Rabbi Marvin Hier, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, never seems to miss an opportunity to put his foot in his mouth when promoting his international anti-Semitism carnival show. Lately, he’s been doing it in spades regarding his $250 million Jerusalem satellite, known rather grandiosely as the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.
The West Jerusalem site in the Mamilla neighborhood chosen for the Museum is an old Muslim cemetery, part of which has been used for several decades as a Jerusalem Municipality parking lot. During earlier excavations at the site, skeletal remains were unearthed which led to the Islamic Movement of Israel protesting the desecration of the graveyard. This week, the Israeli Supreme Court, not known as a particularly strong defender of the rights of the Arab minority, ruled in Hier’s favor, allowing construction to continue.
As a result, hundreds of Israeli Arabs have protested continuously since the ruling was made public, calling the museum a betrayal of their dignity:
Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Mohammed Hussein called the court ruling a “grave decision” which harms the Muslim holy sites, and said it was difficult to believe the project’s promoters would want to build a Museum of Tolerance “whose construction constitutes an act of aggression.”
The rabbi has made some statements defending and explaining the project which would make anyone other than him wince:
Hier said, the goal is to create “a great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility.”
…Asked whether he was concerned that the project could become a new flashpoint in the ever-volatile Arab-Israeli conflict, Hier predicted that “you’ll have protests for two or three days,” then things will go back to normal.
This reminds me of something Herbert Hoover probably said after 1929’s Black Thursday. “Oh, you’ll have a few days of selling and before you know it, we’ll be back to business as usual.” How can Israeli Muslims possibly come to terms with this defilement of their dead? Only someone with absolutely no sensitivity to Muslims could possibly make such a comment with a straight face.
Gehry’s comment’s as carried in Samuel Freedman’s excellent 2004 N.Y. Times consideration of the Museum are unintentionally ironic:
Mr. Gehry…designed the museum to be accessible in both literal and metaphorical ways. “People can come from all directions, and all kinds of people can come. Families and children are constantly in view, in your face, so that you never escape from the issue of what this place is about.”
Which makes one wonder how Mr. Gehry incorporated into his design the fact that the building will sit on an ancient Muslim burial ground. In fact, it seems to me that the building, its designer, and its creator have a rather limited idea of the “what the place is about.” That idea closes out all but Jews from consideration. Can Gehry honestly tell me how it will be “open” to Muslims? What will be in it for them?
As far as I’m concerned, this is the coup de grace as far as the Museum’s willingness to confront the existence of the “other” within the boundaries of the current State of Israel:
Mr. Hier maintains that, while the museum will not conspicuously avoid the Palestinian situation, “It’s not about the experience of the Palestinian people. When they have a state, they’ll have their own museum.”
I guess someone forgot to tell him that 20% of Israel itself is not Jewish, but Arab, and these Israeli citizens will not become part of this Palestinian state. Perhaps Rabbi Hier has a bad case of ethnic amnesia?
Freedman’s critique of the vision behind the Museum is prescient:
…The proposed museum is already drawing withering and widespread criticism, years before its opening…The leftist Israeli politician [Benvenisti is an urban planner and journalist, not a politician] Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, denounced the museum in the newspaper Ha’aretz as “so hallucinatory, so irrelevant, so foreign, so megalomaniac.” Even mainstream Israelis are dubious that a museum conceived, financed and designed by Americans can possibly fathom, much less redress, the political and social chasms here…
…To…Israeli critics…the museum…is flawed in its very conception, because it’s the product of an American rabbi and the object of American philanthropy. The museum strikes many here as the latest version of what Israelis tartly term “the American uncle” — that well-intended, well-endowed know-it-all. In private conversation, one hears the museum disparaged as the “Museum of Nice” or an example of “American Jewish cultural imperialism.”
What have right-wing Orthodox American Jews like Hier contributed to Israeli society? The settler movement, hamburger and pizza parlors, and Museums like this. Such contributions are usually toxic to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and utterly devoid of contact with reality on the ground for both peoples. They are grounded in ideology or theology, rather than common practice or everyday life.
I note that only $115-million of the overall $250-million cost has been raised so far. Given my fundraising background, I find it odd that a major capital project would be begun without all, or almost all the money already pledged. You can see that this is not the case by reviewing the Donor Opportunity page at the website.
One reason for the shortfall is that the original lead donor for the project was the infamous Gary Winnick, of Drexel Burnham Lambert and Global Crossing notoriety. Both companies went belly up amidst a great deal of scandal, financial impropriety and even jail time for some participants (though not Winnick). In 2000-2001, Winnick pledged $77-million for what was then called the “Winnick Institute Jerusalem.” Ironically, when I searched the current Museum website I could find only one reference to Winnick and it went far back to 2002. Otherwise, no Gary Winnick. No Winnick Institute. No $77-million.
Winnick was instrumental in this project from its inception. He was the one who suggested Frank Gehry as the architect. I doubt Hier would’ve even entered into it without Winnick’s major financial commitment.
It’s instructive to review some of Winnick’s conceptual thoughts about the museum’s purpose as expressed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2001:
The Jerusalem gift comes at a time when the continuing conflict between Palestinians and Jews in Israel hinders the latest attempt at creating a peace process. The new institute will focus on that issue…but it will also deal with other groups in its attempt to promote tolerance of diversity.
“Whether we’re next-door neighbors, whether we’re brothers or sisters, or whether we’re enemies, we need to come to a middle ground,” says Mr. Winnick. “That means we must have tolerance, and until we have tolerance we cannot have peace.”
…Mr. Winnick initially rejected the invitation to make the first big pledge for a new center in Jerusalem because he didn’t think the world needed another place to study the Holocaust, which he said the proposal then included.
Instead…Winnick told…Hier, “I would be interested in a collaboration…that would involve issues unrelated to the Holocaust and would involve issues of world peace.”
Says…Hier, “Gary wanted to make sure that the focus in Jerusalem would be what we consider to be the critical issue facing Israel — that is, the need to build a more tolerant society in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims can live together.”
That’s how a $30-million idea grew into the Winnick Institute…now estimated to cost $120-million.
By 2004, with Winnick apparently out of the picture, Hier had reverted to the more narrow formulation of the museum’s purpose which I noted above. It’s a shame. Much as I despise Winnick and the financial wreckage he created through his fiscal “acumen,” his vision of the Museum might have been a more balanced one and more suited to the Israeli context.
Thanks again to a reader who wishes to be anonymous for outstanding research assistance.