A Muslim cemetery near the construction site of the Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem. (Dan Balilty / Associated Press / February 10, 2010)
The Simon Wiesenthal Center's plan to construct an outpost of Los Angeles' Museum of Tolerance atop the most important Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem is temporarily in disarray. This presents an opportunity to call on the center to abandon this outrageous project once and for all.
The site in question is Ma'man Allah, or the Mamilla Cemetery, which had been in continuous use for centuries until 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or driven into flight and their private property, including Ma'man Allah, was handed over to Jewish users.
Like Muslim and Christian sites throughout Israel -- which, as a 2009 State Department report pointed out, implements protections only for Jewish holy sites -- the cemetery has long been threatened. Parts of it have been used as a roadway, parking lots, building sites and Israel's Independence Park. Among the trees in the park, Palestinian tombstones can still be seen, eerily and all too appropriately.
In 2002, the Wiesenthal Center -- which had been given part of the cemetery by the city of Jerusalem -- announced that architect Frank Gehry would design a complex to be called the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Ground was broken in 2004. Palestinian and Muslim concerns were ignored until a lawsuit led to the suspension of excavation in 2006. In 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court -- dismissing the appeals not only of Palestinians with relatives buried there but also the protests of Jews appalled by desecration of any cemetery -- cleared the way for the project.
The center claims to see nothing wrong with erecting what its leader, Rabbi Marvin Hier, calls "a great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility" on top of what remains of another people's cemetery. It has resorted to endless dodges to support its claim.
To those protesting construction on ancient cemetery land, the center says it's merely using a part of the site that has been a parking lot for years. To Jews outraged at desecration, it says, in effect, that different standards apply to Muslim cemeteries than to Jewish ones. To Muslim clergy and legal scholars who insist on the inviolability of cemeteries in Islam, the center disagrees, in essence claiming that it knows more about Islamic jurisprudence than they do. To those who protest today, the center asks where they were in 1960, when an Islamic judge approved Israel's construction of the parking lot (it does not, however, mention that he was a state employee, nor that he was subsequently removed from office for corruption).
To archaeologists who say the site should be spared construction, the center says that only a couple hundred bodies needed to be moved. And with reference to Palestinians who have filed legal actions and persisted in expressing anxiety over their families' remains, Hier had this message just last month: "The case is over; get used to it."
That was his paraphrase of the high court's dismissal of a final appeal made by Palestinian families based on the testimony of Gideon Suleimani, the chief archaeologist at the museum site. Suleimani said that the Israel Antiquities Authority withheld from the court his opinion that construction should not be approved, and that the site still contains four layers of Muslim graves dating from the 12th century. "We're talking about tens of thousands of skeletons under the ground there," noted Suleimani.
Last month, Gehry announced that he had decided to pull out of the project, citing other commitments. At the same time, the center said it was scaling back the museum; it is short of its original $200-million fundraising target. Now the center lacks an architect and a plan. Hence the opportunity to stop this project.
This week, moreover, Palestinians with relatives buried in the cemetery made a last-ditch effort to end its continued desecration. They appealed directly to the United Nations, pointing out that the desecration violates international conventions forbidding discrimination and protecting cultural heritage, the manifestation of religious beliefs and the right to culture and family.
Protecting the cemetery should never have become a legal issue. This project is something that any decent human being should recognize as wrong. And it can still be reversed -- if the Wiesenthal Center can be persuaded to turn "tolerance" and "human dignity" into principles for action, not just empty slogans.
For all its sanctimoniousness, the center now presides over a big hole from which scores of bones have been unearthed. Those remains were disinterred without respect. As Suleimani put it: "The Muslim dead have no one to defend them." It is not, however, too late to safeguard the rest of those as yet undisturbed.
In wanting to lay the dead to rest, however, we should think also of the living. Displacing living people -- something Israel does every single day -- is hardly any better than displacing dead ones. And this disgraceful episode is only part of a much longer history of displacement and dispossession dating to 1948.
The real lesson of Ma'man Allah and the museum project is this: Peace will come to Palestine/Israel only when the blind insistence on displacement ends and both peoples are allowed to belong to the same land.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He is the author of, among other books, "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation."