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‘LA Times’ gives Wiesenthal Center a platform to spin falsehoods about Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem

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Yesterday, and somewhat shockingly, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by Rabbi Martin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) defending the desecration of the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem so that the SWC can build its "Center for Human Dignity– Museum of Tolerance" there. I say shockingly because the piece contained so many falsehoods. I excerpt Hier below. Then I will point out the stretchers. Rabbi Hier:

The museum is not being built on what can rightfully be called the Mamilla Cemetery, but on a three-acre site in the heart of West Jerusalem that, for more than half a century, served as the city’s municipal car park. Each day, hundreds of people of all faiths parked in the three-level underground structure without any protest from Muslim religious or academic leaders or interest groups. Additionally, telephone and electrical cables and sewer lines were laid deep below ground in the early 1960s, again without any protest.

As the [Israeli] Supreme Court noted in its ruling, "for almost 50 years the compound has not been a part of the cemetery, both in the normative sense and in the practical sense, and it was used for various public purposes." It also noted: "During all those years no one raised any claim, on even one occasion, that the planning procedures violated the sanctity of the site, or that they were contrary to the law as a result of the historical and religious uniqueness of the site. . . . For decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community. . . . No one denied this position."

Now take a look at this week’s petition to international human-rights bodies by a coalition of groups trying to preserve the Mamilla cemetery. In that petition, you will read the following facts:

There has never been any doubt about the centrality of the 33-acre Mamilla cemetery to Muslim practice in Jerusalem. Throughout the 1800s, Ottoman rulers "fastidiously" recognized the boundaries of the cemetery, surrounding it with a wall and roads. As for the Brits who followed as governors, they officially recognized the cemetery as an "Islamic endowment" (1938) and an "antiquities site." (1944)

Then in 1948 the Israelis took over West Jerusalem; and from the beginning of Israeli rule, Muslim authorities appealed to Israel to protect the cemetery. In 1948 the Israeli Relgious Affairs Ministry duly said the cemetery "is considered to be one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries," with remains going back to the great general of the Crusades, Salah-ah-Din. "Israel will always know to protect and respect this site."

For a few years the Israelis kept their word. And then the encroachments began. The petitioners write: "Israel has gradually expropriated and destroyed most of the cemetery." It began by building an "Independence Park" over half the cemetery in the 1960s. Then in 1964, it built that parking lot Hier refers to, over about three acres of the cemetery. Then it built an underground parking garage and ran cables and other infrastructure through the site.

Palestinians have never been silent about the desecration. On at least one occasion they petitioned UNESCO to stop it.

In recent years, the Israeli Antiquities Authority awarded the 3-acre parking lot site to the Simon Wiesenthal Center to build its Tolerance hall on, and an archaeologist was sent in to see what was going on. The report of this "Chief Excavator" was emphatic: There are thousands of graves under the parking lot that date to the 12th century. They have already been disturbed by construction. Some of the bodies have been removed. The construction zone is shrouded in secrecy.

If just one of those bodies were Jewish, the petitioners state, construction would stop in a nanosecond.

The archaelogist, Gideon Suleimani, was pressured to conclude his work in a perfunctory manner. But he said that the project was an "archeological crime" and "We’re talking about tens of thousands of skeletons under the ground there, and not just a few dozen."

Suleimani’s report was suppressed by the Israeli government when it went to the Supreme Court to get the opinion that Hier quotes so approvingly above. That is why the Mamilla petitioners, who include Muslim and Jewish groups, are going to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN special rapporteur on religious freedom, the UN special rapporteur on racism, and UNESCO.

As Rashid Khalidi, whose own ancestors are buried in Mamilla, has said: We have exhausted all recourse inside Israel against this "grotesque" project.

The desecration of Mamilla is all about the violations of occupation. It is about the fact that Jerusalem was declared to be an international space under the 1947 UN Partition plan– "a corpus separatum"–but its religious independence has never been respected by the Israelis.

Finally, consider this: Over the last 40 years under its "Protection of Holy Sites Law," the Israeli Government has recognized 137 designated holy sites. ALL OF THEM ARE JEWISH. The U.S. State Department has protested this discrimination. "Non-Jewish holy sites do not enjoy legal protection under it because the government does not recognize them as official holy sites," the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report of 2009 stated.

Will this outrage pass? Will the LA Times give equal space to the petitioners to point out Hier’s falsehoods? Will the American Jewish community redeem itself from its blind support for a government that discriminates against an ethnic minority? To be continued…

Update, and my bad: The LA Times did run a piece by Saree Makdisi opposing the Museum of Tolerance (without countering the falsehoods in Hier’s account).

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