Gershon Baskin urges Jews to think about how we respond when somewhere in the world a museum or any other institution is built on a Jewish cemetery.
There are those in this country who can conjure a conflict from a grain of sand but, when it comes to this city’s most controversial new urban development, they have a lot more than a grain of sand to work with.
They have 1.2 hectares of land in downtown Jerusalem that occupy part of the ancient Mamilla Muslim cemetery, where a famous international Nazi-hunting organization is determined to build a $250 million cultural institution designed by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry, to be called – and here is the kicker – the Museum of Tolerance.
“In my view, it is a mistake,” said Menachem Klein, lecturer in political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “The Muslim side is bitter.”
Furious, might be a more apt description. During the past week or so, there have been angry demonstrations and denunciations by local Arabs and their neighbours.
Hezbollah, the radical Islamist group in neighbouring Lebanon, which fought Israel to something like a draw in a bloody, month-long contest in 2006, has also joined the fray, branding the planned complex “an act of aggression.”
But, in the wake of an Israeli High Court ruling on Oct. 29, work on the project has resumed, and it seems the so-called Museum of Tolerance will eventually rise at the corner of Hillel and Menashe Ben Israel streets, on ground that now contains a large quantity of sacred Muslim bones, possibly including the earthly remains of several men believed to have been companions of the Prophet Muhammad.
Already, the Israel Antiquities Authority has removed more than 200 skeletons from the site, and it expects to find more. Experts say the soil contains five layers of graves.
“Perhaps, in 20 or 30 years, the museum will represent tolerance because no one will remember,” said Klein. “But this is a very bad beginning.”
It was more than four years ago that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lent his star power to a ceremony to mark the launch of construction on the museum, which was supposed to open sometime last year.
That was before the litigators got going. Two Islamic organizations took the museum’s backers to court in a bid to stop the project, a legal action that ended last month when a panel of High Court judges declaring the development can go ahead.
“The establishment of the museum is likely to make an important national contribution to the whole country, in which no centre has yet been built with the purpose of addressing the issue of tolerance,” ruled the judges.
Yesterday, the construction site once again bustled with activity, as a front-end loader gouged the earth and a succession of large dump trucks lumbered in and out.
Not only Arabs are upset. Many Jews are equally distressed.
“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,” Gershon Baskin of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information wrote in the Jerusalem Post. He urged Jews to “think about how we respond when somewhere in the world a museum or any other institution is built on a Jewish cemetery.”
Several days later, the leading champion of the project fired back.
“It is not those who lie beneath the ground who threaten the stability of the Middle East,” wrote Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is responsible for the museum. “It is the blind hatred and intolerance of extremists above the ground which impede any prospect for civility and peace.”
Hier argued that the site in question has previously been occupied by a municipal parking lot and that no one raised a fuss about the situation then.
He also wrote that, according to Islamic teaching, a cemetery left unused for more than 37 years ceases to be sacred.
Such arguments don’t seem to be carrying much weight among Arab Israelis.
“We will not forgive you for violating the graves of our mothers, fathers, and grandparents,” Sheikh Kamal Hativ, deputy chairman of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, told local media last week. “The cemetery has in any case been in existence before Israel, and the graves of our forefathers will remain after Israel.”
Meanwhile, at least some Israeli Jews look on in sorrow.
“One should have thought of these things in advance,” said Klein at Bar-Ilan University. “From the beginning, the museum should not have been brought to this place.”