Museum of Intolerance?

DANIELA YANAI is a staff attorney for Ir Amim, an Israeli nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and works to preserve the possibility of a negotiat

LAST WEEK, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered Los Angeles’ Simon Wiesenthal Center and the municipality of Jerusalem to explain why they should be allowed to construct a new Museum of Tolerance on the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery.

On the surface, it’s a straightforward enough question. But it’s really about more than the fate of one cemetery and whether it should be preserved. What is at stake is the nature of both people’s claims, Palestinian and Israeli, to Jerusalem.

The site of the museum is in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, on a parking lot next to the city’s Independence Park. Designed by architect Frank Gehry and kicked off in 2004 with a visit by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the museum (a sister, of sorts, to the one of the same name in Los Angeles) seems, at first glance, like a welcome initiative. In a region wracked by intolerance, what better way to improve the chances for peace than to teach people about different cultures?


But the museum itself became a test case for tolerance when bulldozers digging its foundation unearthed human remains last year, and the project has been mired in legal disputes ever since. Even though archeologists and historians knew that the site was on top of an ancient cemetery — parts of which are visible just adjacent to the site — spokespeople for the Jerusalem municipality claimed that the discovery of remains came as a surprise.

What happened? How could the city have risked the embarrassment of the project’s sponsors and the withdrawal of donors from this multimillion-dollar endeavor, not to mention the far more dangerous risk of inciting the Muslim community worldwide? The answer lies in the ideology of “exclusivity” that characterizes the attitude of leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially in Jerusalem.

The way the leaders see it, the very existence of one community constitutes a threat to the rights of the other. In other words, if Jerusalem is to be Jewish, in the eyes of Israeli leaders it cannot also be Palestinian — and vice versa in the eyes of the Palestinian leadership. Both sides try to bolster their exclusive claim to the city with proof of their historic, religious and archeological ties to it, and both sides minimize, and in some cases outright deny, the ties of the other.

The Mamon Allah, or Mamila Cemetery, is a Muslim cemetery dating to at least the 13th century. Muslim tradition holds that associates of the Prophet Muhammad are buried there. It is a historical and archeological treasure, as well as a holy site for Muslims.

The cemetery is located in what became West Jerusalem — the Israeli side of the city — after the 1948 war for independence, and Israel declared it “absentee property.” In 1955, when the first changes in the status of the area were proposed, no public notice of the plan was issued in Arabic — contrary to Israeli law. Bit by bit, over the next 30 years, the municipality of Jerusalem expropriated the area and acquired ownership in the property. Objections were filed along the way but to no avail.

In defending the museum’s proposed location, the Wiesenthal Center notes that in 1964, the president of the Muslim religious courts in Israel declared the cemetery “abandoned,” thereby paving the way for its future development. Many Muslims today, however, reject this ruling on the grounds that the decision contradicts Muslim law and that the official who made it was corrupt. The Wiesenthal Center also argues that no one has been buried in the cemetery since the 19th century — although this claim is disputed as well.

“At no time did the government of Israel or the city of Jerusalem designate the site as a Muslim cemetery,” notes the Wiesenthal Center. Rather, it had legal status as a “public open space.” In other words, the actual existence of the graves is secondary to Israel’s designation of the site.

But the center said something even more disturbing: Its aim is to stop “those extreme elements whose sole objective is to reclaim the heart of Jerusalem.” This statement suggests that Palestinian protest at the desecration of the graves is nothing less than a disguised attempt to assert rights over Jerusalem itself, West as well as East.

This is the ideology of exclusivity. It makes any effort to preserve the graves a threat to the Israeliness of Jerusalem. By this logic, the mere presence of Palestinian cultural sites in West Jerusalem endangers Israel’s claim to its capital.

Such a stance is the definition of intolerance, on either side. If allowed to prevail, the ideology of exclusivity thwarts the possibility of peace because, if one community’s very existence constitutes a threat to the other, no accord is reachable. And it ignores the essential nature of Jerusalem, which must be taken into account for any solution to succeed — the living presence of two communities, Jewish and Palestinian.

Regardless of who is in charge, it is incumbent on both sides to preserve Jerusalem’s unique heritage — for the maintenance of good relations between the parties, for each sides’ own enrichment and dignity, and for posterity.

By insisting on construction of the museum at all costs, the Wiesenthal Center assists Israel in its efforts to erase the record of Jerusalem’s Palestinian heritage. This not only belies the museum’s name, it allows the ideology of exclusivity a victory over one of the world’s most precious sites, the holy city of Jerusalem.