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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance

Headlines screamed from all over the world last week in an orchestrated attempt by Muslims to bring adverse publicity to the Jewish state. But these headlines were not about cartoons. They were about the alleged construction of the Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance by Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center on "a Muslim cemetery." As seems to be the case with just about anything having to do with Muslims these days, what you read in the press are half truths, exaggerations and occasionally out and out lies.

For example, Australia's Sydney Morning Herald reported last week that "Israeli media reports say at least 150 skeletons have already been dug up without the involvement or permission of the Islamic Waqf, Jerusalem's principal Muslim religious body." I wonder which Israeli media reports they had in mind. The Chicago Tribune goes further and claims that 400 skeletons - out of a total of 800 at the site - have been unearthed and reburied. I have no idea where that number comes from either.

The Washington Post headlined its al-Reuters dispatch on Thursday with "Jerusalem museum of tolerance stirs religious anger" and went on to make the odious comparison that "Ultra-Orthodox Jews have in the past rioted to demand building plans be halted or road routes changed when workers have found human skeletons on land due for construction."

And it goes without saying that the Muslim sites had a field day: "Israel plans to build 'museum of tolerance' on Muslim graves" screamed one headline.

The Wisenthal Center began constructing the Museum of Tolerance on a small portion of what once was a large Muslim cemetery in late 2004. Construction began with a highly publicized groundbreaking at which California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Moshe Katsav, then-Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Silvan Shalom, then-Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, MOTJ architect Frank O. Gehry, and scores of dignitaries and guests from around the world were present.

More than a year later (and after the expenditure of millions of dollars), in January 2006, the the Al Aqsa Company, responsible for developing assets of the Waqf (Muslim religious trust), petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to issue a provisional injunction that would prevent the continuation of work on the construction of the museum. They argued that the Museum was being constructed on a cemetery. However as this HaAretz article, which was anonymously posted on a web site indicates, there's more to it than simply a museum being constructed atop graves.

The Wiesenthal Center, which is behind the establishment of the museum, and the Moriah Company, which is responsible for its implementation, argue that even before the excavation work at the site began, the Sharia Court issued a ruling that because the Muslim cemetery was abandoned, it was no longer sanctified and that the excavations were being carried out in complete coordination with the Antiquities Division

That ruling was issued in 1964 - at the request of the City of Jerusalem - and it holds that because the cemetery was mundras (abandoned) in that no one had been buried in it for decades, it had lost its sanctity under Islamic law, and the remains in its graves could be moved so that the land could be used for other purposes - in the case of the 1964 ruling, to build Independence Park in Jerusalem. Similar rulings allowed for the removal of graves to facilitate the construction of a "ring road" around Cairo in 2001.

But the sanctity of the Mamila cemetery had been chipped away at long before 1964:

At the beginning of the 1920s, heads of the Supreme Muslim Council deliberated on the establishment of an extensive Muslim project on part of that very cemetery. This forgotten project was revealed to me by chance about 20 years ago when I was visiting the Temple Mount. It happened in the office of the Waqf architect, in connection with my research on Muslim building in Jerusalem.

On the wall of his office I saw a large picture in a gold frame showing an impressive rendering of a plan that I could not identify. The structures in the picture were reminiscent of the monumental architecture of the Temple Mount, but were more modern and on a different site.

My curiosity was aroused, and I asked what the project was, but the architect evaded answering. I photographed the picture and filed it in my archive. For years I did not know what the plan was until, also by chance, I came across a mention of a Waqf initiative to establish a Muslim university near the Palace Hotel, which was dedicated in 1929 on the southern part of that cemetery.

The owner of the Palace Hotel was none other than Haj al-Amin Husseini - Hitler's Mufti of Jerusalem and the uncle of Yasser Arafat.

During the building of the hotel Muslim graves were uncovered at the site, but since the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini himself was managing the building of the project, he also saw to it that the graves were transferred to a different site.

In 1923 the leadership of the Supreme Muslim Council began to develop the idea of establishing a pan-Islamic university, which would constitute a counterweight to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the cornerstone of which had been dedicated in 1918 and which was inaugurated in 1925.

In the discussions at the Muslim Council, there were differences of opinion about the academic structure of the future university. Some of the council members thought that a Muslim university must have as its standard the religion of Islam; others argued that the university should specialize in secular studies.

Ultimately a compromise emerged whereby the university would offer both general and religious studies, including a faculty of Muslim theology and a special department of exegetical studies.

In 1931, Egyptian architect Ibrahim Fawzi drew up a plan on behalf of the Supreme Muslim Council for the campus of Al Aqsa University on an area of about 70 dunams, including all of the Muslim cemetery and today's Independence Park. The plan included a faculty of medicine, a faculty of industry and a faculty of architecture. The planned campus included large public expanses, fountains, gardens and large, splendid buildings in traditional style with domes and towers that afforded it a distinctly Muslim design.

By means of the architectural monumentalism, al-Husseini wanted to give the Muslim university religious and national stature that would outshine the Jewish building in the heart of Hebrew Jerusalem. The Supreme Muslim Council set up a special foundation to raise funds for implementing the prestigious project and even promised that once the university was erected, it would have the adjacent Palace Hotel building at its disposal.

For those of you who are Israelis, from 1948 until 2003, the Palace Hotel contained the offices of Israel's Ministry of Industry and Trade.

In his book "The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam under the British Mandate for Palestine," Professor Uri Kupferschmidt describes the difficulties in raising funds. Potential donors in Egypt feared that the establishment of a Muslim university in Jerusalem would lead to a decline in the prestige of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The newspaper Al-Jamiya al-Arabiya published from time to time an updated list of the donors. But several years after the start of the activity, the foundation ceased its operations and in the mid-1930s the plan was shelved. The Supreme Muslim Council failed in its attempts to raise the sum necessary for the costly and ambitious project.

Presumably had such a large Muslim university been established in the heart of Hebrew Jerusalem, the Arabs would have fought tooth and nail during the 1948 war to keep it in their hands. The border of the divided Jerusalem of 1948-1967 might not have run close to the Jaffa Gate but rather much to the west of it, along King George Street, near the Nahlat Shiva neighborhood.

The Mamila cemetery in fact covered a large swath of what is today downtown Jerusalem. The corner where the Museum of Tolerance is being built is across from Engineer's House (Beit HaMehandes) on the outskirts of downtown Jerusalem. The area in question has been a parking lot and underground parking garage for more than thirty years. Any graves there should have been removed when it was converted to that use.

When the City of Jerusalem asked the Sharia Court to declare the cemetery mundras in 1964, long after the Palace Hotel had been built and the Muslim university described above had been abandonned, it was to build Independence Park (Gan HaAtzmaut), which is across from the American consulate on Agron Street. A small part of the cemetery was left as a reminder that it was once a cemetery. The rest of the cemetery was freed up to Jerusalem's development authority for public purpose building.

But there's more to it than that. Who is behind the Al Aqsa Company, the petitioner in the case pending before Israel's Supreme Court? None other than Sheikh Raed Salah, the chairman of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which is Hamas' Israeli Arab ally. The Sheikh argues that constructing the museum on the mundras cemetery land violates a "proscription in religious law against changing the purpose of a cemetery to any other purpose." Obviously, this proscription did not exist in the 1920's when the Mufti built the Palace Hotel, nor did it exist in 1964 when the Sharia Court freed up cemetery land for Independence Park and for other public building purposes. It didn't exist when the Mufti himself - Haj al-Amin Husseini built the Palace Hotel on the Mamila cemetery land and tried to build a university on it. It didn't exist in Cairo in 2001 either. So where did this ruling originate? If it exists, obviously sometime after 1964.... What is clear though is that the Islamic Movement has a very different standard for converting cemeteries for its own use than it does for other people's use.


At 9:58 AM, Blogger YMedad said...

Good going!


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