(photo credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center)
The High Court of Justice is slated to hand down its decision in the coming days on whether the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) may continue building its planned Center for Human Dignity, Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem complex following public protests and two petitions by Israeli Arabs.
On Sunday, the Anti-Defamation League added its voice to the protest, calling on the SWC to halt work on the controversial site.
"ADL believes that a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem can be an important institution for educating against bias and for respect and understanding. We trust that the same tenets that undergird the museum's mission will be applied to finding a resolution to address the concerns of the Muslim community and the families of those whose graves have been discovered," the organization said in a written statement.
"We encourage a temporary cessation of construction until the issue is resolved in a respectful way acceptable to all parties. To do less would weaken the foundation upon which a museum of tolerance stands."
Wednesday, the court heard the petitions by the Al Aqsa Company for the Development of Waqf (Muslim religious trust) sites and by the Nazareth-based Karameh Human Rights Organization, representing three prominent Jerusalem families who say their ancestors are among those buried in the ancient cemetery.
The $150 million complex off Jerusalem's Rehov Hillel, designed by prominent American architect Frank Gehry, would include a museum, conference and education centers, a library and a theater, all dedicated to promoting tolerance in Israel and abroad, the SWC says. If work continues as planned the museum is expected to open by 2008.
The SWC said it had been told by the government and the Jerusalem Municipality five years ago that the threedunam plot was not defined as a cemetery, but as "public open space" and gave it the necessary permits to build on the site. It said the government based its decision on a 1964 Sharia Religious Court [the highest Muslim court in Israel] ruling that allegedly nullified the sanctity of the graveyard and permitted use of the land.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of SWC, quoted the ruling as declaring "The cemetery's sanctity has ceased to exist in it and it is permitted to do whatever is permitted in any other land which was never a cemetery." The 1964 document was included in the SWC response to the petition.
The petitioners, however, have rejected the government's position. "We adhere to our legitimate right to protect the Ma'amam Allah graveyard and all other Muslim cemeteries," said Irkima al-Sabri, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to Karameh's lawyer Durgham Saif, "You cannot build a museum of tolerance on the bones of other people. It is immoral and illegal."
Karameh petitioned the Sharia Court against construction of the museum and obtained an interim injunction to stop it. However, the police refused to enforce the injunction and work at the site continued. In response, the organization petitioned the court to order the police to enforce the Sharia Court's interim injunction.
Some observers believe that if the court rejects the petitions, the dispute will escalate and spill over into the political and national arena. Sources close to the Simon Wiesenthal Center say the protests are politically, not religiously, motivated.
Last week, the Grand Mufti, told Al-Jazeera there were plans to ask UNESCO to register the cemetery as an international historical site.
Israeli law requires archaeological excavations before any construction project, and it is common to discover ancient graves and human remains of Jews, Christians and Muslims in 3,000-year-old Jerusalem, said Osnat Gouez, a spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority. The authority has already removed 250 skeletons and skulls from the site and has reported to the court that the cemetery dates back centuries and that there are at least five layers of density of graves there.
In most cases, human bones are removed and buried elsewhere, she said. "We must do this, otherwise we won't build anything," Gouez said. "Everywhere in Israel there are graves."
According to the law, bones found in construction areas are to be transferred to the Religious Affairs Ministry for reburial. However, the ministry was dismantled at the beginning of 2004 and it is unclear who will carry out the delicate work should the court rule that construction on the museum may continue.
SWC has offered to intern the remains elsewhere and to establish a memorial at the site at its own expense, Hier told The Jerusalem Post. In a phone call from Los Angeles, Hier said the plot of land was not considered a cemetery and was given to the center in good faith by the government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality.
"We never would have accepted a site if the government of Israel or the Jerusalem Municipality had said it was a Muslim cemetery," he said. "We would have laughed. It would have been preposterous. We never would have accepted it."
Hier said he was worried that so much money has been invested in planning and designing the museum on the proposed site that it would be too expensive to move it, adding that SWC would not scrap its plans unless ordered to do so by the court.
"The Simon Wiesenthal Center will abide by the ruling of the court, for which it has much respect," he told the Post.
Independence Park and the surrounding area, including the museum plot, was a Muslim cemetery from the time of the Crusades until burials were halted at the end of the 19th century. The site for the museum project has been a parking lot for the past 25 years. Sources associated with the center said there were no protests by Israeli Arabs when the parking lot was established on the site.
However, Sabri told the BBC that Muslim religious authorities were not consulted about digging at the site, a claim Hier disputed. "This project has been circulating in the public sphere for five years," he said. "We took out advertisements in the Hebrew and Arab press in Israel. The plan for the museum was widely publicized. We also put a model of the planned museum on public display at city hall. The plan had unanimous approval in city council hearings from both the left and right of the political spectrum. For five years everybody knew what was going on, and what was planned for the site. There were no protests from anyone during that time. Where was the Arab community then?"
Hier said the first protests against the construction of the museum began when excavation work at the site started, and skeletal remains were uncovered. "Once that happened, we offered the Muslim community three compromises," Hier continued. "We offered to re-intern the remains elsewhere with great dignity; we offered to clean up the [more modern Muslim cemetery located elsewhere in Independence Park]; and we also offered to establish an appropriate, dignified monument to those who were buried there, all at our expense," Hier said. "It [the site] may be a more fitting memorial as a center for human dignity than as a car park," he added.
Hier, however, would not respond to questions about whether he or any representatives from the Wiesenthal Center had approached Muslim authorities to consult on the project, saying only that the plan was "out in the open and widely publicized."
"If there were such a ruling, it is now void," MK Abdulmalik Dahamshe told the Post, adding, "There is nobody that would ever claim it is not a cemetery.
Dr. Ahmed Natur, Chief Judge of the High Court of Appeals for Islamic Law told the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee the cemetery's holiness and sacredness would stay there forever and never go away."
Hier said he was not claiming that that the site had never been a Muslim graveyard, but that he had been told by both the government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality that the SWC could build its museum on the site.
Hier said he regarded the Jerusalem center as the SWC's flagship project. The Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance is 13,000 square meters in size and New York's Tolerance Center is 1,670 square meters, compared with the Jerusalem center's projected 22,300 square meters and a capacity to handle up to 4,000 visitors a day.
Renato Yarak, an attorney for the SWC, said the site was unofficially deemed "unsacred" in 1929, when then head of the supreme Muslim council, Haj Amin Al Husseini, began removing bones from the ground to build a religious Muslim university on the site.
According to Yarak, al-Husseini managed to build a house for lecturers but could not finance the rest of the project.
Yarak said the protest against the museum was politically motivated, and had nothing to do with sincere religious protest over the sanctity of human remains.