Wasted opportunities in downtown Jerusalem

Imagine you’re trying to revitalize your city center. You naturally want to realize the potential of every building and every public space in that sensitive area. At one of the most fabulous locations in the entire downtown stands a historic building which must be preserved. A suitable use needs to be found for that building. What are the options?

If you’re Jerusalem, you don’t have any options: a national law will dictate that you squander that building and that strategic location on a minor museum that will do next to nothing for your downtown.

Adding to the sense of missed opportunity: a potentially huge cultural treasure that is underperforming at its current site might have done exceedingly well in that strategic building/location, working synergistically with other elements of downtown to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

First let’s talk about the wasteful museum that is presently under development in central Jerusalem; then we’ll look at the alternative that a wise and prudent national and municipal leadership might have considered pursuing.

The Knesset Museum: an extravagant redundancy

You can’t walk up King George Street toward Jaffa Road these days and miss the visual hullabaloo:

“Under construction: the Knesset Museum”

Those eye-popping billboards are way out of proportion to what is on offer.

Let’s be clear: the impulse to preserve the site where Israel’s first presidents were sworn in, and where the Knesset sat during the early years of the state, is a noble one. But that imperative would have been amply served by recreating the original Knesset plenum hall in the basement of Frumin House, thereby freeing up the building’s other floors for activities more likely to contribute to a vibrant, thriving capital city. After all, the plenum space no longer exists as such, having long been divided up into offices.

Israel already has a locus of parliamentary education—and a major tourist attraction — in the form of the present-day Knesset building, which was dedicated 50 years ago this month at its isolated site in Jerusalem’s sprawling, pedestrian-hostile National Quarter. In contrast to the grandeur and exclusivity of today’s Knesset, the Israeli parliament’s original home on King George Street conveyed modesty and accessibility. There was a democratic statement implicit in that downtown location, where the Knesset was literally a part of “everyday civil existence,” as architecture critic Esther Zandberg once put it. It’s ironic that what was originally so modest and matter-of-fact is now being retooled for veneration, with auditoriums, classrooms and administrative spaces under construction to support overwrought programming that likely doesn’t need to be spread out over an entire three-story building (or even be conducted in a museum setting at all).

Parliamentary museums exist in other countries, but I could find no example of one that occupies a comparable structure in a similar downtown location. India’s Parliamentary Museum is housed in the Parliament Library Building; Japan’s occupies a separate structure in the front garden of the Diet. The Museum of Australian Democracy is located in Australia’s Old Parliament House, which is part of Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle, a sprawling area comparable to Jerusalem’s National Quarter: not an intensive central city district.

Logically, then, the Knesset Museum should either be on the premises of today’s Knesset, or confined to a reasonable portion of Beit Frumin. There is something self-aggrandizing about our lawmakers’ expectation that the Knesset Museum take up the building in its entirety. The Knesset Museum Law actually provides for the option of putting part of Beit Frumin to other public uses; but the relevant advisory board, whose 13 members included only 1 representative of the Jerusalem Municipality, could apparently come up with nothing better than using the roof for an exhibit “exploring Frumin House’s surroundings.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was recruited for the Knesset Museum’s publicity video; we see him digging musty documents out of basement storerooms, pretending to munch on David Ben-Gurion’s favorite sandwich, and coughing in a simulated smoke-filled office. But all of Edelstein’s personableness and good humor are not enough to convince the viewer — this viewer, anyway — that old documents and political memorabilia, however creatively displayed, are enough to justify an entire, multi-floor museum on precious downtown land.

Beit Ha’Am: a main library branch in name only

Exhibits, multimedia displays and group discussion rooms are valuable educational resources, but a democracy needs, above all, a citizenry that is literate. That’s why Beit Frumin — the birthplace of Israeli democracy — would have been an entirely appropriate setting for Jerusalem’s main public library branch, known as Beit Ha’Am, which currently occupies a sadly decayed portion of the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Civic Center on Bezalel Street.

Bezalel Street fairly sparkles these days with municipal and philanthropic investment; apart from its other cultural offerings, the Jerusalem Arts Campus is under development there. Beit Ha’Am sits adjacent to the campus construction site, whose drillings and hammerings were clearly audible in the library reading rooms when I recently visited.

Beit Ha’Am obviously hasn’t benefited from the Bezalel Street money infusion.

The less-than-dignified library entrance area sets the tone:

From there on it’s downhill:

Although some service upgrades, such as inter-library loan and access to e-books, are on the way (the primitive state of Jerusalem’s public library services deserves a separate essay), a conversation with the library director confirmed that there are currently no plans to renovate the city’s main public library branch.

Even if a renovation were being contemplated, it wouldn’t help much; Beit Ha’Am suffers from an unfortunate location. On a map it looks close to the center of things — but in reality the library is folded within a larger complex of which it is by no means a highly visible component. Moreover, the arts-hub environment of Bezalel Street does nothing for it: art attracts hipsters and tourists, but a main library branch needs to be near where residents of all stripes are working, shopping and running errands.

In short, it needs to be in the heart of downtown. And downtown would only benefit from a well-stocked, appropriately-funded public library branch that offers quality service to people of all ages and walks of life. Besides being an urban children’s paradise, the branch could also develop a business and tech collection, to support the start-up types who populate various co-working spaces, and whose numbers will increase when the WeWork facility under development in the old Mashbir building opens.

It would be a magnet for people, giving to its surroundings at least as much as it got.

Jerusalem suffers for being Israel’s capital. The use-segregated National Quarter has deprived the “real” city of what should have been its most prestigious and valuable cultural assets, leaving it with second-stringers like the Knesset Museum. The aim is to emulate Washington, D.C.’s National Mall.

If we’re seeking American models to emulate, maybe we could look to the New York Public Library, whose people-magnet flagship branch manages to be both a historic icon and an inseparable part of the everyday urban fabric.