digging up bodies for a museum of tolerance

Yesterday the Jerusalem Municipality bulldozed 15 tombstones and structures in Mamilla Cemetery, a Muslim cemetery dating from the 7th century. The reason for doing so is to make way for a planned “Museum of Tolerance and Human Dignity”, sponsored by the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.  Mamilla Cemetery is the one of the oldest Muslim cemeteries in Jerusalem, with Sufi saints and companions of the prophet among those buried there.

JERUSALEM (Ma’an) — Israel’s Jerusalem Municipality said Thursday that tombstones razed by authorities a day earlier in a 12th-century Muslim cemetery were “built illegally with the aim to take over the plot.”

At least 15 tombstones and structures were torn apart Wednesday in the Mamilla (Ma’man Allah) cemetery, the Al-Aqsa Foundation for Waqf and Heritage said. The latest demolitions follow the disinterment of over 1,500 graves in 2009 to make way for a controversial Museum of Tolerance. The foundation quickly denounced the move, describing it as a “heinous crime.”

Mandated with renovating burial grounds, the foundation said its crew led by Fawaz Hassan and Mustafa Abu Zuhra tried to block the bulldozers with their bodies but were removed by police. Israeli authorities razed the tombstones in the northeastern part of the cemetery, despite the crew’s objection, and left an hour after.

A spokesman for Israel’s national police did not return multiple calls seeking comment, but the Jerusalem municipality said in a statement that it had “located illegal activity at the site,” filed a complaint with police, and “turned to the Israel Land Administration, who owns the land, to restore [it] to its prior condition. The ILA cleared the vacant tombstones, which were built illegally with the aim to take over the plot.”

Dating back 1,000 years, the Mamilla cemetery was an active burial ground until 1948, when West Jerusalem became part of the newly declared State of Israel. According to Muslim tradition, it is the burial site of the Prophet Mohammad’s companions, Salah Ad-Din’s warriors, Sufi saints, as well as judges, scholars, and Palestinian dignitaries.

Plans for the museum, funded by the Simon Wisenthal Center, a Jewish charity in the US, were unveiled in 2004 and sparked immediate controversy. Palestinian descendants with relatives buried at the site have launched a lengthy legal and public relations battle in a bid to stay the museum’s construction. In 2008, however, they lost a case before Israel’s High Court, which ruled in favor of the museum.

One descendant is US academic Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. He told Ma’an that “If it is true that further graves in the Mamilla cemetery have in fact been bulldozed, then clearly the ongoing process of desecration of this sacred space has not been halted by the efforts of the families of those interred there to bring this issue before a variety of international forums.”

“As far as the Israeli authorities are concerned, some graves merit respect, and some do not. Those of our ancestors in this cemetery, going back in some cases for many hundreds of years, obviously do not.”

In February, Mamilla descendants filed a petition with the UN, later submitting evidence compiled by the Israeli daily Haaretz, which revealed in a three-part expose the extent of disinterment, publishing photographs of remains being stuffed haphazardly into cardboard boxes. The families of those buried at the site say the Israeli government has yet to inform them of the location of their relatives’ remains.

Gideon Sulimani, an archeologist with Israel’s Antiquities Authority who carried out the initial digs in 2009, told the newspaper at the time: “They call this an archaeological excavation but it’s really a clearing-out, an erasure of the Muslim past. It is actually Jews against Arabs.”

In June, Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook revealed that a second dig was in the works, with Israel planning a courthouse on the historic site. At least three tombstones were removed that same month.

Most of the graves are unrecognisable and in disrepair, owing to decades of neglect. Descendants of those buried there say personal attempts to replace or maintain tombstones have been repeatedly quashed and swiftly removed by Israeli authorities. The Al-Aqsa Foundation’s renovation crew says the municipality regularly thwarts their attempts to maintain the site.

The municipality says it “will not allow extremist elements to act illegally to change the status quo.”

from Ma’an News

Despite the fact that the Weisenthal Center has been offered alternative plots of land to build on, they have steadfastly refused to build elsewhere. The new Museum intends to focus on the differences and similarities between Jews within Israel. As usual, Palestinians are left out of the dialogue.

The Israeli High Court claims that since the cemetery has been abandoned for years, there should be no problem in building over it. The Weisenthal Center itself claims:

Given Jerusalem’s history, it is safe to assume that many prestigious academic and civic institutions may, in fact, be built on ancient remains. Human dignity demands that we respect and treat with reverence these remains of ancient civilizations without impeding the right of Jerusalem, or any other city, of building a future. If cities were not allowed to be built on the relics of previous civilizations, there would be no modern-day Rome, Jerusalem, or Cairo

Indeed, much of West Jerusalem has been bulldozed and built over, their previous occupants erased from architectural history. Like conquerors of the past, Israelis seek the kind of stewardship of the land that allows for bulldozing. Like renaming, destruction and rebuilding implies a deep ownership. The Weisenthal Center argues (1) There are no bodies buried under the tombstones where they are constructing the museum (Israeli archeologists contest this strongly) and (2) That ruling Muslim powers in 1964 had declared the cemetery as open for public development. However, the stories here differ and the families themselves were not consulted in any case. The Waqf in charge of the site argues that they have not been allowed access in order to care for the graves. As Rashid Khalidi – who has relatives buried in the cemetery – says, “the fact that it was desecrated in the ’60s doesn’t mean that it’s right to desecrate it further.”

No one can deny that bodies are often disinterred as part of adjusting cityscapes. A walk through the catacombs of Paris can prove this. However, in a city such as Jerusalem, which is so hotly contested, it seems unfair for the occupying power to “bulldoze” over people’s concerns in the name of “Tolerance and Human Dignity”.

I went into West Jerusalem, and I see a wall that’s probably twenty-five feet high, surrounded by surveillance cameras, which is where they’re building this so-called Museum of Tolerance. Right up to the edge of it, you see Muslim graves, Palestinian graves, all around it. And within even the part of the cemetery that still exists, which is only a few acres, because the Israelis have paved over other parts or built a park, it’s been desecrated. And every time they, Muslim people, attempt to fix it, it’s desecrated again. And within the site itself, I mean, the archaeologist that Rashid referred to called this an archaeological crime. This is an Israeli archaeologist. And you see they took out bones in cardboard boxes, relatives of the ancestors of the people on this petition…And they have no sense of where those people are. And the archaeologist said there’s at least 2,000 other graves under this site. So, to hear the rabbi from the Simon Wiesenthal Center talk about “there’s no bones, there’s no bodies under here” is just—it’s just a lie. That’s all I can say. That’s what it is.

More:

Democracy Now! with Rashid Khalidi

Mamilla Campaign

Simon Weisenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance Counterpoints

2 responses to “digging up bodies for a museum of tolerance

  1. The idea that there would be no Rome or Cairo if sacred sites there had been respected is nonsensical. We are using the abuses of the past to justify abuses in the present. When will we ever learn from our mistakes?

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