Cultural Amnesia: The Museum of Tolerance

By Farris Wahbeh

"The world should know we are not building a bunker. We’re building something that breathes with life–just as God breathed life into us."

So said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last May 2–in Jerusalem at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new Simon Wiesenthal Center for Human Dignity and a Museum of Tolerance–which is the Center’s educational arm. The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC)–named after the Ukrainian-born survivor of the Nazi Death camps who later became a world famous Nazi-hunter–was founded in 1977 as an international center for "Holocaust remembrance–the defense of human rights and the Jewish people." The organization is supported by an international member base of 400,000 and is headquartered in Los Angeles–with offices in New York–Toronto–Miami–Jerusalem–Paris and Buenos Aires. The SWC’s first Museum of Tolerance (MOT) was opened in 1993 in Los Angeles as a "high tech–hands-on experiential museum that focuses on two central themes through unique interactive exhibits: the dynamics of racism and prejudice in America and the history of the Holocaust–the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity to man."

The new MOT in Jerusalem–which was conceived by SWC’s Dean and Founder–Marvin Hier–is slated to open between 2006 to 2008 with a price tag of $150 million. The MOT Jerusalem will be designed by the esteemed international superstar-architect-of-the-moment–Frank Gehry. The SWC in Jerusalem will house not only MOT but also a full three-acre museum campus including an international conference center–a grand hall–an education center and a library.

While the SWC in Jerusalem seems like an ideal ground for highlighting violations of human rights against the Jewish people–something seems to have been forgotten in the process–human rights violations against Palestinians in Israel by the Israeli government. One example of this historical amnesia is the fact that the SWC will be built on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery that has now become a dilapidated parking lot.

The leftist politician and former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem–Meron Benvenisti–writing in Ha’aretz–confirms the hesitation that many feel about the SWC and MOT moving into Jerusalem: "It is difficult to imagine a project so hallucinatory–so irrelevant–so foreign–so megalomaniac–as the Museum of Tolerance. The mere attempt to stick the term tolerance to a building so intolerant to its surroundings is ridiculous." Benvenisti also acknowledges the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories: "Fanatic–brutal Jerusalem–saturated with the ambition to gain exclusive possession over it–will take pride in a site that preaches equality between communities and the brotherhood of nations–and from its rooftops will be seen the homes of Palestinians–whose struggle for freedom is always defined as ‘terror.’"

According to Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times–while the museum’s content is still in the early stages–the director of Los Angeles’ MOT–Liebe Geft–has already solicited ideas from Israeli novelists–political scientists and religious leaders. So far–however–the central exhibition at MOT Jerusalem–which is conceived by Mr. Hier–will highlight the journey of the Exodus–a ship that carried Jews from Europe after WWII and was later denied entry into British controlled Jerusalem.

Since the museum’s mission is to specifically highlight the violations of human rights against Jews–Mr. Hier–speaking to the New York Times–has said that MOT is not about Palestinians. "It’s not about the experience of the Palestinian people. When they have a state–they’ll have their own museum." For a museum that boasts of highlighting the effects of human rights violations and the practice of tolerance–it seems rather odd that such an intentional omission would be allowed.

The SWC’s MOT Jerusalem directly conflicts with their mission of confronting "important contemporary issues," such as racism–terrorism and genocide–when it turns its back on the Palestinian situation–a situation that is known worldwide as an "important contemporary issue." For instance–in 1949–the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 302 (IV) to carry out direct relief and works programs for Palestinian refugees that were displaced following the Israeli incursion into Palestine–otherwise known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1950–The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)–which works with refugees and refugee camps in Israel and has seen the number of Palestinian refugees rise to 4 million in 2002–was the off-spring of Resolution 302 (IV)–and the General Assembly has renewed UNRWA’s mandate repeatedly since 1949 until June 2005. After Israel invaded East Jerusalem–the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day-War–the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 242 which calls for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" and highlights the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." Interestingly–the SWC is an accredited NGO at both the UN and its cultural division of the United Nations Educational–Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Even if this form of cultural etiquette may come as a surprise to many–this is not the first time that the SWC has turned its back on human rights atrocities. The center’s MOT in Los Angeles came under fire by the city’s Armenian community–which is one of largest outside of Armenia today–in 2003 when the museum retracted their pledge of including the Armenian genocide by the Turkish Ottoman Empire as part of their permanent installation. A group of Armenian-American college students [Armenian Youth Federation members] even staged a six-day hunger strike in front of the MOT as a sign of protest against the museum’s refusal to incorporate the topic into the permanent exhibition.

Another Los Angeles-based artist/activist group created an on-line museum titled Museum of Amnesia (MOA) in protest against MOT’s omission of the Armenian genocide. One of the members–speaking to F News about MOT’s handling of political themes within their museum–responded by saying–"In general I think the MOT (LA) appears as this fortress that exhibits filtered-down (Wiesenthal’s filter) and in some cases filtered-out information on complex issues. I think the Palestinian writer/ scholar Daoud Kuttab who was quoted in the [New York Times] article really echoes part of MOA’s position when he said "What we often see is an attempt to give a superficial meaning to tolerance."

In response to the Armenian community’s protest–MOT’s Director Geft responded the Jerusalem Post–saying–"Whatever we do–it won’t be enough for some members of the Armenian community."

Clearly–the SWC’s track record in recording human rights violations at their museums is shaky at best. What that means for Palestinians living within Israel–in a museum meant to display Tolerance and Human Rights abuses within that very same country–remains contentious.

Israeli Reservist Art

While Israel is bracing herself for a new cultural display of "tolerance," several Israeli reservists are exhibiting the exact opposite. In a June exhibition titled "Breaking the Silence" at the Academy for Geographic Photography in Tel Aviv–three Israeli Reservists–Micha Kurz–Yehuda Shaul and Yonathon Baumfeld–who finished their three years of mandatory service in Hebron–exhibited videotapes and photographs detailing the mistreatment of Palestinians under Israeli army rule. The exhibition was intended to portray what actually occurs during mandatory service with the Israeli army. In a letter addressed to visitors at the entrance of the exhibit–the soldiers said: "We decided to speak out. Hebron isn’t in outer space. It’s one hour from Jerusalem."

Among the exhibition photographs–some images included Palestinians that are blindfolded and bound–and countless pictures of racist and near fascist graffiti created by Israeli settlers and directed towards the Palestinians. One such photo includes the phrase: "Arabs to the Gas Chambers."

The videotapes included in the exhibition comprise testimonials by 70 Israeli soldiers who reveal the use of Palestinians as human’shields and the overall mistreatment of Palestinians in general. The Israeli Military Police interrogated several of the artists-cum-reservists–including Micha Kurz. Kurz–after a seven-hour questioning session–responded to the press: "The army wants to keep us quiet and scare us way. They’re not going to shut us up–because we have a lot to say–and they’re not going to scare us off."


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