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New Museums in Jerusalem

June 9, 2011

Part of what makes the real city so interesting, in comparison to the abstraction most people have in mind, is the way  life ebbs and flows through it, and a specific spot serves different purposes at different moments.

Take the new museum of Moroccan Jewry, to be officially opened next week. It is situated in a building built  in the late 19th century by the community of Moroccan Jews who had begun moving to Jerusalem a few years earlier. They found they were not welcome inside the Old City (which at the time was simply the city), and had to decamp beyond the walls. Other people were also beginning to move out of the walls in those days: Jews along the route west towards the coast, along what one day would be Jaffa Road, and the Arabs along the route north towards Nablus. The founders of Mahane Yisrael, on the other hand, built simple structures of rough-hewn stone in the middle of nowhere, to the south of the central Muslim cemetery.  That was then.

Some of the original structures are still there, including the large one which was their community center and has now been gutted and revamped to house the new museum. The surrounding area, however, is about as plush as you can find. The King David Hotel is half a block away, the David Citadel Hotel is half a block in the other direction, one of the two American Consulates is effectively the western edge of the neighborhood – and right in front of it, towering over it from two sides, is one of the most filthy-expensive apartment projects in town. Rumor has it that Roman Abromovich, of Chelsea fame, owns the top three floors of one of them.

Rabbi Ben Shimon would be flabbergasted. Or perhaps not, since his arrival in town was part of the anticipation of better days for Jewish Jerusalem.

Some 400 meters to the north, on the other side of what used to be the Muslim cemetery, the planners and city elders are still haggling about the intention to build a very large Museum of Tolerance, a brainstorm of Rabbi Martin Heir, of Los Angeles fame. It’s not clear why Jerusalem needs this museum, but there’s no harm in it – except that it’s slated to be built, partially, just inside what used to be that Muslim cemetery, which is an unfortunate twist.

The first partition of Jerusalem, in 1948, resulted in the interesting anomaly of the main Muslim cemetery being on the Jewish side of town, and the main Jewish one on the Arab side of town. Over the next 19 years both sides purposefully erased most of the foreign graveyard they’d inherited, and since then each side has conveniently forgotten it did so while loudly complaining that the other side was nasty. From my experience, it’s a very rare person who remembers both cases; most folks remember the part that’s convenient to them. How ironic, then, that Rabbi Heir’s project is one of the main factors in reminding us about the Israeli transgression. Probably not what he had in mind.

Is there a link between the stories of these two museums? There may be: both the Museum of Tolerance (which isn’t yet built) and the towers for multimillionaires above Mahane Yisrael, were both hatched in the days when Ehud Olmert was mayor. The courts may soon have their say about that period, so I’ll withhold comment for the time being.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Barry Meislin permalink
    June 16, 2011 6:40 pm

    Regarding the proposed Museum of Tolerance, one hopes that the powers that be will be tolerant enough to resist building it where it’s slated to be.

  2. Womble permalink
    June 29, 2011 10:48 pm

    That part of the Mamilla cemetery was slated for development since 1945- by the Supreme Muslim Council, no less:

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