Grave Thoughts (Extract)

What lies beneath the dispute over the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem?

19mot (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract from a story in Issue 19, January 5, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Surrounded by a high corrugated metal fence that conceals the site from public view, adjoining Independence Park in downtown Jerusalem, the Museum of Tolerance, dedicated to promoting understanding between nations and religions, is under construction. Secrecy shrouds the project. Visitors are not allowed inside the metal gates and persistent snooping attracts the attention of paid guards who inform the unwanted visitors that the site is closed to the public. To get a better view, one must go to the top floor of a nearby building. From there, the venue resembles an archaeological dig more than a construction site, with black tarps and plastic sheeting covering mounds of earth. Originally begun in 2004 on what used to be a parking lot, construction of the $250 million edifice had been on hold since 2006, after human bones - presumably from the adjacent Mamilla Muslim cemetery - were unearthed and several groups petitioned Israel's highest court against allowing the building to continue, claiming that the site was a consecrated graveyard. Now, following a recent favorable court decision, work has been resumed, and by 2012 the Jerusalem branch of the Los-Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, designed by the illustrious postmodern architect Frank Gehry, is scheduled to open. SWC officials say the site is closed to the public, in keeping with Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA) policy barring the public from active excavations in order not to disturb valuable findings. But project detractors insist that the secrecy and the security at the building site is meant to prevent further evidence of grave desecration to leak out, which might increase pressure to stop construction. The legal challenges, reputedly costing as much as $2 million according to media reports, ended on October 29, when the Supreme Court unanimously decided to allow construction to resume. But protests against the Los Angeles-based human rights organization, named for a man whose Nazi-hunting work is respected by many in the Jewish and international community, continue, spreading from Jerusalem to the United States. And extensive media coverage has put the controversy on the public Israeli, American Jewish and international agenda. Indeed, this project has been controversial since first proposed in 1993. Critics, who quickly dubbed the planned building the "Museum of Intolerance," view it as an attempt to erase evidence of Muslim habitation in West Jerusalem and say that instead of tolerance it reflects political dominance, religious intolerance and cultural imperialism. Moreover, they allege that it sets a dangerous precedent for the way other countries treat Jewish cemeteries and holy sites. By creating strife in Jerusalem, critics contend, the museum defeats its own purpose. But now that legal impediments have been removed, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its supporters promise that the museum project will become a centerpiece in the city's cultural life and a crucial focus of tolerance in an intolerant region. Caught in a struggle between conflicting narratives, divergent views of history and competing identities, the project, ostensibly dedicated to tolerance, has become a contentious flash point in this tense city. Based in Los Angeles, the SWC is named for Simon Wiesenthal, the late Austrian Nazi-hunter. Its flagship Museum of Tolerance, which has been awarded numerous international accolades, was built in 1993 and hosts some 350,000 visitors annually, especially school children and law enforcement groups. The museum uses Holocaust education to teach racial and ethnic tolerance of other peoples via museum exhibits, films and sensitivity-training programs. At 30,000 square meters (323,000 sq ft), the museum in Jerusalem will be two and a half times larger than the one in Los Angeles. In a telephone conversation with The Report from his office in Los Angeles, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the SWC Museum, explains that the idea for the museum was first suggested in 1993 by the late mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. Soon after, Kollek lost the 1993 municipal election and his successor, Ehud Olmert, offered SWC three possible locations - the one in downtown Jerusalem, which Hier chose; an area near the national police headquarters in northern Jerusalem; and a swath of land near the Israel Museum and Bible Land Museum, close to the Knesset. At the time, the chosen location was a parking lot across the street from a paved piazza known as Kikar Hahatulot, ("Cats' Square"), used by peddlers to hawk their wares and as a gathering place for young people and a haunt for vagrants. The groundbreaking of the officially named Simon Wiesenthal Center for Human Dignity-Tolerance Museum took place in Jerusalem on May 2, 2004 and was attended by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who led a delegation of prominent Jewish Californians. Despite its perceived neutral history, it was common knowledge to some that the car park was adjacent to what is widely assumed to have been the burial site of as many as 70,000 mujaheddin (warriors), who died fighting the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries, and which subsequently served as the main burial ground for Jerusalem's Muslims. Although the graveyard had been inactive since the 1930s, gravestones and tombs are still visible between the trees and bushes on the large tract, which abuts on Independence Park. Hier says that during the early stages, there were no objections to the museum - neither from Muslims nor from anyone else. But in 2005, as part of a survey mandated by law to determine if a construction site contains valuable archaeological finds, human bones dating back several hundred years were uncovered. The news spread and suddenly the project became the site of religious and international controversy. In January 2006, the Al-Aqsa Foundation, an Islamic organization representing Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, fiery head of Israel's Northern Islamic Movement, who has been convicted of and served a jail term for incitement, filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to halt construction. At the same time, attorney Durgham Saif of the Karamah (which means "dignity" in Arabic) Organization for Human Rights, a Nazareth-based advocacy and legal action group, representing three families who maintain that their ancestors are buried in the cemetery, asked the Muslim shari'a (religious) court to cancel any transaction that harms the cemetery. The shari'a granted the request. The State, which had been named as a respondent in the case together with the Israel Lands Authority, the Jerusalem municipality, and the SWC, petitioned the shari'a court of appeals, which backed the authority of the lower court. Separately from Al-Aqsa, Saif had also petitioned the Supreme Court to halt construction. A panel of three justices issued an injunction which halted the work, persuading the sides to agree to arbitration conducted by former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar. But the arbitration was unsuccessful. Hier says the Arabs boycotted the meetings, but Saif says his group only pulled out after the SWC made it clear that it had no intention of building the museum at any other site. After the arbitration collapsed, the court stepped in, finally publishing its 119-page decision on October 29. Declaring Israel to be "a small strip of land, of great antiquity, with a history that extends over thousands of years," the Supreme Court panel, with Justice Ayala Procaccia presiding and with Justices Edna Arbel and David Heshin participating, came down firmly on the side of the SWC. It concluded that for "decades the controversial site was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community... During all those years no one raised any claim, on even one occasion, that the planning procedures violated the sanctity of the site, or that they were contrary to law as a result of the historical and religious uniqueness of the site." The court permitted immediate resumption of the project, giving the SWC 60 days to rebury the unearthed bones in an existing Muslim cemetery or alter the design plan so that the remains can be left in the ground with a protective structure built over them. Hier says they are currently studying the two options. The court also underscored the museum's mission, stating that "the Museum of Tolerance embodies an ideal of establishing a spiritual center that will spread a message of human tolerance between peoples, between sectors of the population and between man and his fellow man." Feeling vindicated, Hier tells The Report that he rejects the claims that the controversy, which his organization has fomented, is defeating the purpose of the museum. The museum's "location in the center of Jerusalem has especial significance… All citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of this decision." But Attorney Saif told The Report that the court's decision was "flagrantly political and biased in favor of the Jews. Frankly, a court composed of non-Jewish jurists would have found for us," he says. Extract from a story in Issue 19, January 5, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.