THE SHIMON WIESENTHAL CENTER FOR TOLERENCE – PART III

Gershon Baskin

 

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

 

 

Dear Friends

 

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has responded to the hundreds of letters that they have received from readers of the IPCRI list.  In fairness to them I am presenting the full text of their answer:

 

Statement from the Simon Wiesenthal Center on its Jerusalem Project

You may have read some recent articles in the press regarding the discovery of human remains at the construction site of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Unfortunately many of these articles are inaccurate and we would like to set the record straight.  

A group of Islamic organizations petitioned the Supreme Court of Israel to permanently halt the construction of this project on the grounds that it is a Moslem cemetery.  Here are the critical points:


• The Center for Human Dignity is being built in the heart of West Jerusalem, on land granted to the Simon Wiesenthal Center by the Government of Israel and the City of Jerusalem.  At no time did the Government of
Israel or the City of Jerusalem designate the site as a Moslem cemetery.  Rather, it had a legal status as a ‘public open space.’  The site ceased to be regarded as a cemetery for many years, both de facto and de jure .  No burials have taken place in the Mamilla cemetery since the beginning of the 20th century.

• More importantly, the religious leaders of the Moslem community, have, for many years, regarded this area, including the Center for Human Dignity site, as land which could be developed for public purposes after moving and reburying graves and human remains. 

•In 1927, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, (a pro-Nazi supporter of Hitler) issued a religious ruling that forbade continued burials in this area in order to change its use to a commercial designation so that the land could be used as an economic impetus for Arab growth.

•In 1929, the Grand Mufti, initiated the building of the Palace Hotel on the southern part of the Mamilla cemetery and re-interred human remains found during construction, as already then the cemetery was considered ‘Mundras’  (abandoned), which according to Moslem law would permit it to be used for public purposes. 

•Moreover, at that time, the High Moslem Council set an area of the cemetery for public buildings and an Arab university which was never built due to lack of funds.

• On June 7, 1964, the issue was brought before the Sha’aria (Moslem Religious Law) Court.  The president of this Moslem Court of Appeals in Jaffa ruled the cemetery “a Mundras…that its sanctity has ceased to exist in it…and it is permitted to do whatever is permitted to do in any other land which was never a cemetery….”   To this day, this religious law approach that permits graves to be moved for public and/or commercial use purposes remains in effect in Moslem countries like Egypt and Lebanon.

• For the last thirty years, the site consisted of two parking lots, an underground (four-level) parking lot, and an open, paved lot bordering the old Mamilla cemetery. Hundreds of cars parked in these lots every day.  There were never any objections.

• The Simon Wiesenthal Center initiated a town plan to build a museum on the parcel allocated to it by the Government of Israel and the Municipality of Jerusalem and the City of Jerusalem issued a building permit to construct a museum.  For five years during the public planning process, the Center for Human Dignity was the subject of hearings at open City Council meetings, through notices published in both Hebrew and Arabic newspapers, and the architectural model was on public display at City Hall.  At no time throughout that entire public process, did a single person or organization come forward to object to the use of the grounds on the premise that the site was a Moslem cemetery.

• All of Jerusalem is layered in memory and history and it is not unusual for construction work in Jerusalem, a 3,000-year-old city, to encounter archeological artifacts and remains.  That is why there is a special department called the Israel Antiquities Authority, charged with the special handling of any archeological artifacts or remains that are found.  Since the commencement of excavation, the project has been under their supervision, and every instruction has been followed.   

The Simon Wiesenthal Center made its case to the Israeli Supreme Court on February 15, 2006 and awaits its decision.  Further, the Center is fully committed to finding an acceptable solution according to the highest norms of Judaism and Islam.  The Center has offered three possible remedies to the Court, which it would underwrite, including re-interment of the ancient bones to a Moslem cemetery, erecting a dignified monument to those whose remains were removed, and cleaning up and restoring the adjacent Moslem cemetery, (at SWC expense), which sadly, has been unkempt and neglected for decades.

Unfortunately, some parties wish to pre-empt the Israeli Supreme Court and do not have the courtesy to allow justice to take its course.  In so doing, they only embolden those extreme elements whose sole objective is to reclaim the heart of Jerusalem and to permanently stop the construction of the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.  They will not succeed!

I was aware of most of the above when I took up the call to write letters to the Wiesenthal Center. I argued then that this was not a “legal” issue but a moral and a Jewish one.  I am sending the Wiesenthal response to Sheikh Ahmad Natour who heads the (Israeli) Shari’a Court and is an Israeli Government appointee. Sheikh Natour spoke strongly against the project in the Knesset hearing.  Some of my friends who are involved in inter-faith dialogue for many years and who know Sheikh Natour quite well were surprised by his very strong opposition to the construction of the Museum on that location.  They said that they had never seen him take such a strong position on anything before.

I personally question some of the legitimacy of the SWC arguments, but I am not an expert on Shar’ia law. I won’t go into my questions right now.  I will wait for a response from Sheikh Natour and share that with you.  If Sheikh Natour can accept the SWC arguments and explain from a Muslim religious point of view that it okay to continue the building, then I, as a Jew and an Israeli can accept it.  The basis for my decision on the issue will be whether or not this issue will create greater tension, perhaps beyond control, between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, in this Land and in this City and far beyond that.