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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ruling expected on Tolerance Museum construction

I hope you all saw the post I wrote last week about the Museum of Tolerance. Today's JPost features a lengthy piece on the subject:

The High Court of Justice is slated to hand down its decision in the coming days on whether the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) may continue building its planned Center for Human Dignity, Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem complex following public protests and two petitions by Israeli Arabs.

Wednesday, the court heard the petitions by the Al Aqsa Company for the Development of Waqf (Muslim religious trust) sites and by the Nazareth-based Karameh Human Rights Organization, representing three prominent Jerusalem families who say their ancestors are among those buried in the ancient cemetery.

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 petitioners, however, have rejected the government's position. "We adhere to our legitimate right to protect the Ma'amam Allah graveyard and all other Muslim cemeteries," said Irkima al-Sabri, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to Karameh's lawyer Durgham Saif, "You cannot build a museum of tolerance on the bones of other people. It is immoral and illegal."

Karameh petitioned the Sharia Court against construction of the museum and obtained an interim injunction to stop it. However, the police refused to enforce the injunction and work at the site continued. In response, the organization petitioned the court to order the police to enforce the Sharia Court's interim injunction.

Some observers believe that if the court rejects the petitions, the dispute will escalate and spill over into the political and national arena. Sources close to the Simon Wiesenthal Center say the protests are politically, not religiously, motivated. [That's the real issue here folks. When the Mufti wanted to build a hotel, that was okay. When the Mufti wanted to build an Islamic university, that was okay. When Islamic cemeteries that are no longer in use in Arab countries - like Egypt - are 'de-sanctified' and converted into other uses, that is okay. But when the Jews want to build a museum of tolerance - of all things - on a site that 'de-sanctified' more than forty years ago, that's suddenly 'against Islamic law.' CiJ]

Last week, the Grand Mufti, told Al-Jazeera there were plans to ask UNESCO to register the cemetery as an international historical site. [And you can all bet that UNESCO will obediently register the parking lot across from Engineer's House as an 'international historical site.' Anything to keep the Jews from building on it. CiJ]


According to the law, bones found in construction areas are to be transferred to the Religious Affairs Ministry for reburial. However, the ministry was dismantled at the beginning of 2004 and it is unclear who will carry out the delicate work should the court rule that construction on the museum may continue. [Thank you Shinui. And thank you NRP for being stupid enough and greedy enough to go into the government and allow this to happen. CiJ].

SWC has offered to intern the remains elsewhere and to establish a memorial at the site at its own expense, Hier told The Jerusalem Post. In a phone call from Los Angeles, Hier said the plot of land was not considered a cemetery and was given to the center in good faith by the government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality.

"We never would have accepted a site if the government of Israel or the Jerusalem Municipality had said it was a Muslim cemetery," he said. "We would have laughed. It would have been preposterous. We never would have accepted it."

Hier said he was worried that so much money has been invested in planning and designing the museum on the proposed site that it would be too expensive to move it, adding that SWC would not scrap its plans unless ordered to do so by the court.


Independence Park and the surrounding area, including the museum plot, was a Muslim cemetery from the time of the Crusades until burials were halted at the end of the 19th century. The site for the museum project has been a parking lot for the past 25 years. Sources associated with the center said there were no protests by Israeli Arabs when the parking lot was established on the site.

However, Sabri told the BBC that Muslim religious authorities were not consulted about digging at the site, a claim Hier disputed. "This project has been circulating in the public sphere for five years," he said. "We took out advertisements in the Hebrew and Arab press in Israel. The plan for the museum was widely publicized. We also put a model of the planned museum on public display at city hall. The plan had unanimous approval in city council hearings from both the left and right of the political spectrum. For five years everybody knew what was going on, and what was planned for the site. There were no protests from anyone during that time. Where was the Arab community then?"

Hier said the first protests against the construction of the museum began when excavation work at the site started, and skeletal remains were uncovered. "Once that happened, we offered the Muslim community three compromises," Hier continued. "We offered to re-intern the remains elsewhere with great dignity; we offered to clean up the [more modern Muslim cemetery located elsewhere in Independence Park]; and we also offered to establish an appropriate, dignified monument to those who were buried there, all at our expense," Hier said. "It [the site] may be a more fitting memorial as a center for human dignity than as a car park," he added.

Hier, however, would not respond to questions about whether he or any representatives from the Wiesenthal Center had approached Muslim authorities to consult on the project, saying only that the plan was "out in the open and widely publicized."

"If there were such a ruling, it is now void," MK Abdulmalik Dahamshe told the Post, adding, "There is nobody that would ever claim it is not a cemetery.

Dr. Ahmed Natur, Chief Judge of the High Court of Appeals for Islamic Law told the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee the cemetery's holiness and sacredness would stay there forever and never go away." [Someone ought to ask Natur why his predecessor forty years ago ruled otherwise and why the Islamic court in Egypt has ruled otherwise. What has changed? CiJ]


Renato Yarak, an attorney for the SWC, said the site was unofficially deemed "unsacred" in 1929, when then head of the supreme Muslim council, Haj Amin Al Husseini, began removing bones from the ground to build a religious Muslim university on the site.

According to Yarak, al-Husseini managed to build a house for lecturers but could not finance the rest of the project.

Yarak said the protest against the museum was politically motivated, and had nothing to do with sincere religious protest over the sanctity of human remains.

Update 10:30 PM

HaAretz is reporting that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has called for a temporary halt to the Museum of Tolerance's construction until the matter is 'resolved.'


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