Wiesenthal’s Jerusalem Excavation Ignites Furor

Times Staff Writer

When workers broke ground on the $200-million Museum of Tolerance on the edge of Independence Park, they unearthed what bulldozers often dig up in a city whose history dates back 3,000 years: the bones of the dead.

In this case, the site in downtown Jerusalem proved to be partially over a historic Muslim cemetery that Arabs say holds the remains of not just their grandparents, but associates of the prophet Muhammad from the 7th century.

The resulting uproar has placed the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center’s expansive new monument to “human dignity” in the center of a historical imbroglio in the city where three religions intersect.

Lawyers for two Muslim and human rights organizations Wednesday asked Israel’s Supreme Court to block the project, which they said displays a disrespect at odds with the planned museum’s mission to promote coexistence of ethnicities and religions.


“They have started these last few days digging up the graves of the people buried there and putting the bones of the dead in boxes and taking them away. And we wonder why they call this complex they want to build there a Museum of Tolerance?” said Sheik Raed Salah, an Israeli Arab who is head of the Islamic Movement.

“What kind of tolerance is this, at the expense of the dead of another people?” he said.

Officials with the Simon Wiesenthal Center say they will abide by the court’s ruling, which is expected soon, and say they are eager to work out an appropriate resolution to alleviate concerns. They said the property was most recently used as a parking lot.

“At no time did the government of Israel or the municipality designate this as a cemetery. If they would have, of course, we would have rejected it out of hand. It would be preposterous,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center.

“We want to express goodwill. We believe that if you are a Museum of Tolerance, you have to have respect for those whose ancestors may have been buried at that site. But we acted lawfully,” the rabbi said.

A modern-day cemetery lies adjacent to the museum location but is not part of the construction site. Lawyers for the center have produced documents from the Muslim Waqf in Jerusalem in 1964 declaring that the ancient burial ground under and around the new museum location was so old it was no longer sacred.

The 3-acre “Center for Human Dignity, Museum of Tolerance” campus, designed by Frank Gehry, is to include two museums, a library and education center, an international conference center and a 500-seat performing arts theater in a dramatic construction of blue and silver titanium, steel, glass and golden Jerusalem stone.

The groundbreaking in May 2004 was attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a prominent contributor to the center, who said the museum would herald “a time when people can live together in peace and coexistence.”

Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem and now the acting prime minister, said the museum would “become, inevitably, part of the day-to-day difficulties and challenges that we have to face in the life of this city.”

From the start, the museum site has lived up to that promise.

Arab leaders complained immediately that the site was on confiscated Palestinian land that had been built over several times in the last 40 years, and they contended that Muslim graves would be disturbed.

Palestinians launched a letter-writing campaign to Schwarzenegger, urging him to cancel his trip to the groundbreaking on the grounds that the museum was to be located on “confiscated Palestinian land.”

But Wiesenthal officials say the cemetery didn’t become an issue until recently, when partially intact skeletons were found during excavations that included an archeological review. Some bones, they said, were unearthed and boxed in a professional manner.

Israeli officials said the discovery of the remains should have come as no surprise.

“There are 35,000 archeological sites all over Israel. All of Jerusalem is an archeological site. This is a place where a lot of history happened -- Jewish history, Christian, Muslim. And where people lived, they also died,” Osnat Goaz, spokeswoman for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, said. “You can say that no one can build on an archeological site, and then you won’t have a country, OK -- no one can live here,” she said.

Icho Gor, of Moriah Development Co., which is conducting the excavations, said the historic Mamilla, or Maman Allah, cemetery had been dug up repeatedly over the years as a park, parking lot, roads and sewers were built on or near the site.

“All the excavation work that we’re doing is in full cooperation with the Antiquities Authority,” he said. “We’ve built many buildings in this city, many roads, and I can tell you that in every one there was either archeological findings or bones. We take care of it according to the instructions we get from the authorities.”

Authority, however, may be the real issue. Arab leaders say the site is part of Islamic trust lands taken by Israel in 1948, and insist it should be preserved in accordance with the wishes of those whose families are buried in the adjacent cemetery, and for its place in history.

Associates of the prophet Muhammad are interred at the site, according to the Al Aqsa Foundation, which is one of the plaintiffs, along with the Karameh human rights organization. The Muslim king Saladin had his headquarters there, and thousands of Muslims who died during the Crusades also were buried at the site, the plaintiffs say.

Conflicts over construction at the site erupted in the 1930s, before the establishment of the state of Israel, according to historical reviews. Graves there have been disturbed by a variety of projects since at least 1967, apparently as a result of the earlier Islamic ruling.

On Wednesday, nearly 150 Arab protesters shouted slogans and carried banners outside the Supreme Court, including the mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri, who has issued a fatwa prohibiting excavation of the graves and barring Muslim employees from carrying out the work.

“Workers have to work, but we believe this work is sacrilegious,” he said.

Later in the day, the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee announced it would ask the attorney general to explore halting the excavations to seek an alternative site for the museum, according to Israeli news reports. But it was not clear what impact the request, which did not carry the force of the entire Knesset, or parliament, would have on the project.

Lawyers filed papers with the court showing a number of previous examples in which cemeteries had been displaced, including cemeteries excavated by Arab governments, to make way for construction projects.

Wiesenthal officials offered three compromises to the court during the 2 1/2 -hour hearing: reburial of the bones elsewhere, construction of a monument to the ancient cemetery and refurbishing the neglected modern-era Muslim cemetery, whose graves date from the mid-19th century to 1948.

“All of Jerusalem is layered in memory and history, and chances are that almost any structure that you build is going to be on something that was once sacred to somebody,” Rabbi Hier said.