Jewish Journal

Jerusalem of Gehry

A new tolerance museum may bring conflict to Jerusalem.

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Aug. 30, 2001 at 8:00 pm

"It will be the most outstanding building in the State of Israel and will draw worldwide attention," says Rabbi Marvin Hier.

The dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is referring to the new Museum of Tolerance -- to be known as the Winnick Institute -- that will rise in the heart of Jerusalem on Hillel Street, any opposition notwithstanding.

Frank Gehry, widely considered the world's most innovative contemporary architect, is designing the $130 million center, a guarantee that it will indeed attract global attention and controversy.

Some of the controversy has already started, even as Gehry is completing the final-phase schematic design of the institute, which will be submitted to the municipal planning commission and made public in about six weeks.

Raising sharp objections to the project is Dani Shalem, the director for The Museum on the Seam for Dialogue, Tolerance and Understanding. The museum, which opened in 1999, deals with conflicts in a multicultural society, "of which Jerusalem represents a very significant raw model," Shalem told The Journal.

"For there to be such an institution, whose contents overlap both our mission and ... Yad Vashem's, is a huge waste of money, not just during construction, but the operating costs, too," Shalem says.

"That means an ongoing, long-term waste of money for no reason, except possibly to boost the ego of the Wiesenthal Center, with all respect for what they are doing. I'm not asking for their money, but they should take it and build something like that somewhere it is needed, like South Africa, for instance."

In response, Hier notes that initial plans for the institute were initiated in 1993, well before Shalem's project, when then Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek proposed it to Hier after visiting the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance.

Its mission will be grander and wider than Shalem's museum, which is aimed primarily at Jewish and Arab high school students, Hier says.

The new museum will be a "world center to heighten consciousness and a catalyst to enhance sensitivity on issues of human dignity and responsibility," according to the Jerusalem institute's mission statement. "It will seek to promote civility and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths and creeds," the statement says.

From the beginning, Hier has insisted that the Winnick Institute will not deal with the Holocaust, in deference to the primary mission of Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial authority.

Plans for the institute envision usable space of 120,000 square feet, considerably larger that the parent Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

However, like the L.A. model, the Jerusalem version will be high tech, interactive and experiential, and geared to the Internet generation.

"We are not interested in the state-of-the-art now, but what will be available on the market four years from now," Hier said last year when initial plans were unveiled at a festive dinner in Los Angeles, in the presence of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

Hier says that Olmert is an enthusiastic backer of the project and persuaded the Wiesenthal Center to move the institute from the originally planned French Hill section at the foot of Mount Scopus to a 3-acre site in the center of Jerusalem.

After the anticipated approval by municipal authorities, it will take another two years to start construction, and another two years to complete the project.

Its official name will be the Winnick Institute, a Project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in recognition of a $40 million contribution by fiber-optics billionaire Gary Winnick of Los Angeles.

In announcing his gift, Winnick termed the future institute "the first global institution of the new millennium."

Once Gehry's design is unveiled, Hier will proceed to collect the remaining $90 million for the construction and endowment of the Winnick Institute.

At last year's dinner, Gehry described his first Israeli assignment as "a very moving and tough project" that had already reconnected him with the Jewish world of his ancestors and his childhood.

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