Politics

A Call For Landscape Architecture For Interfaith Initiatives: From Morocco To Jerusalem

Jerusalem Landscape Architecture
Walkerssk / Pixabay

Design plays a fundamental role in cultivating and forming collective memory through the shaping of physical public spaces. Landscape architecture is a field that grapples with social inequality and spatial complexity – two characteristics that Jerusalem embodies. In comparing the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem with the Akrich tree nursery in Morocco, I hope to shed light on how design can be better approached when dealing with interfaith relations.

The Museum of Tolerance (MOT) is located at the heart of modern Jerusalem on Hillel Street, a vibrant area that is at the intersection of the expansive Independence Park and the urban city center. The building is planned to host a variety of different activities: exhibition spaces, an education center, a theater, and includes numerous restaurants, cafes and shops. As a student walking by this site on my daily commute to school, I began to question. Who is this building for? Tolerance for whom and in what capacity? And more pressingly – Why here?

My apartment overlooked the ancient Muslim burial site that dates to the 7th century, known as Mamilla (Ma’man Allah in Arabic). It is on this site that the Simon Wiesenthal Center embarked on their architectural project for tolerance. According to Chief Excavator Gideon Suleimani, 400 graves containing human remains buried according to Muslim traditions were exhumed or exposed during excavations on the Museum site, many dating to the 12th century. Another 2000 graves remain under the museum’s site, the lowest layer dating back to the 11th century. Along with its historical roots, prominent Muslim warriors and scholars are buried there.

With museums often encapsulating history in countries that are post-conflict, how would this design play out in the milieu of Israel, where conflict is ongoing and ever-evolving, and narratives are complex and contradictory? MOT is surrounded by numerous acres of green space and Muslim heritage, but yet this was covered over at the expense of the building. The project went through while, ironically, it had the effect of silencing the very people the building seeks to pursue tolerance with. Rather than a museum that addresses the voices of a select few, landscape architecture could be the medium to work towards the erasure of this inequality as it ensures the cultivation and preservation of shared space.

This idea was explored through traveling to Morocco and meeting with Yossef Ben-Meir, the head of the High Atlas Foundation and the House of Life initiative. Here I saw just how important the revival of the cemetery and green space around the MOT building could be for the future of Jerusalem. The House of Life’s main initiative is to establish Muslim-Jewish collaboration by using agriculture as a bridge for Moroccan human development needs and cultural history. The site I visited was the Akrich Nursery, one of the Foundation’s inter-religious nursery projects. It is 30 kilometres west of Marrakech and the burial home of the revered Rabbi Raphael Cohen. The 700-year-old cemetery became a site of transformation when local villagers, public officials and the Jewish community decided to make effective use of the vacant spaces for fruit tree guilds. With the previous generations in Akrich relying solely on subsistence farming, this was an opportunity for eliminating food access barriers to approximately 2,000 farming families and 150 schools through the cultivation of 150,000 fig, almond and pomegranate trees since 2012.

The Akrich cemetery addresses a crucial question. With the coming end of a 2500-year-old era of Jews living in Morocco, how does one maintain a connection to this history without a physical presence? The caretaker of the cemetery, an Amazighi-born Moroccan, whose father and grandfather also maintained the cemetery, embodies this preservation, as he explained with great depth and pride the story of Rabbi Raphael Cohen. When viewed in this way, Jewish History becomes inextricable from Moroccan history. The revival and cultivation of indigenous produce goes hand in hand with the revival and cultivation of Jewish history.

Furthermore, an initiative in Akrich requires actual participation of the people. It ensures that Jews and Muslims work together daily. Through active participation, Moroccan citizens gain a sense that the future is theirs to make. As a result, indigenous produce is being reclaimed, while the revival of the cemetery has resulted in an influx of Jewish tourism along with a deep understanding and preservation of Moroccan culture and heritage.

While no two sites are the same, an initiative like this is crucial in Israel, where 8.3 percent of the total population face nutritional insecurity and 50 percent of the population of Israeli Arabs are unable to meet the minimal nutritional needs. The cemetery and surrounding green space should be at the forefront of the story, as it allows for a larger platform of participation, historical preservation and economic growth. As transitional justice mechanisms are always coming up against the frictions between global devices and local realities, it is the duty of all who intervene to grapple and question a justice that means different things to different people. As justice varies and changes due to the unique circumstances of a given time and place, so too should the methodologies. To supplement the Museum of Tolerance, landscape architecture solutions may better deal with the constant motion and messiness of an ongoing conflict and encourage citizens to take ownership and express locality through participation and cultivation of green space.