Issue 4 - Spring 2007 - The Big Issue
What happens when a Muslim cemetery meets the Holocaust? Hint: it's not a Hollywood movie

Before it became a controversy, Jerusalem’s Mamilla cemetery was already a conundrum; it appears to be a place of both urban blight (weed-ridden, pockmarked with gravestones, and largely bereft of human presence) and respite (serene and cheerful, green, overgrown, and oblivious to the cars and bustle that surround it).

In use as a Muslim burial place from the thirteenth century to the 1920s, the cemetery is shaped like a pointed Gothic archway, with its tip aimed northwest. It is bordered on its western side by Independence Park, a prime gay cruising strip until the city’s gay clubs and bars came along. To the northeast, an ever-proliferating array of restaurants and boutiques — products of downtown Jerusalem’s recent, perplexing boom. Here, you can buy handmade designer boots, try on heart-fibrillatingly expensive trinkets, and calm yourself with a pre-workout meal of pepperonata spaghetti and San Pellegrino, all while contemplating this strange, spectrally still parcel of land that somehow manages to hold its own against the city’s newfound energy. What you would never guess as you gaze southward across the cemetery toward Agron Road (an American flag fluttering above the U.S. consulate and next to it the old Palace Hotel’s gorgeous but abandoned shell) is that you are looking at the crucible of an international uproar that is, at the same time, all too local.

At the cemetery’s northwestern tip, a square of land is enclosed by impenetrable white corrugated steel, topped by barbed wire; it seems like it might be concealing a rare and dangerous biological specimen, but instead, the steel sheeting hides only a drab, partially dug up parking lot. The area is sealed by court order while Israel’s Islamic Movement and the Jerusalem Municipality duke it out over the city’s plans to build a museum of tolerance (a branch of the Los Angeles–based Simon Wiesenthal Center) and the Islamic Movement’s demand to have the area re-hallowed as sacred ground.

The sanctity of Mamilla cemetery has been trodden upon many times. When the Palace Hotel was constructed in 1928 (by a Jewish contractor employed by Muslim entrepreneurs), Sheikh Haj Amin Al-Husseini, grand mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1936, ruled that any bones could simply be removed and issued a gag order for the entire operation. It has been disturbed on several more occasions since the establishment of the state of Israel (among others, when the parking lot itself was paved and then expanded, in the 1960s and 70s), and no one has protested. If the Jerusalem Municipality had not ceded a corner of the burial grounds to the Wiesenthal Center in 1996, the site may well have remained forgotten.

The city’s decision followed an earlier one to lease the Wiesenthal Center three acres of land in northern Jerusalem. This, too, gave rise to comment: in their book New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer allowed that “opening a tolerance museum on French Hill, at the very edge of the West Bank, has a certain amount of irony built into it.” But French Hill was deemed too remote, and the irony Aviv and Shneer remarked on turned to leaden derision as the city announced its plans to erect a Frank Gehry–designed shrine to California-conceived “tolerance” on top of the Muslim graveyard. As Jerusalem historian and former deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti says, “It’s a bit of American nonsense that is neither suitable nor appropriate for us. The entire thing is built on blindness; no one bothered to ask if we needed it, and if so, where it should be. No one asked if it might actually pose a problem that an old cemetery would be desecrated. What, you think it might bother someone?”

Benvenisti — the author, among many other volumes, of Sacred Landscape: Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 — says that if the museum is built, “It will be nothing more than a tombstone to the donor; no one here even cares.”

Benvenisti’s scorn is shared by those who are struck by the apathetic reaction among Jerusalemites — Christians, Jews, and Muslims, alike — most of whom have never considered the need for a museum of tolerance in their tense, occasionally intolerable city, and shrug at the entire controversy as if it were the caricature of a problem rather than a problem in itself.

But one group taking the matter very seriously is the Islamic Movement in Israel, and its leader, Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, both of whom were legally and politically marginalized until this issue was handed to them on a silver platter. “The Muslims, from their point of view, are acting intelligently,” says architectural historian David Kroyanker. “They want to scuttle a very large, very prestigious and expensive project with no effort. This is like a gift from God to them: think how good it sounds! A museum of tolerance planned by Jews built on old Muslim cemetery! I don’t really think they want this controversy to end so quickly. If I was in their shoes, I’d never compromise.”

Despite the outcry, ground for the museum was broken in 2004 at a gala affair attended by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but two cases are now pending before Israel’s Supreme Court. The first, brought by the Islamic Movement (to which Benvenisti contributed an amicus brief), is based on the (painfully Jewish) principle of the sanctity of all burial grounds. The second has been presented by three families with ancestors buried at Mamilla (about 150 skeletal remains were uncovered before excavations were halted by order of the Israel Antiquities Authority).

According to its Web site, the future museum will be saddled with the portentous name “Center for Human Dignity — Jerusalem” (and not, as other Wiesenthal materials have it, the “Museum of Tolerance”). The Web site displays the image of a supernatural edifice resembling nothing so much as a crab in the process of hatching a sapphire spider with huge, glassy eyes. It is neither beautiful nor ugly; it is striking and odd. It is Frank Gehry. A slick video presentation takes viewers through a computer-generated complex of Gehry-designed buildings, including a conference center and 500-seat theater, as well as the museum itself, which, like its big brother in Los Angeles, is heavily Holocaust-centered.

According to Kroyanker (who, unlike Benvenisti, doesn’t mind the look of the building itself), Gehry’s name and the idea of a Bilbao-like miracle in downtown Jerusalem so enchanted then-mayor Ehud Olmert that obstacles were simply overlooked. Even the objections of Israel’s almost-consecrated Holocaust History Museum, Yad Vashem (which turned on the questionable need for a second Shoah-based institution in Jerusalem), were set aside.

“The point is respect,” says philosopher and Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh, many of whose own ancestors are buried at Mamilla. “The whole thing about dignity is respect for human beings, so in this instance there should have been a show of respect toward Muslims and the families, to make sure that things were being done in a way that is acceptable.”

Another point is common sense: “If I were about to lay out $150 million on a new project,” Kroyanker told me, “I’d want all aspects examined. I’d have hired the best lawyer in town to tell me exactly what I don’t want to hear, all the risks and challenges. I’d have asked for the worst-case scenario. Yes, procedures were followed at the municipal level, to the extent that they exist, but no one bothered with any due diligence. No one asked the real questions.”

But the Jerusalem Municipality seems both lax and proprietary about Mamilla. Several years ago, Nusseibeh found a seventeenth-century text that located the tomb of a particularly illustrious forebear in an unmarked Mameluke-era mausoleum (“A rather good-looking mausoleum,” he told me). Nusseibeh then contacted a friend working at the Ministry for Religious Affairs and requested permission to place a plaque on the crypt. “I thought it was important to commemorate this, and to tell people that in the case of a family like mine, we are not claiming roots here in the abstract or national sense, but in the familial sense, which is a much closer thing,” he said. Nusseibeh secured permission and affixed a stone plaque explaining that the tomb belonged to Islam’s Kabkabiyyan period and contained the remains of one Prince Iddaghji and a certain Judge Nusseibeh. The next day it was removed by municipal workers, who claimed sole jurisdiction over the entire park. According to Benvenisti, this is just one example of how Muslim attempts to improve the park have been rebuffed.

Now, in an attempt to reach a compromise with the Islamic Movement, the Wiesenthal Center is offering to foot the bill for the cemetery’s restoration. Yet in numerous interviews, Wiesenthal Center Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier — who is as well known for his prowess as a fund-raiser as he is for his close ties to Israeli and American right-wing politicians — has referred to his legal opponents as “Islamists,” making it sound as if his struggle is a subsidiary to the West’s engagement with al-Qaida rather than a matter of municipal oversight or mismanagement. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Municipality refuses to comment on the future museum, or on the legal and ethical morass it has spawned. Instead, it refers questions to the public relations office of Haggai Elias, a former municipal spokesman who is handling the Wiesenthal case.

“Until excavations started, no one knew there were graves there,” Elias told me. “It’s been a paved parking lot for more than thirty years. It was dug up more than once, sewer and telephone lines were laid down, and no one said a word. So if anyone tells you they knew there were graves there, he is not telling the truth.” (Whether or not answers like this help the Wiesenthal Center’s case is open for debate; the ancient cemetery is recorded in all geographical surveys of the city.) “And anyway,” Elias added, “In Islam, after twenty-five years the sanctity wears off.”

“Let’s put ourselves in the Muslims’ shoes,” says George Hintlian, an expert in Jerusalem’s religious heritage. “They have been burying there since the thirteenth, fourteenth centuries. These are fixed places still in use. Just imagine we were speaking about the Mount of Olives; when the Jordanians wanted to build the Seven Arches Hotel there — and it wasn’t even actually bordering on it — there was an international outcry.”

“Why do we have to provoke them in this way?” asks Danny Rubinstein, veteran Palestinian affairs analyst for Haaretz and longtime observer of Jerusalem. “Why can’t we allow things here to calm down and think it through in a proper way? When people are being killed here daily, the entire story just repels me. We need a museum for this? Why don’t they do something here rather than build museum? It’s totally stupid. I mean, have you ever been to a museum like that? Who would go? It’s the sort of thing that kills rather than revives a downtown.”

In the end, Jerusalem seems to have become hostage to a benefactor no one can refuse. &