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Exhibit in Berlin's Jewish Museum asks 'to whom does Jerusalem belong?'

Jerusalem exhibition in Berlin's Jewish Museum
i24NEWS, Polina Garaev
'Holiness is something very abstract usually, but in Jerusalem it becomes very physical'

“Welcome to Jerusalem,” says the giant banner hanging above the entrance to Berlin's Jewish Museum. Most passersby ignore the sign, styled to resemble the road signs one would encounter on Israel's highways. Some stop to take a photo. “It's clever marketing. They are probably trying to exploit the aftermath of Trump's decision,” speculated one onlooker.

In reality, the new exhibition that aims to capture the many facets of the holy city and follows the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of Jerusalem's reunification under Israeli rule, has been in the works for the past year and a half. The timing of its December opening, just days after US President Donald Trump publicly recognized the city as the capital of Israel, was a sheer coincidence.

“His decision had no effect on the exhibit, everything was already fixed. But it definitely added to the attention,” the exhibition's curator Margret Kampmeyer told i24NEWS.

i24NEWS, Polina Garaev

'To whom does Jerusalem belong to' is the question at the center of the show. In a series of rooms, the exhibition explores, for example, how religion and politics shaped the mapping of Jerusalem and how pilgrims of all three monotheistic faiths have been drawn to the city. It documents the city's history under Ottoman and British rule and describes Israel's military campaigns over Jerusalem through archive footage.

“It is the holiness of the city that makes it so attractive for so many people,” noted Kampmeyer. “Holiness is something very abstract usually, but in Jerusalem it becomes very physical and you can see it in the reactions of the people, when they visit the holy places.”

To convey this to visitors, the exhibition uses models of the Western Wall, the Second Temple, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as video footage portraying daily life in the holy city.

Most people have preconceived notions of Jerusalem, admitted the curator, but “this is a unique opportunity to allow them to learn more, even to correct one's image of Jerusalem, with addressing not only the religious developments but also the political tensions.”

i24NEWS, Polina Garaev

But can a Jewish museum paint an objective picture of such a disputed issue? The museum went to great lengths to include also the Palestinian point of view, for instance, by acknowledging the heritage of noted Palestinian families pre-1948 and through works of art depicting the trauma of the Nakba, the exodus of Palestinian Arabs that fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel's War of Independence. A photo series of the West Bank barrier and of Israeli settlements around Jerusalem is also included.

“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,” stressed Kampmeyer. “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.”

Yet some claim that the efforts to balance the different perspectives went too far. The exhibition evoked criticism for including only Muslim symbols in its poster – a crescent moon above the A in Jerusalem – and not Jewish ones.

“The exhibit gives the impression that Jews are the only inhabitants of Jerusalem that cause disturbance and stress,” one pro-Israel activist complained on Facebook. Others also protested that the Zionist movement is portrayed as the aggressor, with no mention of Palestinian terrorism.

i24NEWS, Polina Garaev

In the most controversial room, devoted to pious groups in Jerusalem, Israel's Minister of Culture Miri Regev – a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party – is mentioned alongside ultra-orthodox Jews that reject the State of Israel, the Women of the Wall group that demands egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, and the Temple movement, which aims to erect the third Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. According to the museum, the Israeli minister belongs to the latter.

Regev made headlines last year after attending Cannes Film Festival's opening in a dress whose hem featured an image of Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Originally planning to feature the actual dress in the exhibit, the museum eventually preferred to include only a cardboard cutout of Regev, next to several examples of the numerous memes that were posted on social media after her appearance, poking fun at the political fashion statement.

“With her dress, Miri Regev claimed that the whole of the old city, of Jerusalem, belongs to Israel, which ties in with the question that underlies the whole exhibition. It cannot be answered really, but Miri Regev brought it up in a very one-sided way. And the reactions on social media show that it is a contested question even in Israel. It is not clear-cut, to whom belongs Jerusalem.”

Polina Garaev is the i24NEWS correspondent in Germany

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