My claims against the museum’s location focus on what we as Jews can and cannot do in the State of Israel and in the city of Jerusalem.
When I first became aware of the plans to construct the Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance on top of the old Muslim cemetery in Mamilla in the heart of west Jerusalem, it was after the planning process had been completed. The Wiesenthal Center went through all of the legal processes, including calling for public objections, and had received its building license in the proper way. The whole issue fell under my radar screen, and I was completely unaware of the intention to construct the museum there.
I noticed a small article about it in a local Jerusalem newspaper only when they broke ground and began to dig up skeletons. I immediately went to see the sight and contacted Danny Seidemann, a well known Jerusalem lawyer, to get more information.
I then wrote an article against the idea of building the museum in that location and distributed the article around the world. My claims against the museum’s location focus on what we as Jews can and cannot do in the State of Israel and in the city of Jerusalem. I have never claimed that this is a legal issue or even a political issue.
I appealed to Jews here and around the world to think about how we respond when somewhere in the world a museum or any other institution is built on a Jewish cemetery. After writing my article, I was invited to a hearing in the Interior Committee of the Knesset and spoke before it. The meeting was initiated by the then Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud). He spoke in the meeting about his parents, buried in the Mount of Olives cemetery in east Jerusalem, and the rage he would feel if someone tried to build a museum on their graves. I recall the anger and the deep sorrow and outcry when we returned to the Mount of Olives and to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in 1967 after 19 years of Jordanian occupation to discover the damage that was done in the cemetery and the destruction of so many synagogues there. AFTER THE Knesset hearing, this is what I wrote:
1. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Museum of Tolerance is being constructed on top of a very important Muslim cemetery.
2. As the initiators of the museum contend, part of the museum is being built on what was a parking lot constructed some 30 years ago over the cemetery by the Jerusalem Municipality. This is the area where most of the graves have been found so far.
3. The head of the Antiquities Authority stated that it has already removed from the site 250 skeletons and skulls. The Antiquities Authority reported to the High Court that the cemetery dates back centuries and that there are at least five layers of density of graves there.
4. The lawyers of the Wiesenthal Center who appeared in the Knesset hearing appealed to the Muslims to enter into dialogue. They propose reburying all the remains that were/are under the location of the museum (not necessarily in the same cemetery) and paying for the renovation and the upkeep of the cemetery.
5. The Muslim representatives stated that there is no room for dialogue and that the Wiesenthal Center should consider how it would act if it were a Jewish cemetery in question. They also asked that people consider how the plan to build a museum over a Muslim cemetery would influence anti-Semitism in Europe.
6. The speaker of the Knesset appealed to the Wiesenthal Center to move the museum to a more suitable location.
I HAVE been attacked repeatedly for aiding the Islamic movement of Sheikh Raed Salah in seeking to gain a foothold in the center of west Jerusalem. I am now being sent repeatedly the answer of the Wiesenthal Center arguing in a very articulate and logical manner that it was previous Muslim clerics who removed the sanctity of the site. (They have the audacity to quote Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem who was a collaborator with Hitler, and the kadi of Jerusalem during the 1960s who authorized the construction of a parking lot on the site and was later removed from office and arrested because of corruption.) Many of the historical and Islamic interpretations and other “facts” presented by the Wiesenthal Center are at best contestable, but once again I want to emphasize that this is not a Muslim issue, it is not an Arab issue, it is not a Palestinian issue.
In my view, this is a Jewish, an Israeli and a Jerusalemite issue. I wrote then and I repeat it today: In my view this is not a legal issue – anything can be made legal. This is a moral issue and an issue concerning the ability of people of the three faiths to live together in this land and in this city. As a Jew, as an Israeli and as a Jerusalemite I am embarrassed by the impudence to even think about building the Museum of Tolerance on that site. I can only imagine (and hope) that the “knight of justice” Shimon Wiesenthal must be turning in his grave if he could realize what has developed. After the High Court decided that the construction of the museum was legal, I once again wrote an appeal to stop it. The government has the jurisdiction to intervene and to determine that the construction of the museum would endanger public safety and would defame the good name of the State of Israel. I am honestly ashamed that the only real protest so far of the court decision has come from the Islamic radical Sheikh Raed. Where are the rabbis? Where are those Jerusalemites and Israelis who believe that in Jerusalem we can truly create a city of tolerance, understanding and peace between civilizations?
I believe that we have that possibility here. I remember several years ago during Pessah standing inside of a shop on a very crowded street in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. It was also Easter week and the holy month of Ramadan. I stood there for more than 30 minutes enjoying the parade of people from these three great cultures going about their religious and cultural rituals, side by side in that holy space which is about 900 square meters in total, completely amazed that this kind of activity was actually possible.
What was absent then, and what we need to work toward now is the time when we will all celebrate that wonderful diversity and appreciate how fortunate we are in Jerusalem to have so much history and sanctity in our midst. We will never be able to do that if we violate the sanctity of each other’s space. We as Jews, in particular, and as the sovereign in Jerusalem have the responsibility and the duty to ensure that all such sacred space is respected by all. We do not have to give a foothold to Raed Salah in the heart of west Jerusalem. The Mamilla cemetery has been under Israeli rule since 1948 without such a foothold. It can remain that way for eternity.
I appeal to Rabbi Marvin Hier who raised $250 million for this project and the Shimon Wiesenthal Center to use their good judgment and to take the initiative to stop the project, find a more suitable location, pay for the renovation of the cemetery as a sign if good faith and apology. I appeal to the donors of the museum to raise their voice and call on the Wiesenthal Center to stop the project immediately before more damage is done. If the Wiesenthal Center does not have the good judgment to change the location, I call on the government and on the Jewish people to raise their voice so that Jerusalem will be the center of tolerance, without a Museum of Tolerance on top of Muslim graves.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.