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Architects campaign against Gehry museum

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Petition aims to stop museum on site of ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem

A host of British architects have described Frank Gehry’s proposed Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem as a ‘blow to peaceful co-existence’ in the Israeli city.

Architects such as Will Alsop, Charles Jencks, Richard MacCormac and Eva Jiricna, one of this year’s Stirling Prize judges, have spoken out against the plans, and signed a petition supporting lobby group Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) in its battle to stop the development.

The museum is being backed by US Jewish human rights organisation Simon Wiesenthal Center, which already operates another Museum of Tolerance in New York.

Progress on Gehry’s proposals has been slow. The museum has been embroiled in a two-and-a-half-year legal battle after Islamic leaders claimed that the site earmarked for the building was over an ancient Muslim cemetery.

However, Israel’s Supreme Court gave the project the go-ahead earlier this month after it ruled that the site was a cemetery before the state of Israel was formed, and had fallen into disuse in 1948.

Gehry welcomed the decision and told the AJ: ‘I believe in the urgent need for a peace that is just for both sides. The museum will embody the values of respect and compassion that have guided many faiths spanning Jerusalem’s 3,000-year history.

‘As the Israeli Supreme Court noted in its ruling in favour of the museum, it will spread “a message of human tolerance between peoples, between sectors of the population and between man and his fellow man”,’ added Gehry.

The decision was met with disbelief by those opposed to Gehry’s plans, with Richard MacCormac claiming it was inconceivable that a ‘museum of tolerance could be so intolerant to other people’s beliefs’.

MacCormac said: ‘I’m sorry that Frank [Gehry] is involved in the building. I feel very strongly about the situation there. It seems that if we are going to put a halt to the conflict there then this is not the way to go about it.’

Eva Jiricna added that although she was behind the idea of a museum of tolerance, the choice of site was ‘outrageous’.

‘Tolerance is something that is very close to my heart, but you also have to have respect,’ said Jiricna. ‘Just because the building is designed by a famous architect doesn’t make any difference.’

The man behind the petition, APJP chair Abe Hayeem, told the AJ he hoped the campaign would stop the development.

‘The cemetery goes back hundreds of years,’ said Hayeem. ‘A lot of the decisions dealing with this were taken in secret, without the knowledge of local Muslim people. There was no opportunity for objection by the Palestinians.’

Hayeem has written to UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, asking him to step in and defuse the row, as he fears the museum’s construction will lead to ‘violent demonstrations’.

Miliband was in Jerusalem last week but the Foreign Office would not say if the museum was on the secretary’s agenda.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the decision has already been made to press on with the museum and added: ‘What use would there be in the British Foreign Secretary getting involved? The highest court in the land, the Israeli Supreme Court, has ruled that the museum should be built. And everyone knows this is a liberal court.

‘For more than half a century that site has been used as a car park by Muslims, Christians and Jews. If people have a problem with a museum being built there, why haven’t they had a problem with cars and trucks being parked there for the past 50 years?’

Hier added: ‘If it were a cemetery with monuments and gravestones and we were bulldozing them down, that would be terrible, but it’s a car park.’

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