Will the Wiesenthal Center Do the Right Thing About the Museum of “Tolerance” - updated 4/14/10

Will the Wiesenthal Center Do the Right Thing About the Museum of “Tolerance”

by Sheila Musaji

This month another 300 Muslim graves were dug up from the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem where the Simon Wiesenthal Center is building a “Museum of Tolerance”.  According to the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, the skeletons removed from these graves were dumped into one mass grave.   

One promising development this month is a report that “Jews and Muslims are uniting against the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance”.  And, according to the article: In the latest bid to halt the project, Jerusalem City Councilman Meir Margalit and Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, have started an initiative to have the museum site declared ritually impure under Jewish law, which would keep religious Jews from visiting.

For those who have not been following this ongoing story, here is the background.

BACKGROUND

THE PLAN

The Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance project was announced in May of 2003.  “On a brilliant afternoon last May, a constellation of political and artistic luminaries from Israel and America gathered on the lumpy asphalt of a parking lot in a dreary corner of this ancient, contested capital. There stood the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the architect Frank Gehry and, at the podium, the movie star turned governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Wearing a Jewish skullcap, the son of an Austrian Nazi delivered the keynote address as ground was broken for a $200 million Museum of Tolerance, designed by Mr. Gehry. ‘‘In the darkness that pervades the Middle East,’’ Mr. Schwarzenegger told a crowd of several hundred, ‘‘this building will be a candle to guide us.’‘

THE SITE

The site chosen to build this Museum of Tolerance was the Mamilla Cemetery (Maman Allah Cemetery) in Jerusalem.  The site was also the location of the Massacre at Mamilla in the year 614.  This was Jerusalem’s main Muslim cemetery until 1948, and it has been a Muslim cemetery since the 13th century.  The Mamilla cemetery was captured in the 1948 war and removed from Muslim control as was all captured Waqf (Islamic trust) property.  Classified as refugee property, it was passed on to a new Israeli official called the custodian of absentee property. 

Hussam Ayloush notes“According to historians, the cemetery has over 15,000 graves, including those of Sahabas (companions) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as well as famous scholars and jurists from the past many centuries.”

CONTROVERSY

This plan was controversial from the beginning.  The proposed project has angered Arabs and Muslims. Jerusalem’s mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, called the museum’s building “an act of aggression” against the Muslim public. 

And, it is not only Muslims who are opposed to this plan.  It also angered lots of other folks.  Jonathan Cook called it a “travesty of tolerance”.  Richard Silverstein called it “desecration”.  Daniela Yanai called it a “Museum of Intolerance”. 

In April, 2009, a group of American Rabbinical, Cantorial, Yeshiva and university students living in Israel organised a protest against the controversial construction of this “Museum of Tolerance” on an ancient Muslim cemetery site in central Jerusalem. 

According to Akivah Elder“Professor Yehoshua Ben-Arieh cannot converse politely when you mention the Museum of Tolerance that is to be built in the Mamilla Muslim Cemetery in Jerusalem. He knows, of course, that the High Court of Justice rejected the petition against building the museum in the center of the capital, but the Israel Prize laureate in the field of Land of Israel studies, who is considered one of the greatest researchers of Jerusalem, is calling upon the public to urge the museum’s management to drop the dangerous idea. He himself has suggested to the American entrepreneurs other sites in Jerusalem for the building of the museum.”   

Reform rabbis in North America urged the Wiesenthal Center to relocate the Museum of Tolerance.  ” According to the Resolution, “Cemeteries are sacred ground in our Jewish tradition…We would protest, in the strongest terms, not only the desecration, but any removal of a Jewish cemetery, no matter what the purpose. Therefore, it is self-evident that we must oppose the removal of another people’s sacred burial ground, no matter how worthy the purpose. While the Israeli Supreme Court has permitted the Wiesenthal Center to move ahead, an organization with high-minded goals like those of the Museum of Tolerance cannot be satisfied with mere adherence to the law.”

This request and all other concerns raised were ignored, and as Ha’aretz columnist Brad Burston (who has called this project “insensitive”)  points out“In 2006, less than two years after Rabbi Hier, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, architect Frank Gehry and much of the Israeli cabinet broke ground on the Museum of Tolerance site, construction was abruptly and correctly - halted.  Workers excavating the site had struck bones. At that point, the Wiesenthal Center, mindful of its stated mission, should have immediately begun a search for an alternative site for the museum. Instead, it spent a fortune in legal fees fighting a protracted court battle in which, in a very real sense, everyone came out the loser.”

According to the Jewish Journal“Workmen excavating the site in early 2006 unearthed bones and partial skeletons from the old Muslim cemetery, also known as the Maman Allah Cemetery. There is agreement among all parties that Muslims have been buried at the site for many centuries and that bodies may possibly lie five layers deep.”   At least 250 skeletons were unearthed in 2006. 

And yet, Rabbi Hier, the Dean of the Wiesenthal Center has rejected all arguments and called any protests “extremist agitation”.   

The Museum of Tolerance project has been called “a candle to guide us”, a “light in the darkness”, a “dangerous idea”, a “Museum of Intolerance”, “insensitive”, a “desecration”, an “act of aggression”, etc.  Obviously it cannot be all of these things at the same time.  The disparity in the descriptive language points to the fact that there is wide disagreement as to which terms apply.  And, even if the original motivation was benign, the continuation of this project will only lead to intolerance and more separation between Muslims and Jews.

QUESTIONABLE MOTIVATION

In May of 2009 the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s California Museum of Tolerance screened the Islam-Bashing Film “The Third Jihad”.  As Richard Silverstein has pointed out“Los Angeles’ Museum of In-Tolerance, named in honor of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, is now steeped in Muslim hatred. Rabbi Marvin Hier, its current leader, has endorsed the Iran yellow star hoax. Now, he’s actively promoting one of the most Islamophobic films ever produced, Third Jihad.  The Clarion Fund is listed as the sponsor of the film, though its creators (including Rabbi Raphael Shore) are affiliated with the pro-settler Aish Hatorah, a group based in Israel.”
 
This is the same Simon Wiesenthal Center who is planning a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem on land formerly a Muslim cemetery.  This is also the same Wiesenthal Center that is facing a lot of problems not only with this project, but worldwide.

The Wiesenthal Center’s have faced a lot of problems recently.  The fate of the Austrian Wiesenthal Holocaust is up in the air after its board resigned:  “Last week, the institute’s seven-member executive committee resigned in protest, asserting that the Jewish community was blocking access to its archive, the Austrian newspaper “Der Standard” reported on its Web site late Monday.”  The reputation of Simon Wiesenthal himself is facing some questions.  And, the Los Angeles Wiesenthal museum is being sued by neighbors over approval of museum expansion plans.  A Febriary article was entitled “Wiesenthal Center Facing Opposition on Two Continents” but now adding the problems in Austria - make that three continents.

It would seem as if they have enough on their plates.  It would also seem as if they would want to protect their image as a beacon of tolerance.  It seems only reasonable to ask WHY?  If the goal is tolerance, why insist on a site that will only increase tensions between Jews and Muslims?

WHY JERUSALEM?

The Palestine Center for Human Rights notesEfforts intended to establish a Jewish majority in occupied east Jerusalem: Israeli forces have escalated arbitrary measures against Palestinian civilians in East Jerusalem to force them to leave the city. During the reporting period, Israeli forces demolished two houses in Beit Hanina and Silwan villages, claiming that they were built without licenses. During the reporting period, Israeli forces removed at least 300 Islamic graves in Ma’man Allah cemetery near Hebron Gate in Jerusalem. They collated skeletons found in these graves and buried them in one mass grave. The Israeli Municipality plans to establish a museum on the land of the cemetery, which will be named the “Tolerance Museum.” The area of the cemetery is approximately 200 donums, and it includes graves of soldiers in Salah al-Din’s army that fought Crusaders in the city, as well as some Moslem intellectuals.” 

Dan Lieberman further adds the comment that:  “Israel’s plan to annex the whole of Jerusalem, part of its efforts at bolstering its international legitimacy, is being carried out without regard for legal, moral or historical considerations.”

Abe Hayeem points out“The whittling away and destruction of Muslim memory and history has been a key aim in Jerusalem’s development (as in the rest of Israel). This is especially so with the recent acceleration of the Judaising of illegally-annexed East Jerusalem, by infiltrating it with more Jewish settlements built on expropriated land and homes in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods. In Silwan, below the Old City wall, fundamentalist settlers, wishing to establish “the City David” in the Arab neighbourhood, are illegally digging under people’s houses, and ancient burial remains are being bundled away into boxes, preventing documentation of important evidence of the Islamic era of Jerusalem.  The Muslim cemetery in Mamilla, West Jerusalem, is suffering a similar fate in one section, where hundreds of skeletons are being unearthed and boxed, to make way for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s euphemistically-named “Museum of Tolerance”. The recent judgment by Israel’s Supreme Court to allow the construction of the museum complex to proceed on top of this cemetery of religious and historical importance defies all satire and irony, making it a flashpoint for more conflict and hatred, and still engendering strong protests.”

What is happening is the “Judaization of East Jerusalem”, and an erasing of the Arab, Muslim, and Christian historical presence, as well as their actual physical presence in Jerusalem.  Settlement activity continues in the area further inflaming the situation, and this settlement affects Christian Arabs also. 

The Greek Orthodox Church issued a statement: No Israeli Settlements on Our Land  “The Israeli Central Court of Jerusalem issued a decision preventing an Israeli settlement company from making use of properties of the Greek Orthodox Church in the old city of Jerusalem.  ... Last week the Greek Orthodox Church announced its success in twarting a recent attempt by Israel’s Jerusalem municipality to confiscate 43 dunums of church property near Beit Safafa village.” 

According to another article“Patriarch spokesman Father Issa Musleh noted that the process of stopping further Israeli land confiscations had become a priority for the church in Jerusalem. He insisted that challenging Israel over such projects is at the center of the patriarchate’s policy to defend holy sites and property, and overall part of the church’s goal to restore the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”

APPEAL FOR REASON

It is curious that when buildings were planned on ancient Jewish Cemeteries anywhere in the world, there were loud protests by the Jewish community demanding that building be stopped.  This has happened in Prague, CzechoslovakiaVilnius, Lithuania, Toledo, Spain, Hamburg, Germany, Belarus, York, England, and many other places around the world.

At a meeting with a Spanish diplomat over the incident in Spain:  “A member of the steering committee of the Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries who also attended the meeting, Bernard Fryshman, said the removal of skeletons violated property rights, religious rights, and human rights. His position was supported by the third Jewish leader at the meeting, Rabbi Lazar Stern, a representative for a worldwide Orthodox organization protecting and preserving Jewish gravesites, Asra Kadisha. Referring to the hundreds of skeletons held in storage since being taken from an archaeological site in the Montjewic neighborhood of Barcelona, Mr. Fryshman said humans were not “laboratory specimens.” “You don’t dig first and then examine,” he added.”

Regarding the situation in York, England, the Chief Rabbi of York said”“Whatever the scientific and historical loss, I hope you and the general public will appreciate our paramount concern for the reverence due to the mortal remains which once bore the incomparable hallmark of the Divine image and which, we believe, have an inalienable right to rest undisturbed. We are convinced that the dignity shown to humans even centuries after their death can contribute more than any scientific enquiry to the advancement of human civilization and the enhancement of the respect in which human beings hold each other.”

All of the moral arguments against such projects apply equally to the Museum of Tolerance project in Jerusalem.

The Wiesenthal Center and its supporters have put forth what they conside to be arguments that bolster their position.  The site was"abandoned” by Muslims after 1948, Muslims didn’t object in the 1960’s when a parking lot was erected on part of the cemetery, etc.  All of these arguments have been thoroughly refuted (see refutations in the notes).  Refuting each point would require a lengthy paper, but an example is this from CAIR:  “The Center claims the cemetery has not been in use for 50 years. That is understandable because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee as refugees and abandon their properties. The Israeli government then designated such property ‘absentee property,’ including the waqf (property in Islamic trust). Over the years, Israeli officials took ownership of such property – in violation of international law and not heeding objections raised by various international and Israeli human rights groups against their actions.” 

The Shariah Court of Jerusalem has refuted their supposed religious arguments based on Islamic Law - SHARIAA HIGH COURT OF APPEALS position on Museum of Tolerance (includes rebuttals of many claims)  And Rabbi’s have pointed out that there are serious problems as far as Jewish Law is concerned.

However, not of this has had any impact.  The same arguments are repeated over and over by supporters of the project to the point that it seems as if this has become another cog in the Israeli propoganda machine.

Whether or not there might be a legal right to continue with this project is debatable.  The fact that the moral and ethical thing to do would be to halt the project is not debatable.

UPDATE March 30, 2010

John Taylor notes “As for Rabbi Hier’s assertion that an Islamic court had desanctified the Mamilla cemetery in 1964, it is perhaps worth noting that Arabs in Israel were under martial law until 1966 and that the Israeli government appointed the members of that court. A more recent Islamic court ruling declared that Muslim cemeteries could never be officially abandoned [.pdf]. It seems a bit presumptive of Rabbi Hier to hold himself out as an expert on Sharia law. Clearly his opinions will never carry any weight with the Jerusalem Palestinians whose ancestors’ remains are being disinterred to make way for the Museum of Tolerance. One might also observe that the Wiesenthal Center, having spent years lobbying to expel a Carmelite nunnery from the grounds of Auschwitz, is somewhat inconsistent when it comes to deciding what constitutes desecration of graves.”

UPDATE April 14, 2010

Religion Dispatches reports that “A well-organized Haredi group “Atra Kadisha” (the name translates roughly as “sacred space”) monitors construction and archaeological sites for news of any discoveries of bones. If their experts (they don’t trust government experts) suspect that the bones are the bones of the Jewish dead, the group will demonstrate, and lobby, to stop the project at hand. Rabbi David Shmidel, the head of Atra Kadisha, recently told a gathering of thousands of supporters that archaeologists and all “those who treat the bones of Jews cavalierly are our enemies.”  

The RD article goes on to say:  “The bones that generated the latest controversy were found during construction of a hospital wing in the city of Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean. Barzilai Hospital, the city’s major medial center, which serves hundreds of thousands of people, is in dire need of a new emergency room.  ...  During the excavation of the land allotted to the new ER a small ancient graveyard was uncovered. Archaeologists from the government’s Israel Antiquities Authority judged the graveyard to be from the Byzantine period (around 600 AD), a time when Jews would not have been living in the immediate area. Barzilai Hospital administrators breathed a sigh of relief and and anticipated breaking gound for the new ER. But their relief was premature.  The Rabbis of Atra Kadisha rejected the archaeologist’s opinion and demanded that the graveyard be left intact and the ER built in another place.”

This is an incredible double standard.  It seems that even in death some bones are worthy of respect, and some are not.

SEE ALSO:

A monument to intolerance?, Abe Hayeem http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/26/israelandthepalestinians-humanrights

The changing face of Jerusalem, Matthew Price http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4490671.stm

Christian housing faces Israeli encirclement in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem http://www.reuters.com/article/featuredCrisis/idUSLB710547

Chronicle of a Cemetery: Museum of Tolerance Planned on Muslim Heritage Site in West Jerusalem http://www.alternativenews.org/english/982-chronicle-of-a-cemetery-museum-of-tolerance-planned-on-muslim-heritage-site-in-west-jerusalem.html 

Destruction and Desecration of Christian Holy Places in Israel after 1948 http://www.jerusalemites.org/crimes/crimes_against_christianity/27.htm 

The Desecration of Graves in Eretz Yisrael: The Struggle to Honor the Dead and Preserve Our Historical Legacy, Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/heritage.html 

Dividing Jerusalem, one wall at a time, Bradley Burston http://www.americantaskforce.org/daily_news_article/2009/02/25/1235593161_2 

Frank Gehry’s Mideast Peace Plan, Samuel Freedman http://www.samuelfreedman.com/articles/jinterest/nyt08012004.html 

Future of Arab Jerusalem, Rashid Khalidi http://www.jstor.org/pss/195696

Greek Orthodox Church: No Israeli Settlements on Our Land http://www.aljazeerah.info/News/2009/July/28%20n/Orthodox%20Church%20No%20Israeli%20Settlements%20on%20Our%20Land.htm

Halacha and Dishonoring the Dead: Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance Site, Richard Silverstein http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2008/11/12/halacha-and-dishonoring-the-dead-jerusalem-museum-of-tolerance-site/

HISTORIES of Mamilla Cemetery - Brief history of Mamilla Cemetery, Asem Khalidi http://www.ipcri.org/files/khalidi.html  and http://www.jerusalemquarterly.org/images/ArticlesPdf/37-the%20mamilla.pdf

The hypocrisy of tolerance, Mern Benvensti http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=680580 

Israel Prize laureate opposes Museum of Tolerance, Akiva Eldar (includes refutations of claims made by Wiesenthal Center in support of their plan) http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1051047.html 

Israeli municipality digs up 300 Muslim graves in Jerusalem for “Museum of Tolerance” http://english.pnn.ps/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6176&Itemid=29

Israeli Police detain Director filming construction at Mamilla Cemetery http://apjp.org/police-detain-director-filmiin/

Jerusalem’s “Museum of Tolerance” digs up controversy and intolerance http://web.israelinsider.com/Articles/Culture/9495.htm

Israel plans to build ‘museum of tolerance’ on Muslim graves, Donald Macintyre http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-plans-to-build-museum-of-tolerance-on-muslim-graves-466028.html

Jerusalem Settlement Update Report 2000 http://www.orienthouse.org/ff/Reports/settlement_update_1.html 

“Jews and Muslims unite against Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance”  http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1096949.html 

The Judaization of East Jerusalem, Alice Rothchild http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article9124.shtml

Mamilla cemetary Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamilla_Cemetery 

Museum of Intolerance, Daniela Yanai http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-yanai23jan23,0,1258170.story?coll=la-home-commentary 

“Museum of Tolerance” not so tolerant of Muslims nor their graves (including Prophet’s Sahabas/companions), Hussam Ayloush http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2008/11/museum-of-tolerance-not-so-tolerant-of.html

Museum of Tolerance to desecrate Muslim cemetery, Richard Silverstein http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2008/11/10/jerusalem-museum-of-tolerance-to-desecrate-muslim-cemetery/ 

Museum of Tolerance Desecrates Graves, John Taylor http://original.antiwar.com/john-taylor/2010/03/30/museum-of-tolerance-desecrates-graves/

Muslim graves found at planned site of J’lem Museum of Tolerance, Etgar Lefkovitz (Dec. 4, 2005) http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?c=JPArticle&cid=1132475675159&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull 

Netanyahu defies U.S. on East Jerusalem settlement http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/news/international/Netanyahu_defies_U_S_on_East_Jerusalem_settlement.html?siteSect=143&sid=10973707&cKey=1248033179000&ty=ti

No tolerance for Jerusalem’s uniqueness, Esther Zandberg   http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1034344.html 

Paradise and Gehenna Keep Close Company in the Sanctuary of God, Charmaine Seitz http://www.jerusalemquarterly.org/pdfs/sanctuary.pdf 

PHOTOGRAPHS of Mamilla Cemetery http://apjp.org/maps-and-photos/arab-cemetery-in-mamilla-site-for-the-museum-of-tolerance/  and http://swordsandploughshares.blogspot.com/2009/03/museum-of-tolerance-finally-on-its-way.html  and http://www.palestineremembered.com/GeoPoints/Mamilla_Pool_3991/Picture_12086.html  and http://search.aol.com/aol/image?s_it=rboxImgDtls&query=mamilla cemetery jerusalem&icid=snap-pic&flv=1 and http://198.62.75.1/www1/ofm/sbf/escurs/Ger/15escursEn.html

Rabbi Calls Museum of Tolerance Siting ‘Hilul Hashem’ http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2008/11/12/rabbi-calls-museum-of-tolerance-siting-hilul-hashem/

REFUTATIONS of Wiesenthal Center’s arguments - Daniel Seidelmann http://peacenow.org/about/press.asp?cid=5597 - Prof.  Yehoshua Ben-Arieh’s full refutation of MOT arguments   http://www.ipcri.org/files/yehoshua-eng.html  -  Bradley Burston http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1039816.html  -  CAIR Refutes Wiesenthal Center’s ‘False Claims’ on Muslim Cemetery - Museum of Tolerance http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/cair_refutes_wiesenthal_centers_false_claims_on_muslim_cemetery/  -  Text of November, 2008 letter to Wiesenthal Center from CAIR and http://cair-california.org/images/stories/letter_to_rabbi_hier.pdf  -  “Travesty of tolerance”, Jonathan Cook http://aljazeera.com/news/articles/42/Travesty_of_tolerance_on_display.html  (and most of the articles listed here)

Treatment of skeletons found at museum building site raises storm http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=680072

Underlying issues,  Michael Green   http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1236269363261&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull 

UNESCO report 1986 http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0006/000695/069594eo.pdf which contains on pages 5 and 6 a “Note concerning the Ma’manullah cemetery prepared by the Directorate of
the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Historical background”
 
VIDEO:  All Jazeera report on MOT   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97mS_DwoWLM&eurl=http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2008/11/200811155138842966.html 

Why Jerusalem? Israel’s hidden agenda, Dan Lieberman http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/956/special.htm

Wiesenthal dean rejects museum protests as extremist agitation http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1225910055540&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull 

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originally posted 7/31/09


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