Think tank says battle against works at Museum of Tolerance not over yet

Canadian-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian group planning "a number" of initiatives.

Museum of Tolerance 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Museum of Tolerance 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A Canadian-funded Israeli-Palestinian think tank held a public event Monday against the construction of the Museum of Tolerance at its planned central Jerusalem site, despite a High Court ruling allowing it to be built there. The event, organized by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, came five months after construction resumed at the site, which partially covers a Muslim cemetery, in keeping with last year's unanimous ruling. The two-hour discussion, which was held at an east Jerusalem hotel and included a four-member panel that opposed the construction, was part of an afternoon discussion series "made possible by the support of the government of Canada," according to an e-mail the organization sent out. An Israeli lawyer for the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is building the museum, was not allowed to be part of the panel and was only permitted to voice his opinion in the question-and-answer session that followed the event. A spokeswoman for the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv had no immediate comment on Monday. "We are not willing to accept that the struggle to move the museum has ended," said Gershon Baskin, Israeli CEO and founder of the think tank. "Although the story has not created outrage in the Muslim world, it will remain an open sore in the fabric of the city, and it will make the possibility of peace and tolerance in Jerusalem much harder for a long time to come." Baskin said that the organization planned "a number" of initiatives against the construction of the museum at that site, adding that he did not want to disclose them publicly just yet. "The Wiesenthal Center is in for some surprises," he said. Saif Durgham, an Israeli Arab attorney who fought unsuccessfully in the High Court against building the museum on the site, revealed that his organization was planning to submit a new petition to the court shortly, in the wake of "false and fabricated testimony" by the state-run Antiquities Authority in the previous legal case. "We are trying to prevent this museum from being built on this site," said Durgham, an attorney for the Karameh human rights group. "We should use further legal action to gain time to create enough public pressure to stop the project," said Einat Horowitz, director of the legal department of the Israeli Religious Action Center - the political and legal arm of the country's Reform Movement. Horowitz conceded that the chances for a new legal case were "very slim." "This case can only be won not in the court, but by public battle," Horowitz said. The dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dismissed the latest criticism as unfounded. "These are people who are living in a fantasy world and who are trying to stir up trouble," Hier said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled on the issue, and the project is going on unimpeded with greater support than ever before." Hier said it was time for critics of the plan to realize they had lost the case and move on to other issues. "The Supreme Court has spoken, and the legal battle has finished," he said. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who toured the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on Monday during his first US visit as mayor, told The Jerusalem Post earlier this month that the city needed to keep its commitment to the American Jewish organization to construct the museum at the site, even though he would have preferred from the outset that it be built at a different location. The construction of the $250 million museum resumed in October following a two-and-a-half-year freeze during the legal battle. The High Court ruling noted that no objections had been lodged back in 1960 when the city put a parking lot over a small section of the graveyard, and that for the past half-century the site had been in public use. It said that alternative proposals put forward by planners - including reburial of the bones or covering up the old graves - were "satisfactory" in trying to find the correct balance between religious attitudes for respecting the dead, and the legal requirements. The bones in question were found on 12 percent of the planned museum site. The American planners are now working with the Antiquities Authority on a method of either removing any human remains for reburial or installing a barrier between the building's foundations and the ground below to prevent graves from being disturbed. The Wiesenthal Center has offered to pay for the burial of the bones found in the area or to cover the area before building, but these proposals have been rejected by the Islamic groups opposed to the construction.