Welcome to Jerusalem

The day after it was announced the Trump administration would be recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Jewish Museum in Berlin unveiled their ‘Welcome to Jerusalem’ exhibition[1].  Noted by historian Simon Sebag Montefoire as the only city to exist twice, on earth and in heaven, it is the city’s religious significance which the exhibition seeks to convey. Not an easy feat across just a couple of square meters, but one which a museum, dedicated to European Jewish heritage, does well.

The Museum itself, designed by Daniel Libeskind, first opened its doors in 2001 as a poignant tribute to the millions of Jews who called Germany home for generations, to the unspeakable horrors inflicted upon them and to the gulf they left behind in the wake of their death or escape.  Libeskind’s use of space is integral to the permanent exhibition named ‘Between the Lines’, as visitors are invited to partake in this painful history rather than merely reviewing it.  Light, sound and overwhelming expanses of space are used at strategic points as the exhibit walks you through two millennia of German-Jewish history.  Across Libeskind’s three ‘Axis of Continuity, Exile and Holocaust’, the tragic tale of Europe’s Jews unfolds through art, the natural elements and personal objects left behind.

The ‘Memory Void’ at the end of the ‘Axis of continuity’ currently houses the ‘Fallen Leaves’ installation by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman[2].  Hearing the installation before you see it, thousands of heavy iron plates with open mouthed faces screaming up at you, cover the entirety of the floor.  From afar the installation may indeed resemble leaves on the ground, a familiar feature of the European autumnal landscape.  However, the reality up close is far less delicate.  Invited to walk over the faces, the metallic sound of these plates jostling against each other reverberates up the 3 story-high space.  The action of walking on the faces accompanied by the jarring clang of metal around you, creates a powerful atmosphere to reflect upon.  Pulling no punches, it is installations such as these, which bring the full weight of Jewish history in Europe into stark and painful focus.

As visitors ascend up a staircase out of the darkness of the ‘Between the Lines’ exhibit back into natural light, there is the option of visiting the Museum’s temporary exhibit ‘Welcome to Jerusalem’.  With the images and impressions from below fresh in your mind you could be forgiven to assume this exhibit will begin where the previous left off, that to be welcomed to Jerusalem today is to be welcomed to a Jewish place with an exclusive Jewish history.  And while the exhibit does play excellent tribute to Jerusalem’s Jewish heritage and significance, a far more complex picture of this place and its people is accomplished.  The exhibit instead presents Jerusalem as the fascinating and intricate tapestry that it is, woven together by the millennia of history it has seen and many different people who have called it home.

The city’s history and contemporary daily life is told through the lens of the 3 monotheistic faiths which consider Jerusalem holy.  Time is given to the Jewish, Christian and Islamic chapters of this city, doing well to emphasise the overlap each has left on the place today and why it’s just so hard to attribute one dominant religious label over the city.  Each section seeks to explore each epoch not just through theology or politics but through the quotidian experiences of those who trod its cobbled streets, bustling markets, sun-scorched hill-tops and wind-swept valleys.  There are however other stories to be told here, including a room dedicated purely to the many maps representing this piece of land, as a testament to the changing attitudes of Jerusalem from divine obsession, obscurity, tourist attraction and political pawn.  Not shying away from politics, the story of Jerusalem under Ottoman, British and now Israeli control also features in this city’s phenomenal chronology.  Neither are the issues of the ensuing conflict swept under the carpet, told through an impressive 360° video montage of the flash-points of the last 50 years of political history.  It is clear that the exhibition has gone to great lengths to include many varied voices which bring the visitor to the conclusion that no one voice is able to dominate this rich tapestry of Jerusalem life; past or present.

Regardless of this, it is unsurprising that there has been mixed reactions with some criticising the impression that only the Jewish inhabitants of the city cause disturbances and portraying Zionism as politically oppressive.  This was accompanied by criticism of ignoring issues of Palestinian terrorism[3] or omitting mention of the crusades[4].  Speaking to an Israeli news agency, the exhibition’s curator Cilly Kugelmann spoke of the approach taken in creating the exhibition; “It is not our job to take sides. As a museum, we provide information for our visitors, so they could judge for themselves and make up their minds, that does not mean that we don’t have our own opinions. We are a Jewish museum and of course we operate on this basis.”

In this vein, Kugelmann and her team approached Palestinians to contribute documents and artefacts to the exhibition.  Such requests were however declined due to a mistrust that a Palestinian narrative and experience would not be handled accurately or portrayed fairly.  This is truly a great shame as the final exhibition is a testament to a commitment to different voices, histories and narratives being brought together in a powerful and insightful way.  One Palestinian that responded positively was artist Mona Hatoum who contributed her piece “Present Tense” which consists of 2,400 blocks of olive oil soap made in the West Bank city of Nablus.  Tiny red glass beads meaner across the soap depicting the fragmentation of Palestinian land under the Oslo Accords (the peace agreement signed between the State of Israel and Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1993).  Nablus is renowned for its historical production of olive oil soap which has become a key Palestinian identity marker with the largest factory being destroyed in the 2nd Intifada (the period of mass up-rising against the Israeli occupation between 2000 to 2005).  The production of Nablusi soap in its traditional form has now come to a complete halt.

Hatoum’s piece is integral to what “Welcome to Jerusalem” is trying to achieve, in impressing upon its audience that the city has more than one tale to tell.  But why should a Jewish museum in Berlin be participating in such an undertaking?  Well, if the exhibit housed just below does anything, it portrays in stark reality the consequences of when a culture is systematically erased from a landscape.   When a culture integral to a continent for centuries, just as leaves are to a tree and their habitual fall each autumn to the ground, is forcibly torn from its home.  The fact of the matter is Jerusalem houses underneath her a rich story, stories of armies and empires yes but stories of individuals, of families and friendships.  Many different people over many time periods who believe in different Gods or looked to different political authorities, spoke different languages or were from different ethnic backgrounds have called these hallowed streets: home.  It is only by considering each and every voice of this rich history can Jerusalem really be known.  To favour one story at the expense of another is to deny something of the city.  The reality being that many different people today call Jerusalem home still and to deny the variance of voices is to condemn this city to produce only a disastrous cacophony whereas in fact she does have within her the ability of orchestrating a beautiful harmony.


[1] https://www.jmberlin.de/en/exhibition-welcome-to-jerusalem, accessed 21st February 2018.
[2] https://www.jmberlin.de/en/shalekhet-fallen-leaves, accessed 21st February 2018.
[3] https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/europe/165191-180114-exhibit-in-berlin-s-jewish-museum-asks-to-whom-does-jerusalem-belong, accessed 21st February 2018.
[4] http://www.dw.com/en/welcome-to-jerusalem-exhibition-explores-a-divided-holy-city/a-41742284, accessed 21st February 2018.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)