New design set for Jerusalem tolerance museum

Architectural designs for a trimmed-down Museum of Tolerance in the center of Jerusalem, featuring massive top-to-bottom glass walls facing the city’s Independence Park, have been unveiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, said he expects completion of the six-story structure, with three stories above ground and three below, in three-and-a-half years.

The $100 million project, formally designated as the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance, is to include an exhibition space, theater and education center in some 150,000 square feet, as well as outdoor gardens and an amphitheater.

Chyutin Architects, an Israeli firm, won the competition against two other Israeli architects to redesign the museum.

Over the last eight years, the Jerusalem project has taxed even Hier’s well-known determination and perseverance.

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An artist’s rendering of the proposed Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance

In 2002, renowned architect Frank O. Ghery created the design for a 240,000 square feet museum, which would have cost $250 million, featuring steel, blue and silver titanium and golden Jerusalem stone.

Israeli and American dignitaries gathered for the groundbreaking in 2004, but the joyous occasion was soon overshadowed by a barrage of criticism.

The first opposition came from Muslim religious leaders, who said that the land on which the MOT was to stand had served for centuries as a Muslim cemetery and appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to grant an injunction against any construction.

While Jerusalem city officials firmly backed Hier, vocal critics also blasted the size and design of the project, others ridiculed the whole idea of an American-inspired tolerance center, and Yad Vashem expressed concern about a possible competing Holocaust memorial.

On the last point, Hier gave assurances that the MOT would not center on Holocaust remembrance, but rather on human rights, social responsibility, and genocides and war crimes throughout the world.

After nearly four years of deliberation, the Supreme Court granted the Wiesenthal Center permission to continue construction according to the Gehry plans, but mandated some restrictions.

Earlier this year, the slumping economy caused the Wiesenthal Center’s board of trustees to drastically cut the cost and size of the project. Gehry bowed out, and site preparations for the smaller MOT are now nearing completion.

During a recent trip to Jerusalem, Hier met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who, Hier said, enthusiastically endorsed the new redesigned MOT and called it a perfect fit for the Jerusalem neighborhood in which it will rise.