Cultural Amnesia: The Museum of Tolerance

The Chicago Art Institute’s art news magazine- (F News)

Artwa tch:
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

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
programmes for Palestinian refugees that were displaced following the
Israeli incursion into Palestine, otherwise known as the Arab-Israeli
conflict. In 1950, The United Nations Reliefs 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 permenant installation. A group of Armenian-American college
students 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

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.”

F Newsmagazine
September 2004

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