Jerusalem — When workers broke ground on the $200 million Museum of Tolerance on the edge of Independence Park, they unearthed what bulldozers often dig up in a city whose history dates 3,000 years: the bones of the dead.
In this case, the site was on the edge of a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem that Arabs say holds the remains of not just their grandparents, but long-ago associates of the prophet Muhammad.
The resulting uproar has placed the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center‘s expansive new monument to “human dignity” in the center of a historical imbroglio in the city where three religions intersect.
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Lawyers for two Muslim and human rights organizations Wednesday asked Israel’s Supreme Court to block the project, which they said displays a disrespect at odds with the planned museum’s mission to promote coexistence of ethnicities and religions.
“They have started these last few days digging up the graves of the people buried there and putting the bones of the dead in boxes and taking them away. And we wonder why they call this complex they want to build there a Museum of Tolerance,” said Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement and one of Israel’s 1 million Arabs. “What kind of tolerance is this, at the expense of the dead of another people?”
Simon Wiesenthal Center officials say they will abide by the court’s ruling, which is expected soon, and said they are eager to work out an appropriate resolution to alleviate concerns. They said the property was most recently used as a parking lot.
“At no time did the government of Israel or the municipality designate this as a cemetery. If they would have, of course, we would have rejected it out of hand. It would be preposterous,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center.
“We want to express good will. We believe that if you are a Museum of Tolerance, you have to have respect for those whose ancestors may have been buried at that site. But we acted lawfully,” he said.
A modern-day cemetery lies adjacent to the museum location, but is not part of the construction site. Lawyers for the center have produced documents from the Supreme Islamic Council in Jerusalem in 1964 declaring that the ancient burial ground under and around the new museum location was so old it was no longer sacred.
The 9.2-acre Center for Human Dignity, Museum of Tolerance, designed by architect Frank Gehry, is to include two museums, a library and education center, an international conference center and 500-seat performing arts theater in a dramatic construction of blue and silver titanium, steel, glass and golden Jerusalem stone.
The official groundbreaking in April 2004 featured Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a panel of senior Israeli officials heralding what the governor, a prominent contributor to the center, called “a time when people can live together in peace and coexistence.”
From the start, Arab leaders complained that it was being built on confiscated Palestinian land that had been built over several times in the past 40 years.
But Wiesenthal officials say the issue of the land being a cemetery wasn’t raised until recently, when partially intact skeletons were found during excavations that included an archaeological review. Some bones, they said, were unearthed and boxed in a professional manner.
Israeli officials said the discovery of these remains should have come as no surprise.
“There are 35,000 archaeological sites all over Israel. All of Jerusalem is an archaeological site. This is a place where a lot of history happened — Jewish history, Christian, Muslim. And where people lived, they also died,” said Osnat Guaz, spokeswoman for the Israeli Antiquities Authority. “You can say that no one can build on an archaeological site, and then you won’t have a country, OK. No one can live here.”
Authority, however, may be the real issue. Arab religious leaders say the site is part of Islamic religious trust lands taken by Israel in 1948, and insist it should be preserved in accordance with the wishes of present-day Arabs whose families are buried in the adjacent cemetery, and for its place in history.
Associates of the prophet Muhammad who died during the prophet’s trip to Jerusalem are interred at the site, according to the Al-Aqsa Foundation, which is one of the plaintiffs, along with the Karameh human rights organization. The Muslim warrior Saladin had his headquarters there, and thousands of Muslims who died during the Crusades also were buried at the site, the plaintiffs say.
Conflicts over construction erupted in the 1930s, before the establishment of the state of Israel, according to historical reviews. Graves there have been disturbed by a variety of projects since at least 1967, apparently as a result of the earlier Islamic court ruling.
Outside the Supreme Court before Wednesday’s 2 1/2-hour hearing, nearly 150 Arab protesters shouted slogans and carried banners, including the mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri, who has issued a fatwa prohibiting excavation of the graves and barring Muslim employees from carrying out the work.
“Workers have to work, but we believe this work is sacrilegious,” he said.
Later in the day, the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, announced it would ask the attorney general to explore halting the excavations to seek an alternative site for the museum, according to Israeli news reports. But it was not clear what impact the request, which did not carry the force of the entire Knesset, would have on halting the project.
Lawyers filed evidence with the court showing a number of previous examples in which cemeteries had been displaced, including cemeteries excavated by Arab governments, to make way for construction projects.
Wiesenthal officials offered three compromises to the court, including reburial of the bones elsewhere, construction of a monument to the ancient cemetery, and refurbishing the neglected modern-era Muslim cemetery, whose graves date from the mid-19th century to 1948.