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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Mediator to oversee museum dispute

The Israeli Supreme Court today appointed former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar to serve as a 'mediator' in the dispute over the construction of the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance by Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center on part of a Muslim cemetery that was abandonned more than seventy-five years ago and currently serves as a parking garage.

Israel's Supreme Court has appointed Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar as the mediator who will address Muslim concerns about the construction of a Museum of Tolerance atop of a former Islamic cemetery, officials said Thursday.

Muslim and human rights groups have appealed to the court to stop the construction of the museum, which is being built by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center to promote tolerance between religious faiths.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center says that the cemetery was deemed abandoned by a Muslim court ruling in 1964 that stated that the graveyard's sanctity "has ceased to exist."

Muslim leaders say the cemetery was in use for 15 decades and that friends of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad are buried there.


The $150 million complex off Jerusalem's Rehov Hillel, designed by prominent American architect Frank Gehry, would include a museum, conference and education centers, a library and a theater, all dedicated to promoting tolerance in Israel and abroad, the SWC says. If work continues as planned the museum is expected to open by 2008.

The SWC said it had been told by the government and the Jerusalem Municipality five years ago that the three-dunam plot was not defined as a cemetery, but as "public open space" and gave it the necessary permits to build on the site. It said the government based its decision on the 1964 ruling.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of SWC, told The Jerusalem Post that the center would not stop its plans to build the museum at the site, unless ordered to by the High Court.

In a statement issued on Sunday by the Wiesenthal Center, they note the following:

The Center for Human Dignity is being built in the heart of West Jerusalem, on land granted to the Simon Wiesenthal Center by the Government of Israel and the City of Jerusalem. At no time did the Government of Israel or the City of Jerusalem designate the site as a Moslem cemetery. Rather, it had a legal status as a ‘public open space.’ The site ceased to be regarded as a cemetery for many years, both de facto and de jure . No burials have taken place in the Mamilla cemetery since the beginning of the 20th century.

• More importantly, the religious leaders of the Moslem community, have, for many years, regarded this area, including the Center for Human Dignity site, as land which could be developed for public purposes after moving and reburying graves and human remains.

•In 1927, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, (a pro-Nazi supporter of Hitler) issued a religious ruling that forbade continued burials in this area in order to change its use to a commercial designation so that the land could be used as an economic impetus for Arab growth.

•In 1929, the Grand Mufti, initiated the building of the Palace Hotel on the southern part of the Mamilla cemetery and re-interred human remains found during construction, as already then the cemetery was considered ‘Mundras’ (abandoned), which according to Moslem law would permit it to be used for public purposes.

•Moreover, at that time, the High Moslem Council set an area of the cemetery for public buildings and an Arab university which was never built due to lack of funds.

• On June 7, 1964, the issue was brought before the Sha’aria (Moslem Religious Law) Court. The president of this Moslem Court of Appeals in Jaffa ruled the cemetery "“a Mundras... that its sanctity has ceased to exist in it... and it is permitted to do whatever is permitted to do in any other land which was never a cemetery...."” To this day, this religious law approach that permits graves to be moved for public and/or commercial use purposes remains in effect in Moslem countries like Egypt and Lebanon.

• For the last thirty years, the site consisted of two parking lots, an underground (four-level) parking lot, and an open, paved lot bordering the old Mamilla cemetery. Hundreds of cars parked in these lots every day. There were never any objections.

• The Simon Wiesenthal Center initiated a town plan to build a museum on the parcel allocated to it by the Government of Israel and the Municipality of Jerusalem and the City of Jerusalem issued a building permit to construct a museum. For five years during the public planning process, the Center for Human Dignity was the subject of hearings at open City Council meetings, through notices published in both Hebrew and Arabic newspapers, and the architectural model was on public display at City Hall. At no time throughout that entire public process, did a single person or organization come forward to object to the use of the grounds on the premise that the site was a Moslem cemetery.

• All of Jerusalem is layered in memory and history and it is not unusual for construction work in Jerusalem, a 3,000-year-old city, to encounter archeological artifacts and remains. That is why there is a special department called the Israel Antiquities Authority, charged with the special handling of any archeological artifacts or remains that are found. Since the commencement of excavation, the project has been under their supervision, and every instruction has been followed.


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