When I read that famed architect Frank Gehry was pulling out as designer of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s planned Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem, my thoughts immediately took me back to the site.
Almost a year ago, I stood there with a group of rabbinical students and other young Jewish leaders to voice our dissent. We felt that the Wiesenthal Center’s insistence on building its planned Museum of Tolerance on top of a centuries-old Muslim cemetery betrayed the concept of tolerance at the heart of the museum’s purported mission.
Of course, desecrating a centuries-old cemetery was not the Wiesenthal Center’s intention when it first set its sights on the prime parcel of West Jerusalem real estate. But digging at the site resulted in the discovery of human skeletons and accidentally unearthed a disturbing chapter in Jerusalem’s history: Decades ago, the Jerusalem municipality had built a parking lot on top of a portion of the famed Mamilla cemetery, land that had now been given to the Wiesenthal Center.
The discovery of the human remains gave the center and the city a chance to make amends for a wrong committed long ago — a wrong that I doubt the center’s head, Rabbi Marvin Hier, would ever allow to happen to the Jewish people. Instead, Rabbi Hier dug his heels into that sacred plot of land so deep he could no longer see.
The Wiesenthal Center likes to note that the cemetery had long ago fallen into disuse, and it argues that it had been regarded as deconsecrated by Muslim religious authorities. And it is true that Israel’s Supreme Court has given the Wiesenthal Center the go-ahead to proceed with construction of its museum.
But just because a cemetery has fallen into disuse, does not give the Wiesenthal Center the right to build on centuries-old graves. Nor do religious opinions proffered many decades ago trump the feelings of Palestinians today, who see the construction on this cemetery as an affront to their heritage. And, needless to say, just because something has legal sanction, does not make it right. The Wiesenthal Center is an institution that purports to operate based upon values, but when it comes to this issue, it has refused to operate on that level.
Watching this shande unfold, my peers and I felt let down by the leaders of the American Jewish community. Where were the community relations organizations that have historically fought for equality and tolerance, and who would never countenance the desecration of a Jewish graveyard, anywhere in the world? They were silent.
One striking exception was Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who wrote a powerful op-ed for the JTA asserting that “there is something perverse and ironic about building a monument to tolerance that will be a permanent source of tension in the region and that undermines the mutual respect and trust that tolerance requires.”
Since few of Yoffie’s colleagues were willing to demonstrate similar courage, our group of rabbinical students and Jewish educators decided that if the mainstream American Jewish organizations would not take a stand for their own principles, then we would add our voices to the chorus of Israelis and Palestinians speaking out against the museum. Like the Mishna says, “In a place where there is no human, strive to be human.”
I was blown away by the support we received — 70 future rabbis, educators and Jewish leaders came to the demonstration from a dozen institutions. People who disagree on many issues were able to put aside their differences for this cause. Many had never been to a demonstration of any kind, let alone one that could be seen as supportive of Palestinians, their supposed sworn enemy. The indubitable justice of our cause created unprecedented unity. Moreover, this case cut at the heart of the myth that any affront to Palestinian dignity is necessarily done in the interest of security.
Frank Gehry has insisted that he withdrew from the museum project not because of “perceived political sensitivities,” but rather because his firm was unable to commit its resources to a cost-cutting “redesign” of the museum. He said that he continues to “admire” Hier’s “determination to establish a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem that will serve as the embodiment of human respect and compassion.”
Hier, for his part, has said that the project will go forward on the site with a new design at half the size and half the cost. But the new plan will neither halve nor diminish in any way the profound damage of this project. Building on this cemetery denies Palestinian history and humanity — it will leave an irreversible scar on Jerusalem. The museum will never be an “embodiment of human respect and compassion” at this location.
While Rabbi Hier is concerned with cutting costs, he fails to realize that he has much bigger problems. Those 70 rabbinical students and Jewish educators are the next generation of American Jewish leadership, and they will be building new institutions that do more than pay lip service to the ideals of tolerance.
Alana Alpert is a community organizer and rabbinical student at Hebrew College.