Gershon Baskin testified this week that security guards had accosted him to prevent him from photographing the construction site and threatened him with police arrest.
Gathering local opposition to the construction site for a Museum of Tolerance in a corner of an old Muslim cemetery in downtown Jerusalem could potentially snowball into an unpleasant international incident fanning religious bigotry and intolerance.
The museum is a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization headquartered in Los Angeles with offices in New York, Toronto, Palm Beach, Paris, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem. The project is a flagship of the center’s worldwide educational activities dedicated in a statement of its vision to “confronting anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism” and “to promoting human rights and dignity, standing with Israel, defending the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.”
Weisenthal Center: “Beacon of Light, Not Wall”
But since the groundbreaking in 2006, the hush-hush earthworks surrounding the archaeologically supervised excavations there, the high walls around the compound and 24-hour security guards and surveillance cameras have aroused growing criticism and media debate.
Bradley Burston, a columnist for Haaretz labelled the proposed Museum of Tolerance atop a Muslim cemetery as “another bad wall (compare to the security barrier) dividing Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the parent museum in Los Angeles, wrote back last month claiming that the proposed Museum was “a beacon of light, not a wall.”
In a compelling defense (Nov. 22) Rabbi Hier traced the history of the site, the cemetery’s burial status under Islamic law and the verdict handed down by the Israel High Court of Appeal unanimously upholding the legality of the construction site and commending the initiative.
The museum, he said, was being built on a municipal car park sliced off the historic Mamilla Muslim cemetery 50 years ago by which time it was already largely undeveloped park land.
Until last-minute legal proceedings were taken to block the project (presented by its Arab dissenters as a “land grab” in the heart of Jerusalem), no Muslim group or individual had contested the site of the planned museum. The High Court ruling confirmed that the plot had been separated from the Muslim cemetery in the 1960s and was classified as “an open public area for future development.” Rabbi Hier wrote. A road had been subsequently paved and a multi-storey car park with an unrealized option for high rise buildings was also constructed here.
Furthermore, before Israel’s statehood, the Mufti of Jerusalem in 1946 had declared the cemetery “mundras” (abandoned and unsanctified) under Islamic law as no burials by the Muslim community or general public had taken place there for more than 37 years. An Arab university had even been planned on the entire cemetery site, Rabbi Hier said.
No Muslim group or individual protested when the design model was on display in City Hall or after the building permit had been posted in the Hebrew and Arabic language press, Rabbi Hier wrote. Now, two years after the High Court ruling, Israel’s militant Islamic leader Sheikh Ra’ad Salah wants to set back the clock.
Critics: “Vital Project, Improper Site”
Last week Burston reminded Rabbi Hier of an interview he had given to The Jerusalem Post in February 2006. The Weisenthal Center “would never have accepted the site if the government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality had said it was a Muslim cemetery,” he quoted him. “That would have been preposterous. We would never have accepted it.”
Soon excavations unearthed about 250 skeletons from unmarked graves which the Israel Antiquities Authority dated around 300 and 400 years old, estimating that another four layers of graves lay beneath them.
The idea of building a Museum of Tolerance over any cemetery, Muslim, Jewish, Christian or animist contradicted the Weisenthal Center’s own strong opposition to a proposal by the Catholic Church 20 years ago to rebuild a convent near the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, Burston wrote. “The Museum of Tolerance is an admirable project and one with which “people of good will, sensitivity and intelligence in Jerusalem and its environs” can identify. But “many Israeli citizens, moderate, tolerant Jews, Muslims and Christians alike are vexed by the concept of building it on a graveyard.”
He warned that the flagship project may have lost its “moral compass” and that the center’s legacy was in clear danger of defeating its own purpose.
Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-Director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a public policy advocacy organization testified this week that security guards had accosted him to prevent him from photographing the construction site and threatened him with police arrest.
“The overwhelming majority of Muslim leaders today in Israel, in Palestine and Jerusalem including the President of the Israel Sharia Appeals Court Qadi Dr. Ahmed Natour reject the Islamic rulings,” falsely issued by the Weisenthal Center regarding the status of the Mamilla cemetery under Islamic Law, Baskin wrote on his organization’s Web site.
Jerusalem can be a world class city and international center for peace, understanding and real tolerance “but not if we (the Jews) completely disregard the sacred space of others.” The project had to be stopped, Baskin wrote, because it created animosity and hatred between Jews and Muslims in the county and around the world and defamed the good name of the State of Israel and the city of Jerusalem.
Questionable financial arrangements and promises involving huge sums of money also had been made to the Weisenthal Center by the Jerusalem Municipality at the time which could lead to a police investigation, Baskin charged. The matter, he was assured, would be tabled for debate in the newly-elected Jerusalem Municipal Council.