Frank Gehry's Mideast Peace Plan
The New York Times, Aug. 1, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

On a brilliant afternoon last May, a constellation of political and artistic luminaries from Israel and America gathered on the lumpy asphalt of a parking lot in a dreary corner of this ancient, contested capital. There stood the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the architect Frank Gehry and, at the podium, the movie star turned governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Wearing a Jewish skullcap, the son of an Austrian Nazi delivered the keynote address as ground was broken for a $200 million Museum of Tolerance, designed by Mr. Gehry. "In the darkness that pervades the Middle East," Mr. Schwarzenegger told a crowd of several hundred, "this building will be a candle to guide us."

The ceremony represented a particular triumph for one of the less recognizable people in the front rank, a bespectacled rabbi named Marvin Hier. As founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Mr. Hier had overseen its transformation from an organization dedicated to hunting down Nazi war criminals to one best known for its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which has attracted four million visitors in its 11-year history with its message of multicultural coexistence. Now Mr. Hier is betting that his museum can help to heal one of the most divisive places on earth.

But the Wiesenthal Center's formula will be difficult to transfer here. In the culminating segment of a film made for the Center's facilities in Los Angeles and New York, for example, a middle-aged man says: "Tolerance is based on a conviction there's room here for everybody." That definition is a profoundly American one, reflecting the reality of a nation with vast space and no existential threats. It sounds irrelevant, even ludicrous, in an Israeli-Palestinian context. In this country, almost no one believes that there is enough land or political power for everybody to share equitably.

Which may be why the proposed museum is already drawing withering and widespread criticism, years before its opening. At the most hyperbolic edge of the debate, the American architect and critic Michael Sorkin claimed in Architectural Record that the Gehry design's use of large, irregular stone blocks "uncomfortably evokes the 'deconstruction' of Yasir Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah into a pile of rubble by Israeli security forces." The leftist Israeli 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. Palestinians, who usually agree with Israelis on so little, express similar skepticism.

The project is part of a new generation of cultural institutions that have emerged over the past decade that -- rather than displaying wondrous objects, as was the traditional function of a museum -- seek to inculcate values. The proposed Museum of Freedom at ground zero falls into this category, as does the Museum of Immigration in France. The Wiesenthal Center helped create the form: the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, founded in 1993, uses the Holocaust as its core exhibit, a kind of case study of what happens when hatred goes unchallenged. Other exhibits look at the civil rights movement and the activity of white-supremacist hate groups. Those topics offer easy moral choices; few rational Americans disagree about, say, the repugnance of the Ku Klux Klan. In its interactive exhibits, the museum does address a few more complex issues, like racial profiling by the police or the line between free speech and hate speech in talk radio.

To build a comparable museum in Jerusalem is to risk touchy-feely naivete on the one hand or polarizing candor on the other. On the very day Mr. Schwarzenegger spoke of hopeful candles, Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli mother and four children, who also happened to be residents of one of the controversial settlements in Gaza. In the months since, Israel's Supreme Court ordered that the security barrier being erected partly within Palestinian territory must be rerouted and the International Court of Justice condemned it outright. A leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi has used the same coded religious language once uttered against Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was subsequently assassinated, to imply that it is permissible to kill Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. How is a museum supposed to reckon with such passions?

Speaking by phone from Southern California recently, Mr. Gehry said the project had awakened memories of his own upbringing -- particularly the grandfather who taught him about the Talmud and Zionism. "If you're raised a Jewish kid, Israel's the most important place in the world where there's some sense of belonging when all else fails," said Mr. Gehry, who as an adult changed his name from Goldberg. But though the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland sounds fairly innocuous in America, in the Middle East, it clashes with Palestinian claims to the very same land.

In recent years, Mr. Gehry has been celebrated for culture palaces like the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Disney concert hall in Los Angeles, but the Jerusalem museum is meant to be more than just an architectural highlight or a linchpin of urban planning. Perhaps as a result, he designed the museum to be accessible in both literal and metaphorical ways. "I was trying to make a building that had body language," he said. "People can come from all directions, and all kinds of people can come." The Great Hall has entry doors all along its 360-degree circumference. Every other structure in the three-acre campus -- theater, conference center, education building -- faces toward the museum so that, Mr. Gehry said, "families and children are constantly in view, in your face, so that you never escape from the issue of what this place is about."

The museum's content is still in the early stage of development, since the institution is not expected to open until 2008. While Liebe Geft, director of the Los Angeles museum, has held initial meetings to solicit ideas and advice from some 200 Israelis, ranging from novelists to political scientists to religious leaders, the central exhibit in Jerusalem is Mr. Hier's brainchild. It will trace the journey of the Exodus, a ship that carried hundreds of Holocaust survivors; denied entry to British-controlled Palestine, the ship was turned away by European ports as well before discharging its human cargo in Germany, of all places, where they were hauled off to internment camps by railroad car. Mr. Hier said the saga of the Exodus provides a vehicle for appreciating "the eternal search for tolerance" and, more specifically, the Jewish experience of persecution and oppression. Of course, the arrival of European Jews also forms part of the Palestinian counternarrative of the nakba, or catastrophe, as the creation of Israel is known.

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian writer and scholar who lives in East Jerusalem and qualifies as a political moderate, cast doubt on the museum's willingness to give equal weight to Palestinian experiences. "What we often see is an attempt to give a superficial meaning to tolerance," he said in a telephone interview. "What doesn't come through is genuine respect for others, for their humanity and their right of self-determination. Reconciliation requires the admission of mistakes. That starting point often isn't reached. Instead, there is this attempt to give this fig leaf of tolerance. It only sugarcoats the bad reality of suppression and control."

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." Still, he added, the museum will present a display on the flourishing Jewish life under Islamic rulers in Moorish Spain. And a film being made for all the Wiesenthal museums traces the friendship of a Palestinian pianist from Jenin and her Israeli teacher in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, which Palestinians consider occupied territory.

Those good intentions aside, Palestinians who live in the West Bank must cross multiple checkpoints and obtain permits to enter Israel. Even if many want to visit the tolerance museum, which is doubtful enough, they will have a formidable time getting there.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't the only one that divides the country: Israel is also torn between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, and Jews from Ashkenazi and Sephardic origins. The twin phenomena of Israel's internal politics over the last 20 years have been the Shas party, which champions the ethnic solidarity and fervent Orthodoxy of Sephardic immigrants, and the Shinui party, which assails ultra-Orthodox Jews for feasting on government aid while enjoying draft deferments and imposing religious law on secularists. Mr. Hier says flatly that, in exploring intolerance within Israel, the museum is "addressing a problem that Israel should have addressed itself."

To some Israeli critics, however, the design and the content are beside the point; the museum, they argue, 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."

"Of course the challenge is difficult," Mr. Hier said during a recent interview in New York. "Israel isn't America. But to be honest, I don't think we should be held to the standard that in order to open the Jerusalem museum we have to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I wish we were that important. Israel didn't start in 1948. Israel is part of the Jewish people. The ideas of dignity and respect were Jewish ideas before Herzl or Ben-Gurion." (He was referring to the founder of the Zionist movement and the first prime minister of Israel.) "So it's a bogus argument to say tolerance is an American concept. It 's a Jewish concept."

Yet the Israeli concept of tolerance remains quite different from an American Jewish one. The very word for tolerance in Hebrew -- sovrenoot -- comes from a root meaning not respect or acceptance but grudgingly "putting up with" someone or something irritating.

"In America, the highest value is to be nice, not to judge other people," said Noah Efron, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan and the author of "Real Jews," about tension between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. "That won't work in Israel. There is something that's bracing and exciting and good about the way people parse life here, the willingness to argue with a fair amount of passion and fury. There's a willingness to be coarse and crass. I love that about Israel, but it's also what got Yitzhak Rabin shot. The danger, especially with this museum being imported, is to trivialize those tensions."

Even Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who strongly backed the project as mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990's, said: "If the programming decisions are mad outside of Israel, the museum will fail. It will be an empty place. A coffee shop, a concert hall and so on. The content has to be relevant and belong to the realities here and true to the emotions that characterize this place."

At this point, the Wiesenthal Center has raised about $85 million of the projected $200 million from 10 donors in the United States and Canada. Main construction work on the museum will start in several months. For now, the future site still belongs to the parking lot and a nearby plaza. In the afternoon and evening, Israeli teenagers gather there for their own experiments in tolerance -- checking out the Arab water-pipes and flavored tobacco peddled by Palestinian vendors, riffling through the Indian rugs and bedspreads brought back by former soldiers who vacationed abroad after finishing military service.

The plaza used to be a more vibrant locale, back before the second intifada period. Since then, tourism has nosedived and Israelis have grown wary of public spaces that might be attacked. In that respect, no site could be more unwittingly appropriate for the Wiesenthal project. As the Jerusalem architect Amir Kolker, a colleague of Mr. Gehry's on the project, put it, "Everybody thinks there's so little tolerance in Israel you can fit it all in one museum, and you need to keep it in a safe place."

Back to top


Articles by publication > By Subject > Back to Jewish Interest Articles >> Back to Culture Articles