Underlying issues

Like a hot potato, the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance has been passed from mayor to mayor until finally landing on the desk of recently inaugurated Nir Barkat. Originally the brainchild of Teddy Kollek, it wasn't until Ehud Olmert's term at City Hall that the municipality proposed Mamilla as the location for the museum after alternative sites, including French Hill, were deemed unsuitable. During his time in opposition, Barkat expressed support for the museum in principle but strongly criticized its location. More recently, the press reported that the new mayor put the construction on ice. "In contrast to the publication in one of the media outlets, the mayor did not announce the freezing of the initiative," a municipal spokesman told In Jerusalem. "Instead, the debate was stopped at the time of the transfer of responsibility from the previous mayor, with the aim of studying the details that demand continual approvals. Barkat is holding discussions with representatives of the institute [Simon Wiesenthal Center] about the entire meaning of the project." The tranquility that reigns across the rest of the cemetery fades the closer one gets to the fences, barbed wire and CCTV cameras fortifying the construction site, and the hum of mechanical diggers drowns out the sound of birdsong. The current excavations are nothing new, dating back to 2006 when the High Court of Justice halted them following the case brought to them by Muslim groups. On October 29, 2008, the court finally gave the legal go-ahead, and the digging resumed once more. For centuries, the Mamilla Cemetery served as a burial ground for Muslim nobles and aristocrats, as well as the sahaba, companions of the prophet Muhammad, until it became cut off from Jerusalem's Arab population in 1948. The area is believed to have taken its name from the Arabic term Ma'man Allah, meaning "Sanctuary of God." Since then it has become an ambivalent space, trapped between two separate Jerusalems - Jewish and Arab - decaying and rebuilt. The corner of the cemetery currently under excavation had been used as a parking lot for several years but, like the rest of the graveyard, the earth beneath the wheels of the parked Fords and Subarus also contained human remains. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), says that the current excavations, and the fate of the bones, are under the supervision of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). But the IAA begs to differ: "This work is the responsibility of the SWC and not the IAA, though the IAA has insisted that the SWC operate at the site in accordance with a series of instructions that guarantee respectful treatment of all the human remains," said a spokeswoman. "The IAA is acting in accordance with the 120-page decision of the High Court which divided the treatment of the site into a number of areas. In the areas previously released by the IAA for building, in which most of the remains were retrieved during the excavation in 2006, any further human remains are being manually removed by the SWC under the guidance of an IAA inspector. The area of the site marked as purple in the court decision is being excavated by Dr. Alon Shavit of Tel Aviv University. All the human remains discovered are removed from their original burial context and manually collected in individual containers after full documentation. After collection and documentation, the bones will be reinterred in a substitute burial site nearby."