After over half a decade of opposition, wrangling and controversy, the so-called ‘Museum of Tolerance’, sponsored by the US based Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC), last week received final authorisation for its construction over a 12th Century historic Muslim Cemetery in Jerusalem. The permit, we are told, was awarded by the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s District Planning and Construction Committee, rather than the Jerusalem Municipality, due to ‘the sensitivity of the site’. But surely, such an affront to the rights and dignity of Muslims in Jerusalem and beyond; and to the values of mutual respect and common decency, not to mention the violation of international law, is abhorrent regardless of whom the perpetrators are.
The Ma’man Allah [Mamilla] Cemetery was ‘given’ to the Los Angeles based centre which bears the name of the famed Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, by the Israeli government and the Jerusalem Municipality who together conceived the project back in 2002. The Municipality itself came into possession of the land in 1992 through the exploitation of Israel’s infamous ‘Absentee Property Law’ which it is well known has been used consistently since the establishment of the state in 1948 for the expropriation and Judaisation of Palestinian land and heritage. Nevertheless, and in the face of the outrage and clamour that the desecration of this ancient burial ground has sparked, the SWC project to engender “unity and respect” between people of all faiths, has valiantly forged ahead.
The Ma’man Allah Cemetery was declared a historic site by the Supreme Muslim Council back in 1927 under the British mandate and was later also declared an antiquities site. Moreover, it has been a sacred cemetery for fifteen centuries and is thought to contain the remains of companions of the Prophet Muhammad; some seventy thousands of Saladin’s soldiers and officials and generations of Muslim notables, saints and scholars as well as Mameluk tombs and various other monuments and structures.
At the time of partition, UN resolutions 181 and 303 provided that Jerusalem should be placed under an international regime to provide the appropriate guarantees for the protection of holy places and pre-existing rights in their regard. They also provide that no act shall be permitted which may in any way impair the sacred character of holy places and religious buildings or sites. In 1967 when Israel fully occupied Jerusalem, it passed the Holy Places Law which purports to provide protection for holy sites.
However, one of the issues facing Muslim and Christian holy sites under Israeli control, the Ma’man Allah Cemetery being a case in point, is that the Israeli government does not recognise them as official holy sites and therefore provides no legal protection to them. According to a 2007 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, as well as a later US State Department International Religious Freedom Report, only Jewish sites are being designated as holy and issued with special protective measures. Until the end of 2007, of the 136 sites designated holy by the Israeli government, every single one was Jewish.
It is within this context that individuals and human rights organisations fighting to preserve the Ma’man Allah cemetery have been rebuffed within the Israeli legal system and thus forced to resort to the UN and the international community for assistance. The Museum of Tolerance project has passed a number of court approval processes and eventually the Supreme Court ruled that construction on the sacred ground was legal and ordered that the Muslim remains be disinterred in direct violation of Muslim religious rites, beliefs and practices and without the consultation of Muslim religious authorities.
The SWC, in collaboration with the Israeli establishment has sought to reinforce this veneer of legality and legitimacy by various means. The launch ceremony in 2004, which took place amidst much fanfare, was attended by the likes of Arnold Shwarzenegger, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Alan Dershowitz. Perhaps these names alone should underscore the political and ideological underpinnings and forces behind this project. The fanfare has been accompanied by a public relations campaign that would make Avigdor Lieberman smile and which is wholly unbefitting of an organisation which purports to endeavour to promote tolerance and unity. Indeed, the SWC’s Jerusalem project has attracted much criticism for its emphasis on intra-Jewish tolerance rather than tolerance between Jews and Arabs, which some would argue was far more crucial in a city like Jerusalem. Critics of the SWC charge that its excessive use of multimedia and emotionally charged experiential focus coupled with scant historical artefacts is patently hypocritical.
The indisputable violation of Muslim and Palestinian international human rights and dignity engendered by the Israeli establishment’s gradual but persistent encroachment on the Ma’man Allah Cemetery and the unceasing protests and activism to stem it, has led to worldwide condemnation. This includes denunciation by Jewish individuals and organisations. The considered conclusion of the sites chief excavator, Gideon Suleimani, was that it should not be approved for construction, while the mayor also opposed it. Moreover, the original project architect, Frank Gehry pulled out of the project withdrawing the SWC’s right to use his design.
It is shocking and nauseating that an organisation which claims to be concerned with racism and prejudice would be party to the destruction and desecration of a site which holds the history and cultural identity of Muslims the world over and the Palestinian people. Particularly given that it is patent that this destruction forms part of a pattern of Israeli discrimination and efforts toward the racial and cultural domination of Jerusalem. And all in the name of tolerance and human dignity no less!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.