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Controversy over Israeli Tolerance Museum site

Court rules in favour of building despite claims that Muslim graves will be desecrated

An Israeli Supreme Court decision approving a new museum in central Jerusalem has sparked local and international outrage. Judges dismissed a petition by Sheikh Raed Salah, head of Israel’s Islamist movement, who charged that construction of the museum will violate an ancient Muslim holy site.

The disputed area is at the Mamilla Cemetery, where graves date to the seventh-century Byzantine period. Crusaders, Mamluks and Muslims later buried their dead there, according to Ronnie Ellenblum, Associate Professor of Historical Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which is planning a Museum of Tolerance, maintains that their 12-dunam (three-acre) lot only abuts the cemetery.

“We are building on a municipal car park and not on the nearby cemetery. Bones were found dating [back] 150-300 years, according to forensic experts, but we didn’t find a single headstone or marker. The misinformation and rumours are unbelievable,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the centre’s educational centre.

The 100-plus page court document released in November argued that the state does not discriminate between ancient Muslim, Jewish or other bones, which are routinely found under almost every building site in Jerusalem.

The state ruled the underground area an archaeological site rather than a cemetery or holy site, and therefore said, based on national precedents of moving unmarked bones, that museum construction may proceed. It also cited the precedent that no Muslims protested when the car park went up originally in 1960 or when the museum published its building plans in Hebrew and Arabic newspapers in late 2002.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre asserts that Muslim authorities as early as the 1920s approved using the area for development, citing a senior Muslim cleric, Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who authorised the removal of bones to build the Palace Hotel in 1928 and a later Mufti who, in 1946, proposed building a Muslim university there.

“The custom to build on abandoned cemeteries has been in practice throughout the [Muslim] world, in Amman, Riyadh, Cairo, Lebanon and in the [West Bank and Gaza],” Rabbi Hier said.

But activists say that those arguments don’t represent the will of the local Muslims today, who hold that the museum property does extend onto the cemetery and that building a Jewish tolerance museum on Muslim graves takes the issue into the moral sphere.

“Most Muslim cemeteries don’t have headstones,” said Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information. “Jerusalem has to be a symbol of peace and we have to respect each other’s holy places.” In the meantime, the building site is surrounded by a high fence and security guards.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Storm over Tolerance Museum site'