Inside story

Tolerance Museum, a ‘people’s parliament,’ will partially open in mid-May

More than 20 years in the making, the imposing facility in downtown Jerusalem will start with a photo exhibit, as works continue on the high-tech museum elements

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A staircase that looks as if it's floating, at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
A staircase that looks as if it's floating, at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem must be one of the most challenging cities in the world in which to successfully build a tolerance museum.

The capital is a microcosm, and an extreme example, of the rifts in Israeli society — between Jews and Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and secular, and many more subcategories of the population.

But Jonathan Riss, operating manager for the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, is optimistic.

He believes that the new 17,500 square meter (188,000 foot) facility, whose east-west, bridge-like design links the Old City and the New, the Palestinian one with the Jewish one, will serve as a “people’s parliament.”

There, according to his vision, visitors from the city, the country, and the world, among them delegations dealing with world conflicts, will gather to explore Jewish and universal values, examine their beliefs, confront their stereotypes, and open their minds to the views and cultures of the other.

The museum will partially open to the public in mid-May, with a photographic exhibition marking 75 years of Israeli independence.

Visitors will be able to see the two upper floors of the facility, which feature a large auditorium and gleaming multi-use spaces for exhibitions, conferences, and art and cultural events.

A photographic exhibition marking Israel’s 75th anniversary at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Riss, an Israeli living in Denver, Colorado, who has been involved with the museum for 23 years, is working around the clock to get the two subterranean floors finished.

These will house the two museums that give the facility its name.

The upper subterranean floor houses a 150-seat theater and green rooms and will be home to a 1,300 square meter (14,000 square foot) children’s museum.

The lower floor will feature a 3,000-square meter (32,300-foot) museum for adults, divided between A People’s Journey and a Social Lab.

The latter is based loosely on a similar exhibit at the Tolerance Museum in Los Angeles, which, like MOTJ, is a project of the LA-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

During a tour of one of these floors on Thursday, the first given to a reporter, Riss explained that the coronavirus pandemic set the museum timetable back, even though work continued on other parts of the building.

The museum architects, from the Los Angeles-based Yazadani Studio, only arrived a month ago for the first time since COVID-19.

Illustration of the pavilions comprising the People’s Journey at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. (Yazdani Studio)

The pavilions for A People’s Journey were finished and paid for before the pandemic disrupted shipping timetables, and the 70 containers into which they were loaded only arrived during the past three months. The pavilions are now in place.

In situ: The walls of the pavilions for the People’s Journey section of the museum for adults at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The museum for adults will consist mainly of audiovisual material, but films couldn’t be shot during lockdown.

The delays were aggravated by Israeli bureaucracy regarding permits, Riss said.

He added that money was never the issue.

For the adult museum, work is still ongoing to “assemble the tech” for a hologram that will feature great figures, such as the medieval Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides, holding personalized conversations with individual visitors.

If the visitor agrees to the use of his or her social media, artificial intelligence will create a profile with which the hologram can interact.

Maimonides by Solomon Souza. Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem, February 2016. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

“Imagine Maimonides saying ‘Hi Sue, I know you’re a writer who covers the environment’ and goes on to talk to you about global warming,” said Riss.

“We want to use tons of data — if you allow us to access your social media — so that the museum can really relate to you. It could be Maimonides, Churchill, or (former Israeli prime minister Menachem) Begin that communicates with you. Whoever it is will bring his (or her) values (into the conversation). Jewish values that are also universal.”

The children’s museum, for which the technology is currently being reviewed, will open after the adult one.

Part of the structure for a boat that will take visitors to A People’s Journey on a voyage, at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In A People’s Journey, visitors will start their voyage of 90 minutes to two hours on a virtual boat, passing through stations with themes ranging from faith, love of learning, standing up to evil, and performing deeds rather than words, to loving thy neighbor, sanctifying life, and, finally, Longing for Zion.

The virtual boat, Riss explained, could be used as an allegory for local or universal issues. It might be the Egoz, which sank in the Mediterranean Sea in 1961, drowning 44 Moroccan Jews bound for Israel, or any of the boats that have carried immigrants all over the world in general.

Some tolerance case studies would focus on Israel and others would not, he went on, stressing that “in Judaism, tolerating the other is an obligation. Look how the Jewish scriptures instruct us to behave towards the stranger.”

Jonathan Riss, operations manager for the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, stands in what will become the facility’s Social Lab. The walls will be covered with screens. April 27, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Social Lab, on the other side of the floor,  will use audiovisual materials to trigger discussions about issues of past, present, and future, said Riss, “to create a civic understanding between different parts of Israeli society on anything from global issues to social discrimination, harassment, and gender. It could be anything.”

He went on, “Our research has shown that there aren’t enough activities to bring society’s groups together. Israel has amazing high-tech. This will be the first social tech. And we will push the envelope to create something that will create a momentum in Israeli society.”

Questions have been raised about the museum’s US orientation.

A project of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, it takes much of its inspiration from the Museum of Tolerance there.

Jonathan (Yoni) Riss, operations manager for the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

One figure involved in the Israeli museum sector, who asked not to be named, accused the museum’s backers of practicing “philanthropic imperialism.”

“Our country is full of talented people. Why do they think in LA that they’re better than us, that they can tell us what to do here?” this source asked. “Do they have a local curator? Local exhibit makers? If they think that they can preach tolerance to the natives in the craziest city on Earth, they don’t know where they’re living.”

Riss countered that the museum was consulting with Israelis. He named the religious Zionist Rabbi David Stav and Prof. Yuval Elbashan, dean of the Ono College’s Multicultural Campuses in Jerusalem.

An Israeli content producer, Abot Hameiri (formerly Barkai), was providing the audiovisual materials, he noted.

And Unified Field, a Brooklyn-based company developing content and interactivity that has a host of prestigious clients, had built a bespoke team of researchers, sociologists, psychologists, educators and more that included some Israelis.

While previously all PR was handled from Los Angeles, Riss recently employed an Israeli expert in strategy and PR — Ayelet Frish, who spent ten years working for the late president Shimon Peres.

Riss added that the museum’s board was expanding to take in more younger Israelis from all sectors of society.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attends the Jerusalem Post Conference, held at the Museum of Tolerance, Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Judging by the number of head coverings, the volume of applause, and the standing ovations given to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida during an event at the museum on Thursday, a good chunk of the MOTJ’s donors come from the religious right of the US and Canadian Jewish map.

Praise was repeatedly bestowed on Miriam Adelson, publisher of the free, pro-Likud party newspaper, Israel Hayom, who sat in the audience, and former US ambassador David Friedman, who served under US president Donald Trump and took part in a panel discussion with his Biden-appointed successor, Tom Nides.

But with The Times of Israel, Riss struck a different tone, talking about Jewish values in the same breath as universal ones.

Mansour Abbas, leader of the conservative Islamist Ra’am party in the Knesset, addresses a conference at the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem organized in partnership with the Jerusalem Post, April 27, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

He said that for him, the most important speaker at Thursday’s event was Arab Israeli lawmaker Mansour Abbas, who, as part of the former Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid-led government, took an Arab party into a governing coalition for the first time.

Addressing the Thursday event, Abbas emphasized the role he and his party could play as a bridge between different parts of Israeli society.

In the Love Thy Neighbor pavilion, visitors will see how Arab hospital staff recited the Shema (a central Jewish prayer) for Jewish patients suffering from the coronavirus, Riss said.

This kind of example will be used to trigger a conversation, he said, to get people thinking about the rights of the Arab Israeli community, for example, in light of the remarkable service that many of its members give to Jews in hospitals throughout the country.

Riss and Frish rattled off some of the events they’re planning for the current year. These include a robotics contest for ultra-Orthodox youngsters, a presentation of the annual Time 100 awards, and Women Cook Peace — an exploration of culinary cultures by women from different backgrounds.

Groups of schoolchildren tourists and others will visit during the mornings and afternoons, and free evening activities will take place in the amphitheater and on the large, breezy balcony outside.

Riss envisages visitors as well as passersby dropping in from the street, for a coffee or a glass of wine and a bite to eat and perhaps for an event and a conversation that ensues.

He expects the complex — built to accommodate up to 3,000 people — to eventually operate six days a week, except during the Sabbath.

Last week, the museum had a taste of the complexities it will face in a city where showing sensitivity for one group is seen by another as bigotry.

A picture taken by the acclaimed photojournalist Micha Bar-Am of a naked soldier washing himself during the 1973 Yom Kippur War was removed from the photo exhibition so as not to offend religiously observant visitors.

This immediately raised the ire of the photographer’s son, Barak Bar-Am, quoted by Haaretz as saying the museum “cares less about hurting our liberal feelings than the feelings of religious people.”

Will the museum be able to navigate such challenges? Only time will tell.

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