Jewish Journal

Tolerance Museum Dispute Continues Despite Document

Michele Chabin

Posted on Feb. 23, 2010 at 5:36 pm

A 1940s newspaper article detailing plans by Muslim officials to construct a commercial center atop the Mamilla Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, near the controversial site upon which the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance is slated to be built, bolsters the center’s assertions that Muslims at the time no longer considered the cemetery a sacred heritage site.

But the article, published in the Nov. 22, 1945, issue of the Palestine Post (later renamed the Jerusalem Post) and discovered by the Wiesenthal Center in mid-February, has done nothing to deter the museum’s opponents from attempting to put a stop to the long-planned project.

After the museum’s detractors exhausted all legal channels in Israel — last October Israel’s High Court gave the museum the green light to build — 60 individuals whose ancestors were buried in the cemetery petitioned the United Nations to fight against the museum’s construction.

While some of these individuals told The Jewish Journal they had heard of the 1945 business plan, they insisted that it is irrelevant to their case.

That is not the opinion of Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, who has maintained from the start that Muslims have long regarded the ancient cemetery as beautiful but expendable.

In a Web-exclusive op-ed on jewishjournal.com, Hier detailed the contents of the Post article.

Among the revelations: that the Supreme Moslem Council had prepared a “town-plan” for the cemetery “in conjunction with the Government Town Planning Adviser,” and that this plan included a six-story building earmarked for the Supreme Moslem Council, a bank, hotel, university, industrial area and park.

Hier said the article also describes how the remains of the people buried there would be interred elsewhere, in a “walled reserve,” and refers to other Muslim cemeteries of the time, especially in Egypt, that were converted for other uses “for the public good.”

In a phone interview with The Journal Monday, Hier called the discovery of the Post article “a thunderbolt.”

“Our director of public relations learned of it from a blog post and we checked it out ourselves by contacting the Tel Aviv University archives, holder of the Post’s archives. We found the documents independently.” The blog, titled Elder of Ziyon, is written anonymously and serves as a watchdog against anti-Zionism. The documents, Hier said, lay out in vivid detail the Moslem Council’s building plan.

“When you see plans for a Muslim university with architectural drawings of the university showing how many meters this or that will be; when you see plans for a bank and documents stating they were going to dig up graves, it is total hypocrisy to tell us not to build a museum on a parking lot,” Hier said.

Hier stated that the site on which the museum will be built will be contained to a 50-year-old municipal parking lot, “and not one inch beyond.” The parking lot was built on a corner of the cemetery, which dates back more than 1,000 years.

Hier reiterated that the government of Israel gave the museum site to the Wiesenthal Center.

“Where were the protesters when [the government] laid the sewage lines and cable lines” under the parking lot?”

Hier said that when his center excavated the site, “we found no grave stones, no markers.” The many bones discovered below the parking lot “were interred nearby,” he said, declining to elaborate.

“All I’ll say is that they are in a nearby Muslim cemetery.”

Hier believes the 1945 building plan “destroys” any claims by “Jewish leftist organizations and others who have followed them down a blind path.”
Gershon Baskin, CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPRCI), one such left-of-center organization in Jerusalem, said the Post article contains “nothing new,” but even if it had, the Wiesenthal Center should not build the museum.

In a recent letter to IPCRI members, Baskin wrote, “What Muslims do or do not do on sacred Muslim property is a matter for the Muslim community and believers to deal with. What the State of Israel, the City of Jerusalem and the Jewish people do on sacred Muslim property is a completely different matter.”

For the latter to do so “without the explicit agreement and participation” of Muslim community members “sounds like something out of the annals of bad political fiction and fantasy,” said Baskin, who is also the leader of the “ad hoc public campaign against building the Wiesenthal Center of Tolerance in the Mamilla Muslim Cemetery in Jerusalem.”

In a separate letter to Hier, which Baskin shared with his members, the latter urged the center to build the museum in a different location.

Rashid Khalidi, one of the 60 people who have asked the United Nations to intervene, said he and the other petitioners did so “when it became clear that there was no recourse in Israel.”

Khalidi, an American-born Palestinian and history professor at Columbia University in New York, emphasized that he and the other petitioners did not participate in the Supreme Court challenge against the museum. 

“We watched that process and realized that all we have, really, is the court of public opinion. Our hope is that the kind of people who would be offended if their relatives’ graves were disrupted will give us their support.”

The petitioners, Khalidi said, want what they call “the cemetery” to be restored to its original status. “None of us has been told where the bodies of our relatives have been buried. How would you feel in this situation?

Khalidi said he was aware of the Moslem Council’s plan to turn the cemetery into a commercial center, but insisted that it was scuttled “due to community opposition.”

Khalidi also dismissed the credentials of the Moslem Council members, calling them “appointees of the British government” that ruled Palestine at the time.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the organization that filed the petition to the United Nations on behalf of the 60 family members, the case marks “the first known time Palestinian individuals have taken collective action against Israel to bring such an issue before a U.N. forum.”

CCR maintains that the Wiesenthal Center’s actions violate “international conventions” protecting cultural heritage, the manifestation of religious beliefs and the right to family.

Hier said he is unconcerned by the petition.

“My reaction is, we’re moving ahead and we have building plans. This is a futile move that will go nowhere.”

Hier said the United Nations has no jurisdiction whatsoever over Israeli legal matters. “The U.N. will not override the sovereignty or the highest court of the only Middle Eastern democracy. We’re not spending an ounce of our time worrying about this,” Hier said.

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