The Center for Human Dignity is the Simon Wiesenthal Center-planned Museum of Tolerance over Mamilla Cemetery at the center of West Jerusalem

Museum Of Intolerance?

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Gershon Baskin wants us to imagine the outrage if the Palestinians were building a Museum of Tolerance (or anything else) on what was once a Jewish cemetery.

Simon Wiesenthal Center project angers Muslims with its efforts to build atop a historic cemetery in the heart of Jerusalem.

The Museum of Tolerance is itself being accused of gross intolerance.

In what some observers fear could trigger an international wave of protests akin to the recent uproar over Danish cartoons, Muslims are complaining that the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli government, the forces behind the $150 million Center for Human Dignity, Museum of Tolerance, are building the new museum atop an old Muslim cemetery in the heart of Jerusalem.

The remains of hundreds of Muslims buried in the graveyard, which was in continuous use from the 12th century until 1927, have been dug up since construction on the site began a few weeks ago, according to articles in the Israeli media. Both Moriah, the municipal company developing the site, and the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is overseeing the project, declined to comment on the reports.

Muslim officials have petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to permanently halt the museum’s construction, on the grounds that it would desecrate holy ground. A decision is expected soon.

The timing is particularly sensitive given the worldwide Muslim reaction to a dozen Danish cartoons depicting the likeness of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The cartoons, which were published in a Danish newspaper last September, ignited a firestorm of Muslim and Arab protests in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.

Palestinians ransacked the offices of the European Union in Gaza and have threatened to kidnap Europeans. In an ironic twist, a team of European observers highly critical of the Israeli army asked Israeli soldiers to rescue them from Hebron.

In another inflammatory incident last Sunday, anti-Muslim graffiti sprayed on the wall of a West Bank mosque sparked violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. The graffiti, which said, “Muhammad is Swine,” was scrawled in Hebrew atop a Jewish star. A Palestinian eyewitness reported seeing a man wearing a kipa spray paint the mosque. Israeli security personnel, who quickly removed the graffiti from the mosque and formally apologized for the incident, said they suspected that a Jewish settler or settlers were responsible.

Israeli Arabs, who held peaceful protests over the Muhammad cartoons, warned that their patience is wearing thin.

“This is a serious moral escalation and attempt by the settlers to set the area alight while blatantly offending the prophet Muhammad and millions of Muslim believers,” Israeli Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi told Haaretz the day the mosque was desecrated.

Should the Museum of Tolerance project continue, “people all over the world, and not just Muslims, will be angry,” predicts Adnan Husseini, who heads the Wakf, the Islamic Trust that overseas the Temple Mount — yet another potential flashpoint.

Husseini says that uprooting human remains “is something against humanity and must be stopped.” He said that Muslims were upset after seeing photos in Israeli newspapers showing boxes containing bones dug up from the cemetery. “When my father or my forefather is buried in a cemetery, I don’t want their bones shipped to who knows where,” Husseini says.

Hagai Elias, a spokesman for the Museum of Tolerance Project, told the Chicago Tribune that instructions had been given “to treat any finds with respect” and that construction work was being substantially delayed to allow the archaeological excavations to proceed. Elias was quoted in Reuters as saying, “The land wasn’t a cemetery when we got it from city hall and the government and we are waiting to know the [court’s] decision,” the spokesman, Hagai Elias, said.

The Wakf official insists that Muslims “do not have a problem with the idea of the museum. We just feel that it should be built elsewhere. I think to build such a project under the name of tolerance in this place would be a contradiction in terms.”

Husseini asserts that Muslim officials were unaware that the museum would be built on land belonging to the cemetery until relatives of those buried there notified the Jerusalem-based Islamic Court.

This is despite the fact that the 2004 groundbreaking, attended by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was widely reported in the Israeli and international press. In fact, Al Awda, the “Palestinian Right to Return Coalition,” publicly urged Schwarzenegger not to attend the groundbreaking because the museum was being built “on confiscated land.”

On Feb. 1, the Islamic Court ruled that construction on the site should be halted immediately. A spokesman for Moriah acknowledged that the company did indeed stop working for a day and a half “to organize ourselves,” but then resumed operations — alongside archaeologists from the Antiquities Authority.

“There is no law prohibiting us from doing our job,” the Moriah spokesman says.

The museum case is particularly complicated because both Israelis and Palestinians claim the land as their own. The cemetery, which is sandwiched between present-day Agron and Hillel streets in the city center, was once the largest Muslim graveyard in Jerusalem. Many renowned scholars and members of prominent families were buried there. Israel assumed authority over the land according to the laws of Absentee Ownership.

Those in favor of the museum project note that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem himself permitted the removal of some graves back in the 1920s, when the Supreme Muslim Council wanted to build a hotel on cemetery land.

The Jerusalem municipality built Independence Park on much of the cemetery, where perhaps two dozen identifiable plots still remain. The graves are marked by large, heavy slabs of stone, with an inscription here and there.

So far, the construction team has cordoned off what until recently was a parking lot across the street from the historic Nahalat Shiva neighborhood. The canvas tent and tall metal fence the company erected prevent the curious from peering inside. Private security guards in dark uniforms and yellow vests order those who approach the lot to leave the area.

“Take it up with the prime minister,” one of the guards told a journalist photographing the site.

Osnat Guez, spokesperson for the Antiquities Authority, said she could not provide any details about the skeletons reportedly uncovered “because we were hired by Moriah and cannot provide information to a third party.”

Moriah also refused to comment on the remains.

Guez did say that the work being done on the museum construction site “is no different than any other site in Israel.

“There are between 250 to 300 rescue excavations in Israel every year in places where people want to build,” Guez explained, adding that builders working in archaeologically rich areas are legally required to hire Antiquities Authority archaeologists to monitor the operation.

“Hundreds of Jewish, Christian and Muslim graves are excavated every year. The bones are reburied according to religious law,” she said. “There are 35,000 known archaeological sites in Israel.”

This presents city planners with a dilemma. “On the one hand, you don’t want to move the sites. On the other hand, if you don’t move them, nothing will ever be built,” Guez said. “Sometimes we require builders to change their plans a bit, but our view is that the needs of the living must come before the dead.”

Not everyone agrees.

“Imagine the outrage if the Palestinians were building a Museum of Tolerance (or anything else) on what was once a Jewish cemetery,” Gershon Baskin, the Jewish co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said in a recent e-mail dispatch. “Would it matter to anyone if the cemetery was not active and in use since 1948 or that it was being done ‘legally.’?”

Michele Chabin

Michele Chabin

Michele Chabin, a reporter for USA Today, RNS, the New York Jewish Week and other publications, has reported from Israel for nearly three decades. She speaks about Israelis and Palestinians to Israeli and Diaspora audiences.
Michele Chabin