Wiesenthal Center Presses Ahead With Israel Museum Over Mounting Objections

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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Despite growing Muslim and Jewish objections, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is moving ahead with the construction of a museum on top of a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.

The Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based institution, is building its new Museum of Tolerance on a plot of land that was historically used by Muslims as a cemetery but was more recently turned into a parking lot.

The continuing work on the site — behind a heavily secured perimeter — has drawn protests from Muslim organizations, but it is now also attracting criticism from Jewish lawmakers of all political persuasions in Israel. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, of the right-wing Likud Party, chastised the Wiesenthal Center in testimony before a Knesset committee February 15. More recently, Colette Avital, deputy Knesset speaker and a member of the left-wing Labor Party, laid into the organization for continuing to work in the face of Muslim concerns.

“We ask other religions to consider and respect our holy places. We Jews should also have consideration for the feelings of other religions,” said Avital, who previously served as Israel’s consul general in New York. “The center hasn’t engaged in dialogue and they have created a crisis.”

Avital and other politicians say they are concerned that the building controversy could be used to foment Muslim unrest in the wake of riots over the now infamous cartoons of the Muslim prophet, Mohammed. The current row in Jerusalem has drawn attention from a wide-array of Muslim leaders in Israel and has also been transmitted to the wider Muslim world through Al Jazeera.

After graves were found during early digging, Muslim groups filed a petition with the Israel Supreme Court asking that the construction be stopped and the museum moved. The Wiesenthal Center, headed by its founder and director Rabbi Marvin Hier, delayed building for a day but is now going ahead with construction while awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court.

The controversy over the graves is only the latest political headache for the Wiesenthal Center and its Jerusalem site. When plans for the museum were first announced in 2000, the center was criticized by leftist Israeli politicians for its plan to take on the issue of tolerance in Israel from the center’s vantage point, which is widely regarded as being critical of the Palestinian Authority and sympathetic to the Israeli government.

The more damaging complaints came from leaders at the Israeli Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, who said that another museum about the Holocaust was not needed in Jerusalem — particularly one designed by an American organization. The Wiesenthal Center’s flagship museum in Los Angeles teaches its message of tolerance largely through displays about the Holocaust.

The center, which is also well known for its Academy Award-winning documentaries, settled the dispute with Yad Vashem by signing a certified letter promising not to deal with the Holocaust in its new Jerusalem museum. When the center then secured star architect Frank Gehry to design the complex, it won the support of Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem and now Israel’s acting prime minister.

It was Olmert who negotiated for the Wiesenthal Center to receive the plot of land where Gehry’s building is being erected, Hier told the Forward in an earlier interview. Olmert’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment about the current flap.

Construction at the controversial site is taking place behind fences and tents; it is being handled by the Moriah Development Corporation, a division of the Jerusalem city government that was contracted by the Wiesenthal Center. A spokesman for Moriah, Itsho Gur, said the company was working carefully in conjunction with the Israeli Antiquities Authority and forgoing the use of any heavy machinery to avoid unnecessary disruptions. But, Gur added, Moriah would not negotiate with the Muslim groups asking for a stop in construction.

“There is no reason to stop working until there is a court order,” the spokesman said.

The Wiesenthal Center has produced a raft of legal arguments for why the current complaints are out of step with the history of the site. The area where the museum is being constructed was historically the Mamilla cemetery, where Muslims — including several prominent figures — were buried dating back an estimated 800 years. But, the Wiesenthal Center has pointed out, in 1929 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem approved the building of a hotel on the southern edge of the cemetery, which involved the re-internment of human remains.

Moreover, in the 1960s, a large part of the area was used to create Independence Park, and some of the land has been used as a parking lot for the past 30 years. In addition, the center says, the early plans for building the museum at the site were not disputed on the basis of the buried remains.

At a February 15 hearing before the Supreme Court, lawyers for the Wiesenthal Center said that the organization would pay to re-inter any uncovered graves in a proper memorial site, and would also pay to refurbish the still-active Muslim cemetery next to the site.

In a statement issued this week, the center said that its critics only helped “embolden those extreme elements whose sole objective is to reclaim the heart of Jerusalem and to permanently stop the construction of the center.”

The arguments of the center have turned around the opinion of at least one critic. The Anti-Defamation League had called last week for the halting of construction on the Jerusalem site. But after a trip to Israel, the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, reversed his group’s position, saying the Wiesenthal Center was taking adequate steps to deal respectfully with the human remains found on the construction site.

But several Israeli lawmakers are still speaking out. The highest-level criticism came during a Knesset committee meeting on the same day as the Supreme Court hearing. At the meeting, an official for the Israeli Antiquities Authority acknowledged that the diggers had already unearthed 200 graves.

Rivlin, the Knesset speaker, asked, “Why should the Museum of Tolerance sit on a cemetery, for crying out loud?

“If my parents were dug out in order to glorify tolerance I would be angry,” he said.

A Knesset member from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, David Azoulay, criticized the museum, saying, “You know that we express protest and outcry whenever a Jewish cemetery is being desecrated.”

The Knesset committee that hosted the debate is chaired by an Arab Knesset member, Raleb Majadele. At the end of the session, Majadele, of the Labor Party, said he planned to contact the attorney general about stopping the building and the police about investigating the work that has already been done. Majadele also said he would seek out the American donors to the museum.

The Wiesenthal Center has raised $150 million from American donors to build the museum, with the bulk of the money coming from about 10 donors who gave $10 million each. Among them are the newly confirmed American ambassador to the Netherlands, Roland Arnall, and television mogul Merv Adelson.

Most of the donors contacted by the Forward declined to respond to requests for comment. But the former chairman of Global Crossing, Gary Winnick, defended the center’s behavior in the current imbroglio.

“They have always conducted themselves with respect, dignity and integrity and I have every confidence that they will continue to do so in this matter,” Winnick said in a statement.

Another major donor to the Wiesenthal Center is California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a lead speaker at the ground breaking of the Jerusalem museum. Schwarzenneger’s office said he had no comment on the current fracas.

With Reporting by Gershom Gorenberg in Jerusalem






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