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Architect Frank Gehry withdraws from plan to build Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

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Rendering of Gehry’s proposed design for the Museum of Tolerance. (Simon Wiesenthal Center)

After years of protests and an unsuccessful legal challenge, architect Frank Gehry has pulled out of a project to build a Jerusalem counterpart to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance that is slated to stand on a site that was once part of an ancient Muslim cemetery.

“We are no longer involved in it,” said Craig Webb, the design partner in charge of the project for the firm of Gehry Partners. He said the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which opened its original Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in 1993, no longer had the right to use Gehry’s design and was considering alternatives. The center’s website currently reads “please check back soon” under a page devoted to the Jerusalem initiative. As the blogger Philip Weiss noted last week, all references to Gehry and images of the $250 million project have been removed from the site.

Gehry’s withdrawal is but the latest in a series of obstacles to have come in the project’s way. Sheikh Raed Salah, a leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement, has charged that the construction would desecrate an Islamic holy site and, together with Jerusalem Arab families whose ancestors are buried in the Mamilla Cemetery, he petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to block it.

But in November 2008, the high court gave the go-ahead for construction, arguing that no objections were raised in 1960 when a parking lot was placed over a small part of the cemetery, which was in continuous use since at least the 13th century up to the early 20th. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has given the project his full support—“I don’t see any problem with the site, it’s a non-issue,” he said in an interview last August—and municipal authorities have awarded the project all the necessary construction permits.

Israeli scholars, cultural figures, Orthodox leaders including Knesset member Rabbi Meir Porush, and American rabbis have joined in vehemently opposing the museum, along with a group of leading British architects who signed a petition condemning the proposed museum as a “blow to peaceful co-existence” in the city. Jerusalem’s former deputy mayor, Meron Benvenisti, has denounced it as “so hallucinatory, so irrelevant, so foreign, so megalomaniac.”

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, an umbrella group representing some 1,500 Reform rabbis, has urged the Wiesenthal Center to find an alternative location to the three-acre site in downtown Western Jerusalem. “There is something profoundly disturbing about the idea of putting a Jewish Museum of Tolerance on a plot of land where Muslims have been burying their dead for most of the last 800 years,” wrote Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Schwarzenegger, Hier, and Lupolianski at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

Schwarzenegger, Hier, and Uri Lupolianski, then mayor of Jerusalem, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem
CREDIT: David Silverman/Getty Images

Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Jordan who now heads the Institute for Diplomacy and Regional Cooperation at Tel Aviv University, said he met with Gehry in Los Angeles two years ago in a bid to persuade him to withdraw. “I explained what a big mistake it was,” Shamir said by phone from Tel Aviv. “I hope it will never be built.”

Webb, Gehry’s partner, would not say why his Los Angeles-based firm ended its involvement, saying only, “it is politically very sensitive.” Gehry himself was not available for comment, nor was Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The grandiose design, which was to be crafted from a gaudy, futuristic mix of titanium, glass and stone, would hardly have ranked among Gehry’s finest creations. Along with Santiago Calatrava’s lyre-shaped light railway bridge completed in May 2008, the Gehry scheme sparked furor among those who charge that it injects inappropriate architectural elements into Jerusalem’s stone-faced, historic cityscape. Esther Zandberg, architecture critic for Ha’aretz, called it an “unnecessary and irreversible eyesore.”

Hier has long championed the project, saying that the only part of the graveyard that would be used for the museum has already been turned into a parking lot. The Wiesenthal Center further argued that in the 1920s Muslim authorities in Jerusalem authorized the removal of bones from the same cemetery to allow the construction of the Palace Hotel. But this claim has been disputed by the former rector of Hebrew University, Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a leading expert on Jerusalem’s geographical history.

In addition to the uproar about both the design and the site, many Israelis have questioned whether the Wiesenthal Center could effectively transfer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the sort of exhibitions and diversity training operations that it currently runs at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and a separate New York Tolerance Center.

A lavish groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2004 where Gehry, who was originally named Goldberg but changed his name in adulthood, was joined by Benjamin Netanyahu and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Citing the “darkness that pervades the Middle East,” Schwarzenegger predicted that “this building will be a candle to guide us.”

Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, told The New York Times soon afterward that the Jerusalem project awakened memories of his Jewish upbringing.

But controversy flared two years later when bones were uncovered at the site. Today, construction hoardings surround a quiet plot.

Michael Z. Wise is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine and has written on cultural topics for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and ARTnews.

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It’s a great story with lots of character.

Terrible, who would ever want to know about this stuff!

It’s a project that should NEVER been started in the first place. While the Gehry design might be fine in LA and other places, like the horrible Calatrava bridge, it is not appropriate for Jerusalem.

Plus – we don’t need a “museum” of tolerance – what a waste of money and land in a city that needs more places for people to actually get together, not more edifices to failure.

I don’t know what’s more obsence: the proposed site of the planned museum or its seudo-futuristic design.

Ken Donow says:

Frank G

I want to second the comments by Susan Pomeranz. The Calatrava bridge looks like nothing so much as a piece of kitsch in the context it was built. The Gehry project would be kitsch on steroids. The idea of a museum of tolerance in a city which houses Yad Vashem is ridiculous.

I can’t think of a more perfect oxymoron. A museum of tolerance in my family’s hometown where my family isn’t even allowed to return to. That’s tolerance for you.

It’s irony at it’s finest. I’m glad Gehry has walked away from this abomination. To be honest, the word “tolerance” is insulting. I suppose check points, border patrols and refugee camps are ways the Jews “tolerate” the Palestinians. The only way to co-exist peacefully is to ACCEPT differences. We can only pray one day they will be celebrated.

Sharon M. Blumberg says:

I also agree with the comments made above by Susan Pomeranz and the continuation of those comments by Ken Donow. Was anyone thinking of the consequences of this building’s location and structure design. I find it a complete negative, it does NOT belong in Jerusalem….

Mary F says:

When will Israel learn?

Sorry, I know it’s cool to support Israel as an American and all, but…

A Museum of “Tolerance” built on top of a sacred Muslim cemetery? REALLY?

REALLY, Israel? WTF?

Cliff Hammond says:

The museum itself is a great concept. It’s planned location and design are something else. After finding a more tolerance inspiring site, they should find an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright who combined design genius with respect for place.

Its another example of the utter contempt that Isreal has for Palestinians,the true owners of the land they now occupy. Since Isreal revels in, but lies about, a system of Apartied against Palestinians, it is not surprising that they would see nothing wrong with a building meant to insult those people. Or, at least to show how insignificant they feel Palestinians are. What do you expect of a terroist country?

Suzanne’s comments are on the mark but some of you are simply antisemites who don’t even know the meaning of apartheid. Were Israel to actually implement the practices you accuse it of, the so-called “Palestinian problem” would have been solved 50 years ago.

I heard Kim Jong-Il is building a monument to open-ness.

Regina says:

As a Los Angeles resident and visitor to both the Museum of Tolerance and Walt Disney Hall, I find it ridiculous for a project as worthy as a Museum of Tolerance to be entrusted to ultramodernist Gehry, and he has wisely withdrawn. First, if the Israelis do not show and practice tolerance, the proposed museum would be a travesty. Clearly, the current plan would desecrate a Muslim site and, by definition, it is not tolerant. Second, if a Museum of Tolerance is not designed with a dignified use of visual detail, which the L.A. institution exhibits, it becomes a travesty of its very purpose. Jews normally know and do better — this strikes me as an act of political spite, unworthy of Jews.

Seymour Alexander says:

The building’s ugliness would have reflected the nature of the state which has stolen Jerusalem and changed it from a beautiful contemplative city into a typical Israeli madhouse.

Fabian says:

What part of Israel is better suited for it? Is there any place where somebody wouldn’t object to it? The only intolerant people here seem to be the ones that wrote the comments above.

yemach shemom says:

I suppose that Israel can never do anything right.My father a holocaust survivor would say, never trust the other side I would say, dad were in a new era haaaaaaa I think father new best. don’t think you need a museum to show the intolerance they could have a wall put up with some of the comments so eloquently posted here that should be enough.

Why dont they put up the museum of tolerance on part of the land the Wall runs through?

You know, for laughs.

boredwell says:

Frank! What was he thinking?! The cemetery is hallowed ground. Why disturb the dearly departed with the architectural equivalent of Golem!? I think Simon would not have approved, either.

“A Museum of “Tolerance” built on top of a sacred Muslim cemetery? REALLY? REALLY, Israel? WTF?”

Yeah, it’s not like Muslims built a mosque on top of our holiest site or anything…

Ramallah is an isolated island of prosperity says:

At a discussion about this a few months ago sponsored by IPCRI (the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information), in fact there was an offer from one of the Palestinians in the audience (Dr. Dajani) to DONATE enough dunams of land to build a big Museum of Tolerance — exactly along the line in the northern area of East Jerusalem where The Wall cuts through. The land, as I recall, was in Anata. That would avoid building on top of the Mamilla Cemetary, he said when he made the offer — but it would also mean that both Israelis and Palestinians would be able to visit it, which would not be the case if it were built in West Jerusalem. At least one of the lawyers involved in the Museum of Tolerance project was in the audience, and some other people associated with it, but no one snapped up the offer…

Okay – I have to expand on my original comments… First, as to the location. It was Hag Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who agreed, in the late 1920s, to “condemn” the site of the cemetery in order to build the Palace Hotel at the southern end of the same cemetery, financed by a consortium of Arab investors he led. That the Wakf (Muslim Trust) has now thrown about accusations against Israel for wanting to build anything on that plot is hypocrisy, short & simple. After all, there was a parking lot there for many, many years and nothing was said about that!
Second, it’s the IDEA of a Museum of Tolerance and that horrible DESIGN that I object to, NOT the location. There are other ways to spend money to get people together here and not in building ugly edifices.
By the way, with the proper permits, residents of the PA-controlled areas CAN visit Jerusalem. As well, Arab residents of Jerusalem and all throughout Israel are free to walk the streets of Jerusalem and all Israeli cities and enter any shop or office or museum as they like. Unfortunately, the opposite is NOT true as Jewish Israelis are NOT allowed to enter the PA territory and risk our lives if we attempt to do so.
What was that about TOLERANCE?

Marisa says:

Related situation: if one of the ancient Jewish cemeteries in Europe was slated to be used to build a “Museum of Tolerance,” and if the authorities argued that it was fine because Jews hadn’t been using it for the last 60 years, what would our response be?

Regardless of past events, the question should be “what is the best thing we could possibly do now?” And in this case, I think the answer is: show their dead the respect we would show our own.

if building a museum of tolerance on a centuries-old muslim cemetery is what the wiesenthal center calls tolerance, then i’m afraid i’ve lost respect for them. forget the whole site and build the museum somewhere else.

PilgrimSoul says:

I believe that Hier and the Wiesenthal Center knew exactly what it was doing when it chose this venue. Their politics are openly Likudnik, neo-conservative, and in some cases neo-fascist. Their sponsorship of the Islamophobic film Obsession and their showing of it at their site in Los Angeles should tell us everything we need to know about their vulgarity and their divisiveness.

The Wiesenthal Center was a deliberate attempt to demoralize the Palestinians, who within Israel are today very much second-class citizens, and whose appeals for justice from the Israeli judiciary are routinely denied.
It is a great victory for all who support a two-state solution that many people working together, Jews, Palestinians, and Americans, have been able to stop the deliberate provocation of the Wiesenthal Center.

Rather than another neo-con fantasy, what is needed is for responsible people to reclaim this site for the reasons it was originally established, to make this site as one holy and special to Muslims. Of course, this is not easy, as the requests of Palestinians to build anything are almost always dismissed. Efforts of Palestinians to return to their villages, for example, usually result in attacks by Shin Bet and others, if they return in groups of more than three. But we should continue the non-violent struggle through vigils, occasional demonstrations, letter-writing, and legal appeals.

The site must be reclaimed by Muslim people in this part of the Middle East. This in no way will threaten Jews and Christians living in the area if it is done quietly, firmly, non-violently and without provocation.

Gabrielle says:

I’m with Wisdo–bui|d it on an even more ironic site. Perhaps in the West Bank, and make sure it’s fenced off and that the roads that go to it can on|y be used by Jews, protected by sniper towers.

Good times.

Unknown says:

Good News..I can never visualize such a structure in “J”!

RWordplay says:

I would like to see the Water Treatment Plant of Tolerance, or the New Hospital of Tolerance. The notion of a Museum of Tolerance strikes me as an absurd to the nth degree, almost incomprehensible; understandable only in terms of the self-regard of its founders.
As for for the appropriateness of the site: When one remembers the Arab/Muslim desecration of Jewish Cemeteries in East Jerusalem and the pain it caused the Jewish community, one would think the Israelis would show a bit more sensitivity.

Jesus Martin says:

This is a museum. A place were rare artifacts are displayed so people can see what they look like.

What a better place to build it! Tolerance is long gone in Israel. I wonder how visitors will react if they see tolerance.

This article is unclear whether the site has been a religious site or not. So maybe the hyper-ventilating about Israel, fascism, Likud, and all the other fantasies could work through the facts and calm the shrieks.

I wish Tablet — which I do like so much — could tighten up the facts, especially when issues are so contentious. It’s destructive to create sound and fury when no one can read about the facts and details. The high court (I assume it would be capitalized?) could have offered some more exact quotes. And so much of the article has specific design criticism which seems to have nothing to do with the history of the site but confuse matters.

As to more museums, I am generally dubious, especially with such an inchoate theme as “tolerance.”

And as to Frank Gehry as a designer, even more dubious.

thanks for the piece.
am writing something up on this. there is a denver connection – the c.e.o. – i believe this is his title – of the Wiesenthal Center is one Larry Mizel – whoes MDL Associates was once the largest builder of residential homes in the country. Mizel was pushing the project from behind the scenes.
what ia wondering about is if there is any documented info on the major donors. Am wondering if you or any of your readers might steer me to some sources on this.
cheers. rob prince/denver

speedzter says:

if building a museum of tolerance on a centuries-old muslim cemetery is what the wiesenthal center calls tolerance, then i’m afraid i’ve lost respect for them. forget the whole site and build the museum somewhere else.

Monty says:

i dont know what to say.. this isnt so bad.. we can always do something..

Muslims arent so bad.. you should understand that s.. they are just like you me and everyone..

Big guy

Learning about driveway construction in northern New Jersey.

barbara ruth says:

While walking around Jerusalem this summer I asked an Arab passerby about the cemetery. He told me it was an old Muslim cemetery and modern Jerusalem had grown up around it. He told me some of the similarities between Jewish and Muslim burial customs. He used the words “our customs” so I realized he was a Muslim Arab.

I asked him about the Waldorf Astoria Hotel under construction right across the street. The man explained that it was using the exterior of an old hotel, and that it had been built on part of the cemetery! When I expressed surprse, he said it was an old cemetery, no longer in use, and that the builders of the original hotel had been Arabs! The real abomination here is Gehry’s attrocious design!

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Architect Frank Gehry withdraws from plan to build Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

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