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"Museum of Tolerance" being built on Muslim cemetery

An article was published recently in the New Statesman about Israeli plans to build a "Museum of Tolerance" on the site of the Mamilla (a corruption of Ma'man Allah) Muslim Cemetery in Jerusalem. "Graveyard Shift", by Edward Platt, highlighted this latest example of Israel's sustained attack on the property and religious sites of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the Holy City. The Mamilla Cemetery is located in western Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the war of 1948. It is the largest Arab cemetery in West Jerusalem and, according to Platt, contains graves dating back 400 years. However, other sources claim that there are much older graves there and that some companions of Prophet Muhammad are buried in the cemetery amongst some of the city's most notable sheikhs, imams and political and military leaders. Historically it was always considered a great privilege to be buried in Mamilla but it has not been used since its capture by Israel.

Following Israel's creation in 1948, the Muslim cemeteries, mosques and other waqf properties (those held by Muslim religious endowments and trusts) which fell under its control were either confiscated outright by the new state or placed under the administration of Islamic trusts operating under Israeli supervision. These organisations had no legitimacy among the Muslims who remained inside the boundaries of Israel post-1948 and were staffed with corrupt officials who would simply rubber-stamp the Israeli government's planning decisions; this usually entailed deconsecrating and selling Muslim sites in accordance with Israel's wishes. Such sites in Israel have suffered a great deal as a result. The 900 years-old Hittin Mosque built by Salah al-Din (Saladin) has been allowed to fall into ruin; others have been turned into restaurants, bars, nightclubs and animal sheds. One of Israel's puppet Islamic trusts sold the Abdel Nabi cemetery in what is now Tel Aviv and the Hilton Hotel was built on the site in 1965. A year earlier, another puppet organisation deconsecrated the Mamilla Cemetery and a car park was built over its northern side. This was later demolished and the museum is being built there today. The western half was appropriated by Israel and converted into the "Independence Park". Today the cemetery is one-tenth of its original size.

There are very few countries in the world where religious sites and graveyards can be stolen, desecrated and destroyed with such crass impunity. Israel's actions contrast starkly with the outrage expressed across the country when it was discovered that Jewish graves had been damaged at the Mount of Olives cemetery after the capture of east Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In addition, as Platt notes, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC), which is building the "Museum of Tolerance" over the cemetery, presided over a long and successful campaign to remove a Catholic convent from Auschwitz on the grounds that there should be no structures on the "single largest unmarked human graveyard in history".

The Orwellian irony of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's violation of the graves of followers of another faith in order to construct a "Museum of Tolerance" should, of course, be obvious to all. According to Edward Platt, "Its name seems a mockery of the spirit of religious co-operation that the city of Jerusalem – so central to the adherents of three related faiths is supposed to represent." Platt illustrates this further when he reveals what is actually going on at the museum building site. He reports that hundreds of skeletons were unearthed when the project first started in 2004. Two years later, waqf authorities and relatives of the dead managed to obtain a High Court order to stop the construction but in November 2008, the same court ruled that construction could resume. After that, "hundreds more skeletons were exhumed and transferred to a mass grave. It wasn't possible to see what was going on behind the high white fence that sealed the perimeter of the site, but the British artist Sarah Beddington filmed from the windows of a nearby building…" The head of the SWC, Rabbi Marvin Hier, says that "the museum will be a great landmark promoting principles of mutual respect and social responsibility" as no doubt embodied in this horrific desecration which his centre tried to cover up.

Palestinians can take comfort from the fact that the project faces new obstacles. Gershon Baskin, the Israeli head of IPCRI, a joint Palestinian-Israeli public policy organisation, has launched a new legal challenge to the construction of the museum, on the grounds that the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which is cooperating with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the construction of the museum, has provided misleading information about the number of bodies exhumed. He has also tried to persuade Orthodox rabbis to declare the site unclean because of its status as a graveyard. The project is also beset by financial difficulties and recently the internationally renowned architect working, Frank Gehry, left the team. But, as Platt says, irreparable damage has already been done: "No matter what happens next, the SWC will not be able to reinter the human remains dug from Mamilla. Nor will it be able to undo the offence it has caused… with its ill-considered attempts to spread 'a message of tolerance between peoples'."

Platt's article fails to place the desecration of the Mamilla Cemetery in the wider context of the Israeli government's ongoing assault against the property and religious sites of the Palestinians inside and outside Jerusalem. However, it does provide a much-needed exposure of Israel's wanton disregard for the rights of the Palestinians and its disrespect for Islam and Christianity. If this issue receives more attention in the Western media, Israel may have to think twice before it considers destroying another religious site or a Palestinian home.

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