Terra Incognita: Demagoguery at its finest

The controversy surrounding Jerusalem’s Mamilla cemetery exposes the unfortunate hypocrisy of the project’s loudest opponents.

In early January it was reported that famed architect Frank Gehry had ended his participation in the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s project to build a Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem. It is the latest in a controversial saga that has united old Muslim Jerusalemite families, Arab protesters and Reform Jews in attempts to stop the project. In April 2004, a groundbreaking was held to inaugurate construction. The museum was slated to be built atop an eyesore of a parking lot that abutted a disused cemetery that was the site of overgrown weeds, trash, illicit meetings and drunks. Its graves lay in a state of extreme neglect.
When rumors circulated that, in the course of removing the parking lot, skeletons were discovered, people began to take notice. Reports speak of the cemetery containing “long-ago associates of the prophet Muhammad.” Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and not usually an expert on the historical geography of the Holy City or its Muslims, claimed it was “a plot of land where Muslims have been burying their dead for most of the last 800 years.”
Ya’acov Yehoshua (father of A.B. Yehoshua) wrote in 1950 that the cemetery contained “70,000 of the Muslim fighters who were in Saladin al-Ayoubi’s army.”
In general, media reports have had shocking headlines, such as the Independent’s “Israel plans to build ‘museum of tolerance’ on Muslim graves.” Had photos accompanied the reports, the public might have realized the existing cemetery, including such noticeable graves as that of former Ottoman governor Ahmed Agha Duzdar, was being left untouched.
Supporters of the museum claim an 1894 Shari’a court ruled that the sanctity of the cemetery could be lifted. In 1928, the Palace Hotel, whose investors included Haj Amin al-Husseini, was given the right by the Higher Islamic Council to build on a site next to the cemetery. When ancient tombs were discovered in laying the foundations of the hotel, Husseini, who was also the mufti of Jerusalem, “ruled that any bones could simply be removed and issued a gag order for the entire operation.”
The hotel was turned over to the State of Israel in 1948 as absentee property. In 1964 the Supreme Islamic Council in Jerusalem declared the “location was so old it was no longer sacred.” During the 1960s, a parking lot was paved over a small portion of the cemetery. In 1992 that part was given to the municipality. Haggai Elias, a former municipal spokesman, claims that “in Islam, after 25 years the sanctity wears off.”
Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a renowned historical geography scholar and Israel Prize laureate, has cast himself as an expert on the matter and as one of the opponents of the “irreversible new reality” being created. His research, which analyzed aerial photos and historical maps, revealed that in the 1860s a wall delineated the boundaries of the cemetery, and that “these boundaries remained intact” until the 1960s. He notes that Jewish builders of Nahalat Shiva were fearful of disturbing Muslim sensibilities by building too close to the cemetery in 1869.
Ben-Arieh dismisses the claim that the mufti corruptly awarded his own Palace Hotel the right to unearth old graves next to the cemetery: “The real question is not how the mufti acted, but rather how we, an enlightened Jewish, Zionist Israeli society, will act?” That is a nice statement, but it seemingly admits that portions of the cemetery have indeed been built over, especially when the interests of wealthy Muslims were involved.
Ben-Arieh repeats the concerns of Jews in the 1860s when he notes that no decision should be made “without the consent of the Muslims.” Even the British were fearful of riots should they proceed with renovations near the cemetery. His observations are historically correct, but his final point betrays a strange interpretation of history. He claims the museum could justify the “evacuation of some, if not all, of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.”
In fact this is precisely what happened when it was under Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967. A road was carved through the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives to a hotel that was constructed on the hill. Gravestones were used to pave walkways and, in one infamous instance, served as a pathway to latrines for Jordanian soldiers.
THE HIGH Court of Justice found in 2008 that the use of the area as a parking lot proved that the cemetery was no longer a sanctified site.
Architecture critics think the museum would be an eyesore. But the real problem remains the demagoguery surrounding the issue. Asim Khalidi, who once lectured at Bir Zeit University, wrote in 2009 of “hidden schemes” and claimed, “Now with only 8% of the cemetery area left, new Israeli plans are being designed to eliminate this Muslim historical site once and for all.” Khalidi implies that 92% of the cemetery has already been built over. This is a blatant fabrication. The cemetery is not being eliminated, only the part that was already a parking lot is being changed.
Some Jewish activist voices, wanting to show their tolerance for and coexistence with Muslims, have embraced the Mamilla cause. Americans for Peace Now spoke of not “provoking Muslims.” Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, has been a leader in the “battle” against the museum. The Central Conference of American Rabbis has called on the museum not to be built “atop the Mamilla cemetery.” Alana Alpert, in The Forward, reiterated that point when she wrote “the Wiesenthal Center’s insistence on building its planned Museum of Tolerance on top of a centuries-old Muslim cemetery betrayed the concept of tolerance at the heart of the museum’s purported mission.” These last quotes illustrate the degree to which the most extreme voices either haven’t seen the site or deliberately fabricate what is taking place there.
The Jewish voices raised against the museum have often pointed out that Jews wouldn’t want their cemeteries built on in other countries. That is true. When Jewish cemeteries, all too often, have been destroyed and paved over, voices have been raised. But they are not the same voices that oppose the Museum. Consider the case of  Route 6, the Trans-Israel Highway, which was said to be desecrating Jewish graves when it was being built. Hundreds of religious Jewish protesters had to be removed by police.
But outside the haredi world no one cared about those Jewish graves. Alpert, Hoffman and Yoffie didn’t complain. Have any of them voiced concern for endangered Jewish cemeteries in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Yemen or elsewhere in the Muslim world? They claim that Jews who support the museum would never allow it to be built on a Jewish cemetery, but is not their hypocrisy as great?
There is a reason to preserve the Mamilla cemetery. The grave of Ahmed Agha Duzdar, 19th century governor of Jerusalem, lies on the side of the cemetery far from the museum site, near the remnant of the Palace Hotel (now being transformed into a Waldorf-Astoria). In an e-mail received from his descendent, Rasheed Asali, it turns out that his family members were the traditional commanders of the citadel in the Old City.
The museum might be a gaudy project, but it is important that those who oppose it first be honest about their opposition, the demagoguery that is part and parcel of it, and the unfortunate hypocrisy that is a strange bedfellow to it.
The last reason not to build the museum is because of “fears” of “provoking” Muslims who have not “given their permission.” When Moses Montefiore visited the Holy Land in 1839, he wanted to see the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron that Jews were forbidden from entering. His tour provoked Muslim riots, but it was the right thing to do. There is no compelling reason to preserve a parking lot that happens to contain a few graves underneath it simply to gain coexistence points. There is every reason to preserve the rest of the Mamilla cemetery.
The writer is a PhD researcher at the Hebrew University.