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Israeli court OKs Museum of Tolerance's controversial branch

October 29, 2008 | 12:42 pm

Frank Gehry-designed Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

A Frank Gehry-designed museum can rise in Jerusalem on a site that was once a Muslim cemetery, Israel's Supreme Court ruled today, clearing the way for L.A.'s Simon Wiesenthal Center to build a Holy Land counterpart to its Museum of Tolerance on Pico Boulevard.

The $250-million project had been delayed since early 2006, when builders unearthed bones. Arab leaders in Israel sued to stop the project and were supported, in an unusual alliance, by some ultra-Orthodox Jews with firm beliefs against disturbing graves.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement Wednesday that "moderation and tolerance have prevailed." But Zahi Nujidat, a spokesman for the Israeli Islamic movement, decried the ruling as "clear religious and ethnic oppression," according to the Associated Press.

The Supreme Court's ruling requires museum builders to consult with Israel's Antiquities Authority on how to rebury any remains unearthed during construction and on creating a barrier between graves and the building's foundation. The court found that the cemetary dates back 300 to 400 years but fell into disuse after Israel gained statehood in 1948. The court said that since there had been no objections in 1960, when the city built a parking lot over part of the cemetery, it would not block construction of the museum on the same property.

The Wiesenthal Center had argued that Muslim religious authorities declared the cemetery abandoned in 1964. Opponents of the project questioned whether the abandonment was legitimate. Controversy over the project stirred as early as 2004, when a ceremonial groundbreaking for the museum took place with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attending.

Jerusalem tolerance museum's grand hall The Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance will not have the prominent Holocaust remembrance theme of its L.A. counterpoint because that would duplicate Israel's memorial, Yad Vashem. Instead, Hier said, the goal is to create "a great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility." The 3-acre campus will include two museums, a library-education center, a conference center and a 500-seat performing arts theater. Gehry's design calls for structures of blue and silver titanium, steel, glass and golden Jerusalem stone.

In an interview last month, Hier told The Times that, with $115 million raised for the Jerusalem museum, construction could resume immediately upon a go-ahead from the Supreme Court. Asked whether he was concerned that the project could become a new flashpoint in the ever-volatile Arab-Israeli conflict, Hier predicted that "you'll have protests for two or three days," then things will go back to normal.

Ran Boytner, an Israeli-born archeologist who is director of international research at UCLA's Cotsen Institute for Archaeology and heads a cooperative Arab and Israeli effort to protect ancient sites, said last month that he was concerned approval of the Jerusalem museum could turn into "a galvanizing event ... because of the symbolic importance of who is building the building. This is the Museum of Tolerance."

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Top, artist's rendering of Frank Gehry-designed Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem; bottom, rendering of the museum's grand hall. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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