After years of delays due to legal challenges and fundraising setbacks, the Simon Wiesenthal Center received permission on July 12 from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior’s District Planning and Construction Committee to begin construction on the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. The ministry gave a green light to a revised design for the building, saying that because the building’s footprint would remain the same as an earlier plan, a new review process would not be necessary.
The new design, by Chyutin Architects, a local Israeli firm, replaces a previous plan by Los Angeles superstar Frank O. Gehry, who pulled out of the process when funding shortfalls forced the Wiesenthal Center to request a scaled-back version.
For years, Palestinian leaders had fought to halt the project, claiming that the site on which it is to be built is an ancient Muslim burial ground.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s founder and dean, welcomed the decision, which he said will allow for construction to begin immediately.
“We have the full blessing and endorsement of the government of Israel, and the prime minister of Israel and the mayor of Jerusalem,” Hier said.
Groundbreaking for the museum officially kicked off in 2004, but construction was halted in 2006 when Arab leaders in Israel sued to stop work after bones were unearthed during excavation at the site. In 2008, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Simon Wiesenthal Center could build on the site.
“The Supreme Court reviewed the Palestinian claims for three years and ruled unanimously that, for more than half a century, Muslims no longer considered that site to be part of the cemetery,” Hier said.
With the global economic downturn, the project was then reformulated. What had been a $250 million building designed by Gehry was reconceived as a $100 million project.
The question answered at the Knesset on July 12 was a technical one about the building’s footprint, according to Hier. The permit allows the Wiesenthal Center to build without restarting the planning process. “We are building on the same three-and-a-half acres,” Hier said.
Hier said that the center has raised $45 million, which will allow construction to begin by September. He said the building will take three years to complete.