Dead men voting

Make no bones about it. The dead have a say in the ongoing struggle over the Holy City's character.

mt olives edge 88.298 (photo credit: )
mt olives edge 88.298
(photo credit: )
Last month, Israel's High Court of Justice gave former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar 30 days to mediate a solution to the dispute between the planned Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance and several Muslim groups. As has been widely reported in The Jerusalem Post and other media, the controversy stems from the discovery of graves at the building site, which is also the site of the sprawling Mamilla or Ma'aman Allah (Believer in God) cemetery. The graves were uncovered during a routine "salvation dig." Israeli law mandates such digs whenever development might affect archeological remains. Yet, as acrimonious and heated as this current controversy has been, in fact it is merely the most recent chapter in the ongoing saga surrounding this site in particular and Jerusalem in general. In this case, as in the past, mediators will have to try to find a Solomonic balance between the needs of the living and the dead. And in Jerusalem, the dead, represented by the descendants who purport to speak for them, seem to have much to say. After all, as Israel Antiquities Authority spokeswoman Osnat Goaz observes, "All of Jerusalem is an archeological site. This is a place where a lot of history happened - Jewish history, Christian, Muslim. And where people lived, they also died." There are at least 35,000 archeological sites all over Israel and an as-yet unknown number of sites, many of them ancient burial sites, in Jerusalem. For some, this is part of the significance and charm of living in Jerusalem. For others, it is Jerusalem's own version of virtual poltergeist. Attempts to mediate between these competing needs are the stuff that Jerusalem lore is made of. And to make matters more complicated, archeology can be fickle - it doesn't care which side of the living it affects. In the 1980s, then-Jerusalem councilman Moshe Amirav, who held the Transportation Portfolio, discovered this truth when constructing Jerusalem's Route 1. "You have to remember," Amirav says, "that while everyone agreed that the road was necessary, it also was politically sensitive, since it followed former no-man's land." Amirav was able, with the help of Ariel Sharon, to mediate between the living Left, who accused him of forcibly "uniting" the city, and the living Right, who accused him of forcibly "dividing" the city. It was with those who had come before them that he had more trouble, as workers repeatedly uncovered archeological remains and ancient cemeteries. First, they uncovered the remains of a fourth-century church - a discovery that nearly caused an international incident, held up construction for months and was resolved at a cost of $100,000 to preserve the remains. But as the road progressed north, by the Mandelbaum Gate, workers uncovered what, according to haredi authorities, were Jewish graves. Several months of delayed work and $200,000 later, Amirav and the haredi representatives came to an agreement: since the road could not be diverted, it would be suspended on a bridge, above the graves, in order to let the "impurities" (tuma) escape from the graves. And so, Jerusalem boasts one of the world's lowest suspension bridges, 20 centimeters above ground level. "Some authorities disputed that these were Jewish graves," Amirav recalls. "But that didn't matter to me. It mattered to me that the residents of this city could find a way to live together and have a modern system of transportation." Planners of the Begin highway were forced to find a different solution. Readers may have noticed the large rock formation that seems to almost jut into the road as they travel northward between Givat Mordechai and Beit Hakerem. Graves were found there, too - and in this case, the road was diverted slightly to keep the rock formation in place. "Respect for the dead," says Amirav, "is a sign of respect for the living. It is the only way that we can live here." And so it is not surprising that Israel and the Arabs have often shown disrespect for, and demanded respect from, the "other" side. Opponents of the Museum of Tolerance have accused the initiators of intolerance and disrespect for the Moslem graves. But Israelis remember well the disrespect the Jordanians showed for the sacred Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives was first used as a burial ground during the First and Second Temple Periods, when the tombs of wealthy Jerusalem families were hewn into the rocky slopes. Jewish funerals resumed there in the early 15th century and continued uninterrupted until the War of Independence, when the Mount of Olives fell under Jordanian control. According to the terms of the cease-fire armistice, Jordanians were supposed to allow Jewish burials to continue. In practice, however, fewer than a dozen people were buried in the cemetery during the 19-year period. The cemetery also suffered massive damage during this time. Jordanian citizens routinely raided the cemetery, removing the marble headstones and using them to tile the floors of their homes. The Jordanian army looted headstones and the concrete bases of the graves to construct an army base in Azariya. The greatest destruction came as a result of the then newly opened Intercontinental Hotel, situated on the upper northeast corner of the cemetery. To encourage tourists, the Jordanian government set out to connect the hotel with the holy sites of the Old City by bulldozing a winding road directly through the cemetery. Nor is this the first time that the Mamilla Cemetery has been the source of conflict. Located at a convenient distance from the Old City, the site surrounding the Herodian-era Mamilla Pool was historically Jerusalem's main Muslim cemetery. But as the city expanded outside its medieval walls, the British forbade further burials there in the late 1920s. Theoretically, disturbed graves uncovered in archeological salvage digs are respectfully re-interred to permit other usages for the site. Sharia law recognizes this reality, permitting the transfer of graves in special cases with the approval of a qadi (Muslim judge) who declares the site mundras (abandoned) and permissible to be used for public purposes. In recent decades beginning with former Jerusalem mayor Mordechai Ish Shalom who developed Independence Park, the historic site was dug up repeatedly for the sake of a park, two parking lots and roads, and the site was declared mundras twice in the past century - in 1929 and 1964. David Kroyanker, Jerusalem architect and town planner, has written about yet another, earlier incident. In 1923 the Supreme Muslim Council, then headed by Grand Mufti Haj Amin al- Husseini, drew up an ambitious plan to build the al-Aksa University on the central site to counter-balance the newly established Hebrew University of Jerusalem on remote Mount Scopus - the cornerstone of which had been dedicated in 1918 and which was inaugurated in 1925. The council commissioned Egyptian architect Ibrahim Fawzi to create a grandiose master plan that spread out across 70 dunams - including all of the Muslim cemetery and today's Independence Park. The proposed university was to include faculties of medicine and architecture, as well as a school of theology and a department of Koranic exegesis. Fawzi's campus envisioned broad public gardens, fountains and monumental buildings in traditional Islamic style with domes and towers. But the prestigious project came to naught. In his book The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam under the British Mandate for Palestine, Uri Kupferschmidt described the university's fundraising difficulties. Potential donors in Egypt feared a Muslim university in Jerusalem would compete with Cairo's venerable al-Azhar - the world's oldest university founded in 988. By the mid-1930s the Supreme Muslim Council abandoned its pan-Islamic university project as unfeasible. Some graves, however, had been disturbed. Al-Husseini also commissioned the construction of the luxurious Palace Hotel on Rehov Agron, today being restored by Toronto's Reichmann family, at the south end of the expansive Ma'amun Allah cemetery. In 1929 during excavations for the foundations, Arab workers uncovered Muslim graves. In his memoirs, contractor Baruch Katinka wrote that upon the discovery of the human remains, he rushed to Haj Amin's mansion in Sheikh Jarrah. The Mufti, afraid that his political rival Jerusalem mayor Rajib an-Nashashibi would issue a cease-work order, told Katinka to quietly rebury the bones elsewhere. The secret got out however. Al-Husseini, acting as head of the Supreme Muslim Council, authorized the disinterment. But rival factions disagreed and filed a suit against him at the Sharia Court, arguing that he had desecrated ancient graves. The Mufti's fatwa reverberated for decades. In 1963 a protest arose among Arab Israelis after Tawfiq Asliya, the qadi of Jaffa, permitted the removal of graves from Tel Aviv's Abad an-Nabi cemetery on the seaside promontory where the Hilton Hotel was subsequently erected. Israel supported the sheikh, ironically citing the Mufti's precedent. Conflicts over cemeteries tell us much about the present. The cemeteries themselves can often tell us about the life of an ancient culture. And in at least one cemetery in Jerusalem, the Hakeldama, the dead could teach us about living together in peace. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, in 1989 the Jerusalem Municipality conducted routine development work in the area of the village of Silwan, near the Monastery of St. Onuphrius. While widening a narrow street near one of the approaches to the village, bulldozers uncovered a number of square openings hewn in the rock. Crawling through the narrow openings, archeologists found themselves in a large burial complex. Extensive digging revealed that the three large caves that the archeologists uncovered were part of an extensive Jewish burial ground in use at the end of the Second Temple period, which terminated in the year 70 CE, when Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple destroyed. Alongside the original burial phase from the end of the Second Temple, they also found solid evidence of reuse of the tombs during the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods. The dead from different religions and periods had been lying next to one another for centuries. So if the dead got along in the past and solutions have been found in the present - why is there so much conflict over the current plan for the Museum of Tolerance? Some have claimed that the site has particular historical and religious significance, but Gadi Wexler of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute disputes this. "There's nothing special about this cemetery compared to other graveyards - apart from two things. The fighters with Saladin are buried there, as well as in a small gravesite inside the Old City by the Lions Gate. And there's a domed Mamluk building, called the Kabakiyya - the mausoleum of al-Kabaki." And what of claims that Omar ibn Khattab, Islam's second caliph, or others from the time of the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638 are buried there? "That's in great doubt," says Wexler. "There's no proof of the burial of the comrades of Muhammad [there]. There's no special holiness to the Mamilla Cemetery relative to other Muslim sites." Itsho Gur, spokesman for the Moriah Development Company, which had removed some 250 skeletons from the site until ordered to stop by the High court of Justice, is more blunt. "Bones have been found in many places in Israel, and not just in Jerusalem," he says. "And solutions have been found. But here politics are involved." Kroyanker agrees. "The whole matter is political. They're using the graves to show how Israel treats the Palestinians. It's an issue of political and financial haggling. If Haj Amin al-Husseini was ready to build there, why shouldn't Israel?" Amirav's answers are different. "These issues are matters of principle, belief and good faith. By showing respect for the Muslims' objections, even if we doubt their motives, we can find a way to live together in this city. "When there are no other alternatives," he continues, "I certainly do believe that the needs of the living should take precedence over respect for the dead. But we have shown that even in Jerusalem, there usually is an alternative." He adds, "Maybe, in fact, Jesus wasn't buried here. Maybe, in fact, Muhammad didn't step here. Maybe, in fact, the Western Wall isn't the last remainder of our Holy Temple - so what? The only important fact here is that people deeply believe that this is true. And if the contentions are politically motivated? "I still say, 'so what.' This isn't the place to battle things out over principles or politics. If there is any place in the world where we must be tolerant - then it is in Jerusalem." According to Amirav, when General Allenby marched victorious into Jerusalem and buried the British dead on Mount Scopus, he requested that future generations keep the sites in front of the cemeteries open, so that the cemetery would keep its view to the Old City. Decades later, in the 1970s and 1980s, when planners and developers were building the Hebrew University's dormitories, they took that promise into consideration and the cemetery still offers one of the city's best views of the Old City. "Of course, we could say that's ridiculous," Amirav says. "After all, it's likely that the dead will rest in peace, or not, even without a great view. But sensitivity, respect and honor for the past are what it means to live in Jerusalem." Amiram Gonen, professor of geography at Hebrew University and director of the Floresheimer Institute for Policy Studies, adds that, "living in Jerusalem requires finding the balances and inventing creative solutions." Gonen had opposed construction of the Museum of Tolerance at that site even before the discovery of the skeletons, due to urban planning considerations. In conclusion, he quips, "Sometimes the dead in Jerusalem do get in the way of planning and development. But in this case, the dead are protecting us from our own plans."