Mamilla cemetery in Jerusalem, where Israel has approved the start of work on a controversial Museum of Tolerance (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images)
May 30, 2012
The heated dispute over the building of a "Museum of Tolerance" by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) on top of a historic Muslim cemetery shows no signs of letting up.
As work on and around the site near Jerusalem’s Old City continues, an international coalition persists in their efforts to try and stop the building. Since the Israeli authorities have given the go-ahead to the project-- final approval was granted in July 2011 --the coalition has turned to international bodies like the United Nations. The dispute has also reached the pages of the Daily Beast blog Open Zion, where a back-and-forth over the planned museum was featured last month.
In late March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released video footage suggesting that "continuing excavations" on the site where the "Museum of Tolerance" is being built in Jerusalem still contains "archaeological artifacts and human remains." The Simon Wiesenthal Center claims that "bedrock has been reached on all portions of the site" were wrong, according to the CCR. In other words, construction on the site has continued to disturb the human remains of some of Jerusalem’s most storied figures and families.
This new evidence was released three weeks after the CCR, a celebrated human rights legal group, wrote a letter to Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the SWC. The letter, written by the CCR’s Michael Ratner and Rashid Khalidi (whose ancestors are buried at the Mamilla Cemetery) implored Hier to stop construction of the "Museum of Tolerance." They wrote:
The SWC’s continued insistence on building this museum on a site that has religious, cultural and historical significance to all Palestinians, and its continued denial of this significance, is a reflection of its gross insensitivity. The disingenuous manner in which the SWC has operated reveals that tolerance and human dignity are not the goal.
No response to the letter, which requested a meeting with Hier, has been forthcoming. But the Jerusalem mayor’s office, which also received the letter to Hier, did respond in a terse and confusing manner. Ido Rosenberg, an advisor to Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, wrote to Ratner:
The establishment of the Museum of Tolerance has been years after ail phases of the permit and construction is already underway. All the graves have ever been in the museum has been copied and re-buried, in coordination with representatives of the Muslim religion.
Meanwhile, Rashid Khalidi penned a searing indictment of the "Museum of Tolerance" in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog. He takes the Israeli authorities to task in this excerpt:
Israeli courts have not provided a remedy, and our suggestions of compromise, including relocating the Museum to a new location—a move that would showcase genuine tolerance—have been met with silence. Meanwhile, the Wiesenthal Center has skirted responsibility, initially disavowing knowledge of the graves, and now clinging to a flimsy defense that the sanctity of the site has long since diminished.
To show that these claims are patently false, one need only look to the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry’s 1948 declaration of Mamilla as "one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars… Israel will always know to protect and respect this site." As recently as 1986, in response to a UNESCO investigation regarding Israel’s development projects on the site, the Israeli government stated that "no project exists for the deconsecration of the site… the site and its tombs are to be safeguarded."
There is no justification for these desecrations. If they were occurring in any other place on earth, the outcry would be deafening. Unfortunately, the treatment of Mamilla is not an anomaly; Muslim and Christian sites of cultural, religious and historical significance continue to be systematically disrespected by Israeli authorities. The Protection of Holy Sites Law in Israel now covers 137 sites. Not one of these is Christian or Muslim.
The SWC’s public relations officer, Avra Shapiro, and Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGil University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, responded to Khalidi’s article, defending the SWC's efforts.
The SWC published this response to Khalidi:
This facility contained a 3-level underground parking lot where hundreds people of all faiths parked their cars on a daily basis. Khalidi would have you believe that we are uprooting tombstones to build our Museum. That is simply not the case.
During these 50 years, no Muslim individual or group ever protested that this was an ancient Muslim cemetery. Why? Because from the very beginning, the motivation behind the campaign to stop construction of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem was political, intended to undermine the sovereignty and authority of Israel and its juridical institutions...
Khalidi then published a response to both Troy and Shapiro here. After more back and forth, Khalidi published a third and final response here.
For more information on the campaign to stop the construction of the "Museum of Tolerance" see the CCR's page here.