Wiesenthal Center sets sights on Jerusalem museum

When the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, with its life-size Holocaust replicas and interactive anti-hate exhibits, opened in 1993, the immediate reaction was mixed.

The museum's backers, including such heavyweight Hollywood hitters as then-Disney President Jeffrey Katzenberg, were impressed.

Others were less pleased, calling the museum, in L.A.'s heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a "Holocaust Disneyland."

New York Times writer Judith Miller likened the exhibits to "kitsch and gimmickry," symbolic of a national weakness toward reducing things to their simplest form.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the museum's founder and Simon Wiesenthal Center head, shot back: "If you want to keep the Holocaust a secret, you can set up a place that has the solemnity of a Christian Science reading room…We're a modern educational center using modern techniques."

Now, as Hier prepares to open a tolerance-based center in Jerusalem, he can plausibly claim that his vision for the institution has been justified.

Today the Museum of Tolerance, tying-in contemporary manifestations of prejudice and intolerance with a Holocaust history lesson, is an established fixture of the Los Angeles cultural landscape and a thriving educational institution that attracts some 350,000 visitors a year.

"What we did here in 1993 was start on a path others have subsequently followed," says Hier proudly. "Every serious museum in the world now is including, or will eventually include, the technology we have utilized."

The Jerusalem project, under the auspices of the Wiesenthal Center, will be built on an even grander scale. Its central subjects will be the history of anti-Semitism and intra-Jewish conflict up until the Holocaust, and contemporary coexistence issues in modern Israel.

Its design is by the world's hottest architect, Frank Gehry, who has produced a complex of buildings for the museum even more eye-catching and radical than his acclaimed design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Like L.A.'s museum, the scale and nature of the project seem set to generate plenty of reactions, both positive and negative.

Already, an earlier incomplete version of Gehry's plan has drawn the latter, with Ha'aretz architecture critic Esther Zandberg in a September article sharply criticizing it as an "architectural oddity" that will require "mind-boggling" expenditures.

The project's supporters entertain no such doubts, especially Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who picked out and approved a prime piece of downtown real estate for the site.

"The Museum of Tolerance is a major world institution, [and] will build on the fine tradition started by the Wiesenthal Center in L.A.," says Olmert. "It will add an important dimension to the cultural and educational life of the city, as well as being a spectacular building. I have no doubt it will become a major architectural landmark, not only of Jerusalem, but of the world."

As the guiding spirit behind the museum, 62-year-old Hier, who despite his years in L.A. still speaks with the raspy accent of his native "Noo Yawk," found inspiration for the project shortly after opening the Museum of Tolerance.

"In 1994 [former Jerusalem mayor] Teddy Kollek visited here and said to me, 'I want you to build a museum like that in Jerusalem.' So I came to Jerusalem and with his help started to look for appropriate locations, a process that continued under Mayor Olmert."

The search for a suitable location for the museum took years. Various sites were considered, but Olmert pushed instead for a site in the city center — a parking lot on Jerusalem's Rehov Hillel, adjacent to Independence Park.

"I wanted a site in the heart of Jerusalem as part of our plan and our ongoing commitment to revitalize the city center," says Olmert.

Gehry's selection three years ago as the project's architect pushed the project onto the next level. As an American Jew professionally based in Los Angeles, who proved in Bilbao that he has the ability to create instant eye-catching landmarks, he brings obvious advantages to the project.

"We wanted a building that will attract people," says Hier, "instead of hiring a lesser-known architect who would create a more conservative structure that we would then have to spend money later on to market and advertise…Once the building goes up, it serves as its own advertising, because its unique design attracts enormous media attention."

But neither Gehry nor his designs come cheap. Hier estimates the cost of building the museum at no less than $150 million, and he aims to raise another $50 million for the endowment, relying entirely on private donations.

"The museum will take about four years to finish," he says. "Our building is a sign of confidence that by the time it is ready to open, Israel will have worked its way out of the current situation, and we will have contributed a project that will contribute greatly to the revived tourist industry."

Hier stresses that this is not a Holocaust memorial — a prospect that reportedly unnerved Yad Vashem, an Israel-based authority on the Holocaust, to the point that it asked the government for written guarantees to that effect.

"It was never our intention to deal with the Holocaust, and we have no intention to undercut Yad Vashem," says Hier. "Our subject is tolerance and intolerance in Jewish history, outside of the Holocaust period and the first 50 years of the Jewish state."

As Hier pictures it, the museum will be divided into two sections. The first will be a 90-minute "historical walk-through" that recreates various periods and events in Jewish history relating to the central theme: the intra-Jewish conflicts during the Second Temple period, the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion, Herzl at the Dreyfus trial, etc. At the end of this walk-through, which will end at the start of the 20th century, visitors will walk into an interactive social laboratory — the second section — that skips ahead to modern-day Israel and deals with such issues as the secular-religious conflicts, Arab-Jewish relationships and the growing rise in international anti-Semitism.

"Beyond the immediate external threat, which is the most pressing issue in Israel today, there is the internal threat relating to the subject of tolerance and coexistence between Jews and Jews, and Jews and non-Jews, which the museum will address," says Hier.

The building is slated to include what Hier calls a state-of-the-art international conference center; an education center that will feature classes, lectures and discussions with important thinkers, philosophers and lecturers; a theater that will show films on the subject of tolerance; a library and a gallery space.

"I hope Israelis will just take this project for what it is," says Hier. "It's not like we don't already have a full plate here in L.A., and we've been asked by many cities to build a facility there like we have here. But I think we have something unique to contribute, we think it's an honor to take part in the building up of the Land of Israel."