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NYT’s Michael Kimmelman Deplores the Cable-Car Project for Jerusalem

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Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of the New York Times, has rarely seen an Israeli project that he has liked. For him, the Israelis are vulgarians, inattentive to history, with an insufficient aesthetic sense. He looks at the security walls and fences that loom so forbiddingly across the landscape. Why do the Israelis need so many of them, and why must they be so high, he wonders, apparently unaware of how those walls and security fences have led to a significant decrease in Palestinian terrorism.

Kimmelman is not sympathetic to Israel – he never fails to call it an “occupying” power in the West Bank, apparently oblivious to both the Mandate for Palestine, according to which the entire West Bank was part of the territory assigned to be part of the Jewish State, and to U.N. Resolution 242, that allows Israel to decide for itself the territorial adjustments it will require if it is to have “secure and recognized boundaries.” While he is supposed to be an architectural historian, whenever he covers anything in Israel he becomes a political critic, going far beyond his architectural remit. He misstates Israel’s political claims, overlooks the geopolitical threats to that state’s existence, and frequently displays an astonishing ignorance of Israel’s history and of Judaism.

A recent example of this was his great dismay over the announcement by the Israeli government that, having passed many hurdles – including environmental and aesthetic considerations — a proposed cable-car project in Jerusalem that would run from a renovated train-station complex to the Western Wall had at long last been given the green light. Kimmelman called the project part of the “Disneyfication” of Jerusalem, though it is hard to see what this cable-car has in common with Disneyland. It’s a sober attempt to deal with a difficult reality: Jerusalem is one of the most visited cities in the world. In 2018, it had 4 million visitors, equivalent to half the population of Israel. The UK-based market research firm EuroMonitor has named Jerusalem as the fastest-growing tourism destination in the world, more than any other city globally.

All those tourists have meant for nightmare congestion in the city. The cable-car project is an attempt to relieve some of that congestion at major tourist sites. But Kimmelman pays no attention to the desperate need for such relief; he doesn’t mention in his article the steady increase in the numbers of tourists. Israeli city planners and government officials are treated as if they are engaged in some sinister attempt to further “Judaize” Jerusalem.

Kimmelman begins his article by describing a Jerusalem dominated by Muslim and Christian buildings:

“The skyline is still dominated by the city’s great Muslim and Christian shrines: the gold, glistening Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was said to have been buried.”

He’s failed to ask, and answer, the obvious question: where are the Jewish shrines? What of the great dome of the Hurva synagogue, or that of the Tiferet synagogue that used to grace the Jewish Quarter in the Old City? Wouldn’t readers benefit by knowing that those venerable Jewish structures were both destroyed by the Jordanians after 1948, and that is why the skyline of Jerusalem has no Jewish domes?

Kimmelman is clearly not an historian, for in his second paragraph, he inaccurately describes the Western Wall as “the holiest site in the Jewish world.” It is the Temple Mount that is the “holiest site in Judaism.” But were he to have mentioned that, he might also feel compelled to explain why Jews are forbidden to pray on top of Temple Mount – it’s because the Israeli government, in order to avoid conflict with the Muslims, has forbidden any religious activity by Jews, including even whispering prayers, on the Temple Mount. And that information would make clear what extraordinary measures the Israelis are willing to take in order to placate the Muslims – even preventing Jews from praying at the holiest site in Judaism.  

Kimmelman endows the cable-car project with a sinister geopolitical purpose:

“The cable-car project is an example, illustrating how Israel wields architecture and urban planning to extend its authority in the occupied territories. Whatever its transit merits, which critics say are negligible, the cable car curates a specifically Jewish narrative of Jerusalem, furthering Israeli claims over Arab parts of the city.”

How is that? If Israel is going to engage in any improvements in the transportation infrastructure of Jerusalem, it will be interpreted by Kimmelman as a flexing of geopolitical muscle, a statement of Israel “wield[ing] architecture and urban planning to extend its authority… it curates a specifically Jewish narrative of Jerusalem.” What is a “specifically Jewish narrative of Jerusalem”? Is he suggesting that the cable-car takes a route that prevents tourists from being aware of the Haram al-Sharif, when the last stop is right at the bottom of the Haram al-Sharif? Does the cable-car hide from tourists the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Are the Stations of the Cross given short shrift by the cable-car route? Could Kimmelman not see Israeli  “urban planning” as just that, with no sinister intent to “further Israeli claims” to the city which, in any case, hardly needs a brand-new cable-car project to promote Jewish claims, which already have thousands of years of history behind them?

Hasn’t Jerusalem been the holiest city in Judaism for several thousand years? Are not the vast majority of Jerusalemites Jews? Isn’t Jerusalem the single place where most of the main sites in Judaism are to be found? Israel is not “curating” a “specifically Jewish narrative of Jerusalem.” The same cable-car that takes tourists to the Western Wall will, it bears repeating, at the same time be dropping them at the base of the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount), from which they can easily ascend to the Dome of the Rock. But Israel is not going to hide what is an historical fact — Jerusalem’s overwhelming importance in Judaism, an importance not matched in Christianity or Islam – to satisfy the likes of Michael Kimmelman.

Kimmelman claims the cable-car project is one of turning Jerusalem, a “global heritage site,“ into a “Jewish-themed Epcot.” This is hysteria. This cable-car no more turns Jerusalem into an “Jewish-themed Epcot” than I.M. Pei’s diamond-shaped glass entrance to the Louvre turns Paris into a bejeweled theme park, or that massive ferris wheel (actually a cantilevered observation post) known as the London Eye, turns London into an amusement park.

There is much more to deplore about Kimmelman’s mendacious and ill-informed piece. But what most offends is his ignorance of recent history. He compares Israel, with its cable-car project, unfavorably to Jordan, which held the Old City from 1948 to 1967. “Modern Jerusalem was spared Disneyfication,” he writes, “first by the highborn culture of British colonialism, with its awe for the city’s antique past, and next by Jordanian paralysis, which froze the Old City as if in amber.”

Jordan, he thinks, “spared [Jerusalem] Disneyfication.” It did so through a policy of “paralysis, which froze the Old City as if in amber.” The man who wrote that ahistorical nonsense has lost the right to give his opinion about Israel’s cable-car. Jordan did not, alas, display “paralysis” in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967. Jordan’s Arab Legion, officered by the British whose “highborn culture” seems to impress Michael Kimmelman, got to work at once, destroying everything it could that connected Jerusalem, and especially the Old City, to the Jews. In 1948, the Arab Legion blew up the venerable Hurva Synagogue. It then proceeded, in the following years, to blow up 35 of the 36 synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Does Kimmelman know that? Jordanian soldiers also pulled up 38,000 ancient tombstones at the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. They used some of those tombstones to line the floors of Jordanian army latrines. They ground the rest into gravel, to be used as building material. Is that part of the “Jordanian paralysis” that Kimmelman praises? And not just the synagogues, but the entire Jewish Quarter in the Old City, was destroyed. Today puzzled visitors, who compare the brand-new looking stone of the rebuilt Jewish Quarter with the old stone of the Muslim, Christian, and Armenian Quarters, may not realize the reason; some surely must think  the “cleaner” look of the Jewish Quarter shows its privileged treatment by Israel; they have things backwards; that “clean” stone used to rebuild the Jewish Quarter was made necessary by the massive Jordanian destruction of the original Jewish Quarter.

Michael Kimmelman is entitled to express his aesthetic doubts about the cable-car project. He might think the cars are too big, or too small, that they are not pleasing in appearance, that they will travel too close to, or too far from, important sites, that they have too many stops, or too few. But he is not entitled to ignore the reason for the cable-car project – the millions of tourists who flood into Jerusalem every year. He is not entitled to suggest some kind of exaggerated attention to Jewish sites, when these Jewish sites are all over Jerusalem, and are by far the sites most visited by the Jewish and Christian tourists who make up 85% of the tourists, while Muslims make up only 1.8%. And he is not entitled – he ought to be held up for steady ridicule — for praising as “Jordanian paralysis” in Jerusalem the devastating destruction, by Jordan, of 35 of the 36 synagogues in the Old City, the uprooting of 38,000 ancient Jewish tombstones from the Mount of Olives cemetery, and the razing of almost all of the Jewish Quarter, requiring it to be totally rebuilt after 1967. Either Michael Kimmelman knew nothing of this massive destruction by Jordan, or he knew, but chose to keep silent, about it, as it did not fit his anti-Israel narrative. In both case, he deserved to be mocked and, if the Times had the standards it once prided itself on, he should have been unceremoniously cashiered.

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