the Shalem Center began negotiating with the community and Jerusalem municipality over an agreement to enable maintaining the park as well as the college.

The cabinet is expected to instruct the Israel Lands Administration to allocate the land for the college as part of its decision next week. The residents fear it will put an end to the negotiations and endanger the park's existence.

"The Shalem Center promised to talk to us and reach agreements. We won't give up," said Jerry Goodman. "We want to cooperate with them. The residents put their time and money into the park."

The prime minister's office said: "The cabinet agenda for next week has not been set yet. When a decision is made it will be accompanied by appropriate legal advice and coordinated with the Jerusalem municipality."

The Shalem Center said: "The Shalem Center is acting to set up an academic institution in coordination with the mayor and his team, the city parks' administration and deputy mayor Naomi Tsur."