On Oct. 29, two years after mediation began in Israeli courts, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” could build on a Muslim cemetery, called Mamilla, in Jerusalem.
A rendering of the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance.
SWC founder and head Marvin Hier called the cemetery, “derelict land.”
The planned museum “is one of the largest educational and cultural projects ever undertaken, one that will become a centerpiece in the city’s cultural life,” the Center’s website said. “It is not just another museum about the past, but a unique institution that will focus on issues of human dignity and responsibility and seek to promote unity and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths.”
Critics counter that the project is disrespectful to the religious rights of Muslims. They say such a project wouldn’t be allowed over a Jewish cemetery.
According to a fact sheet put out by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the ultra-Orthodox Jewish group Atra Kadisha have, in the past, successfully “stopped multi-million dollar road construction plans” and other projects to protect Jewish graves.
Jewish scholars and organizations have also come out against the planned museum. Former deputy-mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, in an op-ed headlined “The Hypocrisy Of Tolerance” in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, wrote “Throughout Israel there are hundreds of sites that were once Muslim graveyards, whose remains are still evident at a few dozen of them. The rest have vanished… The Muslim cemeteries’ condition is so outrageous that if it existed in another civilized state it would raise a public storm.”
Munira Syeda, head of the Los Angeles CAIR chapter, said building on the cemetery goes against what the museum is supposed to be about.
“It is puzzling why the Wiesenthal Center is not according respect and accommodating the beliefs and rights of members of all faiths in the city of Jerusalem,” she said.
The project – which began in 2004 at a groundbreaking ceremony in Jerusalem attended by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – was given the go ahead after the Israel Supreme Court ruled that, “for decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community.”
“All citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of this decision,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as quoted on the group’s website.
The center claims that the property the museum will be built on – which was given to the Wiesenthal Center by the Israel Lands Administration in 2000, according to the SWC’s fact sheet – has been unused for decades and isn’t sacred.
The fact sheet the center uses to back their claims relies heavily on the court’s ruling and claims that the site is in fact “Mundras,” or that it lost its sanctity. A Sharia court made the Mundras classification, on July 7, 1964, according to a 2006 statement from the Wiesenthal Center, which states that the future site isn’t on the cemetery, but on an adjacent car park built in 1960.
CAIR counters in its fact sheet that the Sharia court was handpicked by the Israeli government, and was not trusted by Palestinian Muslims, and that the car park was itself built over a portion of the cemetery.
“The Center claims the cemetery has not been in use for 50 years,” the group said. “That is understandable because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee as refugees and abandon their properties.”
During the 1948 war, 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their land, the property left behind placed under government authority and classified “absentee property.”
According to Israel professor Uri Davis in his book, “Apartheid Israel,” the Absentee Property Law of 1950 served to guarantee “a demographic majority of the Jewish tribes in the territories under its control.”
It’s under this law that the land was given to the Center, according to CAIR.
“Unfortunately, the Center refuses to acknowledge these grave atrocities against Palestinians,” Syeda said.
Simon Wiesenthal Center spokespeople could not be reached for comment.