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As Tolerance Museums Proliferate, French Tycoon to Fund One in Paris

May 8, 2002
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A French multimedia mogul will spearhead a five-year project to build a European museum of tolerance in Paris, modeled largely on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Jean-Marie Messier, the chairman and CEO of Vivendi Universal announced plans for the Museum of Mutual Respect while accepting the Wiesenthal Center’s 2002 Humanitarian Award at its national tribute dinner May 2.

The planned museum in Paris will be one of a growing number of tolerance museums planned around the world.

At the same event, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, presented plans for a New York Tolerance Center. In a separate interview, he detailed progress on the projected tolerance museum in Jerusalem.

During the last two years, Messier has spent more than $50 billion to transform a 149-year old French water utility into one of the world’s largest entertainment companies, whose holdings include Universal Studios, the Houghton Mifflin publishing house and the online music service, as well as television channels in Europe and the United States.

Neither Messier, nor his hosts, mentioned Vivendi’s current problems, which include a management crisis, slide in stock prices, heavy debt load and criticism of the company’s long-range strategy.

Instead, the youthful-looking, 45-year old Messier focused on his vision for the Paris museum and why it is needed at this particular time and location.

“Never before in our recent history, has there been such a need for a place such as this, a place of reflection, a place to remind us of the importance of mutual respect, as we face an uprising of the extreme right in Europe, of racism and xenophobia everywhere,” he said.

To get the project under way, Messier said that he had already established contacts with Paris municipal authorities, Jose Maria Azner, current president of the European Union, Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Jewish organizations in Europe.

Messier said that “to be a Jew is to understand, deep in your bones and right through your heart, that intolerance is wrong. Absolutely wrong.”

Preceding Messier’s address, Hier showed plans for the Wiesenthal Center’s New York Tolerance Center, currently under construction in the old Daily News building at 42nd Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.

The New York center will serve a dual function. During the day, law enforcement officers and educators will participate in the four-day Tools for Tolerance program, which aims to sensitize “front-line professionals” to the problems of dealing with diverse ethnic and religious groups in a large city.

In the evenings, the facility will be used as a leadership training center for young men and women active in the Jewish community. Along with a $15 million fund-raising campaign, two floors of the building are being renovated and remodeled. A dedication ceremony is planned for next January and Hier expects the facility to be in operation by the end of next year.

New York’s state legislature, governor’s office and the federal government are providing some funding for the center.

About 750,000 persons from 33 states have participated in the Tools for Tolerance training sessions in Los Angeles since its beginning six years ago, said Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance.

At the same time, plans are going ahead for a Wiesenthal Center-sponsored museum of tolerance in Jerusalem, with Frank Gehry as the architect.

The center will bear the name Winnick Institute, in recognition of a $40 million pledge by Los Angeles business executive Gary Winnick toward the project, which will cost a total of $200 million, including an endowment. Hier said Messier had shown an interest in supporting the Jerusalem center.

Among the museum’s major goals are “to promote civility and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths and creeds.”

All the required public hearings for the project have been completed, said Hier, and he is now waiting to receive legal title to the three-acre site in the center of Jerusalem.

Assuming there is no major conflict in the Middle East, Hier expects construction to start in about 12 to 15 months, after which it will take another two-and-a-half years to complete the project.

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