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A Chance to do the right thing on the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

In a rare bit of good news regarding Jerusalem, this week it was confirmed that famed architect Frank Gehry has pulled out of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's (SWC) misguided plans to build a "Museum of Tolerance" smack-dab on top of the most important historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.  As he exits the project he takes with him his ambitious blueprint for the structure, taking away the government of Israel's lame argument that the project is vital to Israel since it will create an architectural gem of international stature in the heart of West Jerusalem. 

The Government of Israel and SWC's longstanding insistence on building the museum on the site of this historic Muslim cemetery from the start provoked widespread consternation and outrage among right-thinking people in the US and Israel, not to mention the Muslim world.  In a sort of tragi-comedy (where the irony of the situation was apparently lost only to the SWC), it has also forced SWC leaders (and in particular Rabbi Hier) to transform themselves into rhetorical, moral, and ethical contortionists, twisting and turning the facts and arguments to try to defend a plan that is patently indefensible. 

The exit from the project of its celebrity architect offers Israel and the SWC a wonderful face-saving opportunity -- a chance to change course and come up with a new plan on a new site.  Doing so will ensure that if a Museum of Tolerance is built in Jerusalem, it is built in a manner that reflects and supports the value for which it is named and to which, ostensibly, it is dedicated.

Continue to read a Backgrounder on the project

APN Issue Brief: Setting the Record Straight Regarding the Museum of Tolerance
Produced by Lara Friedman, Director of Policy and Government Relations, Americans for Peace Now, in collaboration with Daniel Seideman, Ir Amim, Israel
(originally published 12/30/08)

In response to criticism of its planned (and currently under construction) "Museum of Tolerance" project in Jerusalem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) is distributing a document entitled "Important Facts on the Israeli Supreme Court Ruling in Favor of the Museum of Tolerance."  Below, APN (writing with the help of Ir Amim's Daniel Seidemann) offers a point-by-point response to the SWC's central assertions.

Q:  Does the fact that the Israeli High Court approved the project mean that the objections of APN and others are illegitimate?

A:  No. The fact that the High Court ruled that it is legal to implement the project does not mean the project must or should be carried out.   Israel's High Court ruled that the Wiesenthal Center had the legal right to build its museum at this location - a decision based on the technical legal merits of the case. From this perspective, the legal proceedings that led to this Supreme Court decision were initiated under very problematic circumstances: the formal planning procedures had already been completed years earlier without any objections or irregularities, a building permit had already been issued, and the construction had commenced.   The High Court ruling is by no measure a vindication of the museum proposal on its broader merits. It does not mitigate the fact that the plan is unwise and inflammatory, undermining Israel's efforts to be perceived as a responsible steward of Jerusalem and all of its holy sites. Or, that its implementation jeopardizes vital interests of Israel and world Jewry, including stability and security in Jerusalem. The interests of Israeli justice in a matter in which some of the most basic rights are involved - religious freedom, human dignity etc. - would have been better served had the Court exercised its discretion more widely and looked beyond the technical, legalistic elements of the case (something within its powers to do).   We expect the Wiesenthal Center - a human rights organization concerned with morals and ethics and strongly supportive of Israel - to consider the moral, ethical and political consequences of carrying out this project, rather than rely solely on legal arguments.

Q:  Is the site on which the Museum is being constructed part of a cemetery? 

A:  It is beyond dispute that the Museum of Tolerance site is on the grounds of the historic Mamilla cemetery, and aside from the initial assertion in the SWC's email response, it is a fact that has been acknowledged clearly by SWC and other supporters of the plan.  The cemetery is well known and was in active use from the 13th century until 1948, when, as a result of Israel's War of Independence, it was cut off from East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Muslims did not abandon the site; they were cut off from it.

Indeed, while the SWC misleadingly opens its response to criticism of the project with the assertion that the site is not part of the cemetery (but simply adjacent to the cemetery), it later contradicts its own argument, confirming that human remains were found at the construction site (concrete evidence that the site is part of the cemetery).  Later the SWC further contradicts its initial assertion by implying that the area is indeed part of the cemetery, but now arguing that the cemetery is no longer sacred to Muslims and in any case, Israeli law permits construction on cemeteries in certain cases. 

Q:  Was the site previously turned into a parking facility?

A:  Beginning in the 1960s, Israel began "nibbling" away at the cemetery.  During that period there was construction inside the borders of the cemetery (on its periphery, but still on the cemetery grounds), including a school, the Engineer House (where the Jerusalem Press Club is located), and a road cutting through the cemetery.   Subsequently, in the 1970s, the parking lot in question was built on part of the cemetery.  The Museum plan partially overlaps the site of the underground parking lot, but also extends beyond it into an additional area of the cemetery which was paved and used for parking, but where no excavations ever took place.   More broadly speaking, since 1948, large areas of the cemetery have been covered over and transformed into a public park (know by Israelis as Independence Park), with the burials remaining just below the surface, under the grass and trails.   Part of the cemetery still has tombstones and grave markers, but these areas have largely been allowed to fall into disrepair.  

Q:  What about the argument that the cemetery is in any case no longer sacred, given the fact that it has been out of use for more than 50 years and given the fact that at least some Islamic authorities have made declarations to this effect?

A: Jews can no more decree what is or is not sacred or offensive to Muslims, than Muslims can decree what is sacred or offensive to Jews.  Arguing that the site designated for the Museum of Tolerance is not sacred to Muslims does not change the fact that many Muslims, in Israel and beyond, believe it is.  Nor does it change the fact that the site holds, without question, human burials for which Muslims feel respect and reverence similar to that felt by Jews for Jewish burials.  The Arab world is dotted with historic Jewish cemeteries. It is not difficult to imagine the Jewish protest that would result from plans for a "tolerance" center on one of them, particularly plans justified by arguing that Jews have not used the site since 1948. Similarly, it is almost impossible to imagine Israel or Jews using or accepting such arguments if the project were seeking to place the museum on a site in the holy city of Jerusalem known to hold Jewish remains.

Q:  What about the claim that there was no outcry from Arabs and Muslims when the parking facility was built, and the argument that this, in turn, indicates that Arabs and Muslims don't actually care about the site, and proves that the current outcry is nothing more than opportunistic, cynical political posturing at Israel's expense?

A:  The claim that Arabs and Muslims failed to protest previous projects undertaken on the grounds of the cemetery is partially incorrect and totally disingenuous. It is part and parcel of efforts to discredit Muslim attachments to the site - efforts that are simply not convincing.  Throughout the British Mandate and in the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, Muslim leaders indeed contested attempts to violate the integrity of the cemetery.  The fact that there was not a vociferous outcry from Muslims in the 1960s and 1970s, when Israel began construction on parts of the cemetery, is not proof of Muslim indifference.  More likely it reflects the fact that from 1948-1966 most Arab citizens of Israel lived under martial law, unable to travel freely or organize. One wonders how they would have managed to protest or launch legal action. And the then-physical division of Jerusalem meant that the Arab and Muslim world - including residents of East Jerusalem - would have had little idea what Israel was doing.   

Moreover, during this period the notion of negotiating Israeli-Arab peace was virtually nonexistent, and Israeli policy did not appear to be particularly concerned about how Israel's actions might be were perceived by Arabs and Muslims. Today, Israel has peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, is in talks with the Palestinians and Syria, and is flirting with the Arab peace initiative. In short, for its own sake, Israel today should care how it is perceived.

Q:  Is Sheikh Raad Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel really opposed to the project on religious grounds, or is he just exploiting the project to attack Israel?  

A:  The answer to this question is simply not known, and in any case does not matter.  Like it or not, what matters here is perception. And the perception in much of the world is that Israeli and American Jews are acting together to demonstrate their scorn of Muslims and of Muslim heritage. Even if Sheik Raad Salah is motivated only by a malicious intent to embarrass the State of Israel, the SWC's insistence on continuing the project only plays into the hands of anti-Israel extremists and anti-Semites worldwide.  And if Sheikh Raad Salah's motives are nefarious - and this may indeed be the case - he hardly has a monopoly over Muslim sensitivities.  Significant Muslim stakeholders, in Israel and abroad, who are in no way hostile to Israel or the Jews, are deeply distressed by this project. In pursuing the project, the SWC is providing wind for the sails of hostile fundamentalist Islamic movements, and weakening those who seek to positively, even if sometimes critically, engage Israel.

But in the end, the motivation of those opposing the plan is irrelevant. The relevant issues here are the national security interests of the State of Israel, the interests of the peace-seeking people who live in Jerusalem, and the security interest of world Jewry.  Israel and the Wiesenthal Center have the opportunity here take the high road and demonstrate that Jews, as responsible stewards of the Holy Land, are respectful of the religious sensitivities of others. To do so does not require canceling the project. All it requires is selecting an alternative site.

Q:  Was the cemetery already abandoned or in disrepair when Israel gained control over the area in 1948?

A: No.  The following excerpt from opinion submitted to the Supreme Court by Professor Yehoshua Ben Aryeh - the unquestioned expert on the geographical history of Jerusalem in the 19th and (pre-state) 20th centuries, an Israel Prize winner and an active opponent of the Museum project - makes clear that this was not the case:  "With the commencement of construction and development outside the walls [of the Old City] the cemetery was clearly delineated, and the construction did not enter its boundaries during the entire length of Ottoman rule and the British Mandate. The cemetery was demarcated by a stone wall, clearly visible from aerial photography and on all the maps of this area during these periods. To the best of my knowledge, the cemetery remained active until the end of the British Mandate."

In another opinion he submitted to the Court, Professor Ben Ari discussed correspondence of British Mandatory officials in 1946, citing a letter from the chairman of the Jerusalem Planning Committee, which was looking at possibilities of changing the road grid bordering on the cemetery.  The letter states:  "It is obvious that any scheme for the cemetery must have the wholehearted support of the Supreme Muslim Council from the outset, for without this, not a single grave will be moved." Professor Ben Ari summarizes: "What we may learn from the common denominator of this correspondence is the great concern for the feelings of Muslim society residing in the city, whereby the clear goal is that no act be taken without the full consent of the Supreme Muslim Council... Indeed throughout the entire Mandatory period, not one change was made, nor any harm befell the clearly defined and permanent area of the Muslim cemetery in Mamilla."

For additional detailed discussion of Professor Ben Aryeh objections to the plan, see this lengthy article in Haaretz, published 12/30/08.

Q:  Did any major Israeli figures offer opinions to Israel's High Court opposing the Museum project and if so, on what grounds?

A:  Yes.  The SWC cherry-picks the opinions offered to the Court to show only those that support the project and to give the impression that the only opposition to the project came from Israel's Islamic Movement and marginal allies.  In reality, a number of opinions were presented to the Court opposing the project in very harsh terms.  For example, Amir Cheshen, who was the Arab affairs advisor to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek from 1984 to 1994, submitted an opinion to the court (translated by Ir Amim's Danny Seidemenn) that noted:  

"After 1967...the Arab residents of East Jerusalem and their leadership were exposed to the condition of the cemetery.  The Waqf Authorities displayed increasing interest in the subject.  After the matter was placed on the local and international agenda there were a number of encounters with the Waqf authorities and the Municipality decided to make minor improvements to the cemetery...a one-time effort to remove the weeds and to build fences around some of the tombstones...but this was a one-time effort...

"On a number of occasions the Islamic Waqf saw fit to raise the state of the cemetery, or more precisely its desecration, on the public and international agenda.  When the municipality decided to expand an underground public parking lot on Hillel Street it was at the expense of the cemetery.  During the excavation human remains were uncovered and this brought about considerable distress and a public uproar among the Arab residents of East Jerusalem.  In addition, the Steering Committee of Israeli Arabs found it appropriate to file a protest.  They came to Jerusalem in order to examine the matter, cooperating with the Waqf officials...  

"From the aforesaid it is clear that Islamic stakeholders, particularly in Jerusalem, also among the Muslim community both in Israel and abroad, never abandoned their interest in what transpired in the cemetery, nor their sensitivity in this regard.  And they always viewed construction that damaged the tombs and human remains as a violation of sanctity and their religious sensibilities..."

Another example of cherry-picking is highlighted in this Haaretz article, which examines and raises questions about the decision of the Israel Antiquities Authority to support the Museum project on the site.

Q:  Isn't the construction of a museum devoted to the value of tolerance important enough to justify the project, even on this site?

A:  The Museum of Tolerance's own website defines "tolerance" as "a fair and objective attitude toward those whose opinions and practices differ from one's own...the commitment to respect human dignity."  Regrettably, the backers of the museum project appear to have lost sight of this noble value.  Indeed, in a response to the ruling that underscores the irony of the situation, SWC founder Rabbi Marvin Hier insists that "all citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of this decision" and that "moderation and tolerance have prevailed."  Whatever the Wiesenthal Center may have set out to achieve, this project has become a mockery of the very notion of "tolerance." Its implementation, far from creating a beacon of hope, will send a clear message that Israel and Diaspora Jews are not only intolerant, but oblivious, and perhaps contemptuous, of the concerns and sensitivities of others.  For a powerful op-ed on this topic, see Professor Shimon Shamir's December 23, 2008 op-ed entitled "Intolerable Tolerance" in Haaretz.

Q:  What are the potential impacts of going forward with the plan?

A:  The construction of the Museum of Tolerance on a site in the Mamilla cemetery - in the name of tolerance - sends a message of utter intolerance, inconsideration and hubris to Arabs (and to many Jews) in Jerusalem and to the entire world.  Muslims say that the construction of this monumental building on the ruins of an important historic Muslim cemetery is offensive to them, and the SWC should respect this. Indeed, it seems clear that the SWC - and Jews everywhere - would be deeply offended if someone wanted to erect a huge building - a shrine to tolerance, of all things - on top of a Jewish cemetery in the Arab world, or anywhere else for that matter. And there is little doubt that the SWC and Jews would, rightly, be doubly offended and outraged if their protests were dismissed as disingenuous. 

Jerusalem is the focal point of the passions of Jews, Christians and Muslims world wide. Jewish control of the city carries responsibilities, foremost among them, showing respect for the sensitivities of all three religions. Failing to act with sensitivity in such matters can carry a heavy price. It should be recalled that the opening of a tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City a decade ago inflamed passions that led to unrest in which nearly 100 people died, including 17 Israeli soldiers. The second Intifada was sparked by Ariel Sharon's deliberately provocative visit to the Temple Mount. More recently, controversy linked to plans to expand the Mughrabi Gate ramp, leading from the Kotel to the Temple Mount, sparked a huge outcry and unrest.

Moreover, what happens in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem. Conflict over what many Muslims see as an attack on their holy sites might very well spill over to fuel political and religious regional tensions, with dangerous consequences for security and stability far beyond Israel, and for world Jewry.

In addition, there are consequences of the plan for Jerusalem itself.  Supporters of the SWC - Jews who live in America and love to visit Jerusalem to admire its glory and to contribute to its grandeur - sometimes forget the normal, real-life aspects of the city.  Jerusalem is home to 490,000 Israeli Jews and 270,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom simply want to lead normal, peaceful lives there. For them, a monument to tolerance built on the foundation of intolerance and disrespect is a recipe for disaster.

Finally, from a self-interested Jewish perspective, it is clear that implementation of this plan, at the current site, bodes ill for the future of Jewish historic and holy sites in the region and around the world. How could Jews demand that Arab or Muslim governments protect long-disused, but not forgotten Jewish sites in their countries, when we, diaspora Jews as well as Israeli Jews, summarily dismiss identical Muslim concerns?

Further suggested reading:

>Ha'aretz 12/30/08: Israel Prize laureate opposes Museum of Tolerance
>Ha'aretz 12/23/08: Intolerable Tolerance
>Jerusalem Report (except from the 1/5/09 issue): Grave Thoughts
>Washington Jewish Week 11/26/08: Real tolerance needed in Jerusalem (APN/Ir Amim op-ed)
>The Forward 11/20/08: An Intolerable Spot for a Museum
>Ha'aretz 11/9/08: Dividing Jerusalem, one wall at a time (Bradley Burston op-ed)
>Ha'aretz 11/22/08: Debate over Museum of Tolerance - an exchange (Bradley Burston exchange with Rabbi Hier)
>Los Angeles Times 1/23/07: Museum of Intolerance?
>Jerusalem Post 1/3/07:  Court Orders State to Prove It Owns Museum Site
>Palestine News Network 12/9/06: Sheikh Issues Fatwa as Israelis Continue with Plans to Build Museum of Tolerance in Muslim cemetery
>Washington Times 10/4/06: Battle erupts over grounds of tolerance center
>The Jewish Week 9/15/06:  Tolerance Center Fights For Arab 'Cemetery' Land
> Ha'aretz 9/11/06:  "Arbitration fails between Jewish, Muslim Groups on J'lem Museum"
>AP 9/22/06: Jerusalem's "Museum of Tolerance" digs up controversy and intolerance
>The Jewish Journal 2/24/06:  Wiesenthal's Project in Jerusalem on Hold Amid Dispute
>The Forward 2/24/06: Wiesenthal Center Presses Ahead With Israel Museum Over Mounting Objections (including criticism of the project from Likud's Reuven Rivlin, Shas' David Azoulay, and Labor's Colette Avital)
>The Jerusalem Post 2/15/06: MKs slam Wiesenthal museum site
>The Independent (UK) 2/5/06: Israel plans to build 'museum of tolerance' on Muslim graves
>Jerusalem Quarterly, August 2004 Issue: Paradise and Gehenna Keep Close Company in the Sanctuary of God - a review of the Mamilla Muslim Cemetery at Mamilla (Agron) and King David streets, part of an occasional series on Jerusalem cemeteries
>JTA 7/31/00: U.S. rabbi demands apology from Czech official [over controversy related to ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague]
>Article on Muslim burial rules