Last month Israeli writers in Ha'aretz and The Forward sought to put the controversy on the broader American Jewish agenda. Here in Los Angeles, three Jewish leaders signed onto a letter from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that called upon the organization to stop construction of its Center for Human Dignity, a $250 million campus designed by Frank Gehry, which will include a museum, conference and education centers and a library and theater.
At issue is not the museum itself but the three-acre plot of land upon which it is being built.
For the past half century, the land, which was given to the Wiesenthal Center by the city of Jerusalem, has served as a multistory car park, where more than 1,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews parked daily.
But beneath the land lie Muslim remains that are hundreds of years old. Although the cemetery hasn't been used in at least 50 years and has long since been declared mundras -- no longer sacred -- by Muslim authorities, critics of the Center for Human Dignity have charged the Wiesenthal Center with being intolerant in its quest to build a Jerusalem version of its West L.A. museum.
"Building a Museum of Tolerance atop the cemetery, unlike the admirable goal of furthering tolerance and understanding, will only add to the existing pain and suffering of Palestinians and Israelis, irreversibly damage relations between Muslims and Jews worldwide and sow new feelings of animosity and division for generations to come," Hussam Ayloush, the director of the Los Angeles CAIR office, wrote in a letter signed by Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of the Progressive Faith Foundation, Sydney Levy of Jewish Voice for Peace and Rabbi Haim Beliak of Jews on First.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, has held for years that his organization never would have accepted the land if it were still recognized as a cemetery.
Last week, Hier said in an interview that Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the Aksa Association, which filed the lawsuit against the Wiesenthal Center, is not concerned with the sanctity of the Muslim bones buried beneath the future site of the Center for Human Dignity -- indeed, no Muslims complained during the nearly 50 years the former cemetery spent as a car park. Hier said that Salah is interested in a "land grab," in securing a foothold for Palestinians in West Jerusalem and with establishing a precedent that would allow Arabs to reclaim other Jewish property built on top of ancient Muslim graves.
"They weren't going to go back to what it was three or four centuries ago," Hier said of the court's decision. "It either was going to remain a parking lot or it was going to become the Center for Human Dignity. I think a lot more benefit will come to the future of the Middle East by creating a Museum of Tolerance there than having a parking lot there.
"Unfortunately you have a lot of people with baggage and political posturing that don't want to see this happen. Some of them are big extremists like the sheikh."
As an ancient city, Jerusalem is built on top of its previous inhabitants. And it is common for human remains that are thousands of years old to be found during the preconstruction excavation required by Israeli law. By early 2006, the Israel Antiquities Authority had already removed 250 skeletons and skulls from beneath the car park, Osnat Gouez told the Jerusalem Post at the time.
The Supreme Court, in siding with the Wiesenthal Center, concluded that the land was not protected because Muslim authorities had ceased to recognize it as a cemetery.
"For decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or the Muslim community," declared the court. "... No one denied that position. Not only was the compound not identified as an area with religious sanctity ... but it was the subject of planning for various purposes throughout decades, without any objection for reasons of sanctity."
There were no flowers left for loved ones or prayers said there on special days. Power and sewer lines had been buried beneath the soil.
But, as is often the case in the Middle East, criticism of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem may have more to do with perception than reality.
"You can be technically right and be emotionally and structurally wrong," Jacobs said. "I don't think they were sensitive to the Muslim community in terms of marat ayin -- that what the eye sees the eye believes."
"Both sides are right," he continued. "But just because both sides are right, we don't plow on given the sensitivities and the world we need to build together as Muslims and Jews. We've come a long way and this is very disturbing to Muslims worldwide and, I must say, to a portion of the Jewish community too."
Regardless of the fact that the cemetery hasn't been used or classified as such for decades, and besides the fact that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem presented plans in 1946 to convert the adjacent Mamilla cemetery into a 15-building Muslim university, Jewish critics of the Wiesenthal Center's project say Jews should be sensitive about the appearance of disturbing a person's eternal resting place.
"We have a long history as Jews asking that our cemeteries not be desecrated -- and for good reason," Levy said. "We have been the victims of that one time too many. We should not be in the business of building on and desecrating other people's cemeteries."
"Even if, in the best case for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the cemetery was 100 or 200 years old, 300 or 400 years old, would that be OK? Would we be happy if there was desecration of a Jewish cemetery from the Middle Ages? Of course we wouldn't," Levy added. "There is no expiration date on a cemetery."
However, Hier, who has spent years defending this project and last month, after winning in Israel's court of law, outlined the case for the museum in the court of public opinion -- Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post -- told The Journal that the biggest misconception is that the Wiesenthal Center was to build on top of the Mamilla cemetery, where Muslims still visit their loved ones.
"We have to allow for truth despite confrontations," Hier said. "The world of perception in the Arab world is there shouldn't be a Jewish state in the Middle East. It is their land. Are we prepared in the interest of perception to give up the Jewish state and the State of Israel?"
Rendering of proposed museum
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