Letter to the Editor / Museum of Tolerance is a beacon of light, not a wall

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Last update - 12:00 20/11/2008

Letter to the Editor / Museum of Tolerance is a beacon of light, not a wall

Regarding Bradley Burston's article "Dividing Jerusalem, one wall at a time"

Bradley Burston criticizes the Museum of Tolerance project in Jerusalem claiming it would be "dividing Jerusalem one wall at a time" because it is being built atop an ancient Muslim cemetery.

What he deliberately hides from his readers is that the land was given to the Simon Wiesenthal Center by the government of Israel and the City of Jerusalem, who presented petitions to the Supreme Court in support of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.

He also obscures the fact that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is not building on the nearby Mamilla cemetery, but on the adjacent site which, for nearly a half-century, served as Jerusalem's municipal car park where every day hundreds of Jews, Christians and Muslims parked their cars. Electric cable and sewer lines were laid below the ground.

During all this time, not a single Muslim group or individual, including today's most vociferous critics said a word in protest although as they argued before the Court they knew all along it was a cemetery, yet kept silent for a half-century.

As the Supreme Court concluded in its ruling, "Israel is a small strip of land, of great antiquity, with a history that extends over thousands of years... In our case, the area of the museum compound was separated from the Muslim Mamilla cemetery as long ago as the 1960s, and it was classified as an open public area... and it was made available for various kinds of planning activity. A multi-storey car park was built on it, a road was paved on it, and plans were made to construct multi-storey buildings on it."

"For decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community... no one denied this position. Not only was the compound not identified as an area with religious sanctity... but it was the subject of planning for various purposes throughout decades, without any objection for reasons of the sanctity of the site."

Furthermore, what Bradley Burston ignores is that when the design was completed, the model was on display at Jerusalem City Hall and newspaper ads were taken out and posted in the Hebrew and Arab press - again, no protest from any Muslim group whatsoever.

They were silent because, as the High Court said, "...the area has not been classified as a cemetery for decades." The bones found during construction were between 300 and 400 years old. They were unaccompanied by a single marker, monument, or tombstone, family name or religion.

Imagine the chaos to society if, after fifty years of designation for public use, land would be changed and reverted to what it may have been four or five centuries ago.

Muslim scholars and religious leaders have dealt with such issues for centuries and, in seeking to resolve such difficulties, ruled that a cemetery not in use for 37 years is considered mundras - an abandoned cemetery that has lost its sanctity.

In fact, because the whole area was regarded as mundras, in 1946, the mufti of Jerusalem planned to build a Muslim university on the entire Mamilla cemetery (now Independence Park). We submitted the architectural plans and drawings of that proposed university to the Supreme Court. Today, the concept of mundras is widely sanctioned and practiced throughout the Arab world, in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories.

While Judaism does not have a mundras concept, the Supreme Court, in its decision notes, "That despite the Jewish religious law prohibitions ... to prevent the removal of graves or building on top of them, in practice, in cases where public needs required this, an agreed Jewish law solution has usually been found, and this allowed the building to be carried out in a way that minimized...the violation of the graves... Jewish religious law also allows, as we have said, the removal of graves in a dignified manner. Balanced solutions of this kind were also proposed by the respondents (Simon Wiesenthal Center), and they even agreed to pay all the expenses involved in them."

It is important to note that the Sheikh initiated the proceedings before the High Court because he saw this as a land grab in the center of Jerusalem. The Court immediately ordered mediation between the parties to be conducted by former court president Meir Shamgar. Our Center was very sensitive to the issue and offered numerous compromises, but they were all rejected out-of-hand by Sheikh Salah, who refused to even meet to discuss them. He insisted that the Court rule on the matter.

Now, after over two years in the Courts, the Supreme Court has handed down a 119-page unanimous verdict in favor of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Sheikh Salah and his defenders, who eagerly sought the Court's relief, are now agitating against its decision because they lost.

It is not those who lie beneath the ground who threaten the stability of the Middle East. It is the intolerance of extremists above the ground and those with an agenda who impede any prospects for civility and respect.

In the end, the Supreme Court in its verdict, gave the best reasons for the need of a Museum of Tolerance, "The importance and benefit of realizing the plan to build the Museum of Tolerance in the center of the city of Jerusalem are very great. The Museum of Tolerance embodies an ideal of establishing a spiritual center that will spread a message of human tolerance between peoples, between sectors of the population and between man and his fellow-man."

The establishment of the museum is likely to make an important national contribution to the whole country, in which no center has yet been built with the purpose of addressing the issue of tolerance in all its aspects, and to bring about the assimilation of this idea among the general public."

"The location of the museum in the center of Jerusalem has special significance, since it is a city that has a special ethical significance for three religions and an ancient history, which is unique to human civilization."

Rabbi Marvin Hier
Founder and Dean
Simon Wiesenthal Center
Museum of Tolerance