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Controversy over Jerusalem ‘Museum of Tolerance’ featured in the ‘Daily Beast’

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MOT New Yorkers protest in September 2010 outside the offices of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (Photo: Bud Korotzer)

The heated dispute over the building of a “Museum of Tolerance” by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) on top of a historic Muslim cemetery shows no signs of letting up.

As work on and around the site near Jerusalem’s Old City continues, an international coalition persists in their efforts to try and stop the building. Since the Israeli authorities have given the go-ahead to the project– final approval was granted in July 2011 –the coalition has turned to international bodies like the United Nations. The dispute has also reached the pages of the Daily Beast blog Open Zion, where a back-and-forth over the planned museum was featured last month.

In late March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released video footage suggesting that “continuing excavations” on the site where the “Museum of Tolerance” is being built in Jerusalem still contains “archaeological artifacts and human remains.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center claims that “bedrock has been reached on all portions of the site” were wrong, according to the CCR. In other words, construction on the site has continued to disturb the human remains of some of Jerusalem’s most storied figures and families.

This new evidence was released three weeks after the CCR, a celebrated human rights legal group, wrote a letter to Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the SWC. The letter, written by the CCR’s Michael Ratner and Rashid Khalidi (whose ancestors are buried at the Mamilla Cemetery) implored Hier to stop construction of the “Museum of Tolerance.” They wrote:

The SWC’s continued insistence on building this museum on a site that has religious, cultural and historical significance to all Palestinians, and its continued denial of this significance, is a reflection of its gross insensitivity. The disingenuous manner in which the SWC has operated reveals that tolerance and human dignity are not the goal.

No response to the letter, which requested a meeting with Hier, has been forthcoming. But the Jerusalem mayor’s office, which also received the letter to Hier, did respond in a terse and confusing manner. Ido Rosenberg, an advisor to Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, wrote to Ratner:


The establishment of the Museum of Tolerance has been years after ail phases of the permit and construction is already underway. All the graves have ever been in the museum has been copied and re-buried, in coordination with representatives of the Muslim religion.

Ido Rosenberg

Meanwhile, Rashid Khalidi penned a searing indictment of the “Museum of Tolerance” in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog. He takes the Israeli authorities to task in this excerpt:

Israeli courts have not provided a remedy, and our suggestions of compromise, including relocating the Museum to a new location—a move that would showcase genuine tolerance—have been met with silence. Meanwhile, the Wiesenthal Center has skirted responsibility, initially disavowing knowledge of the graves, and now clinging to a flimsy defense that the sanctity of the site has long since diminished.

To show that these claims are patently false, one need only look to the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry’s 1948 declaration of Mamilla as “one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars… Israel will always know to protect and respect this site.” As recently as 1986, in response to a UNESCO investigation regarding Israel’s development projects on the site, the Israeli government stated that “no project exists for the deconsecration of the site… the site and its tombs are to be safeguarded.”

There is no justification for these desecrations. If they were occurring in any other place on earth, the outcry would be deafening. Unfortunately, the treatment of Mamilla is not an anomaly; Muslim and Christian sites of cultural, religious and historical significance continue to be systematically disrespected by Israeli authorities. The Protection of Holy Sites Law in Israel now covers 137 sites. Not one of these is Christian or Muslim.

The SWC’s public relations officer, Avra Shapiro, and Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGil University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, responded to Khalidi’s article, defending the SWC’s efforts.

The SWC published this response to Khalidi:

This facility contained a 3-level underground parking lot where hundreds people of all faiths parked their cars on a daily basis. Khalidi would have you believe that we are uprooting tombstones to build our Museum. That is simply not the case.

During these 50 years, no Muslim individual or group ever protested that this was an ancient Muslim cemetery. Why? Because from the very beginning, the motivation behind the campaign to stop construction of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem was political, intended to undermine the sovereignty and authority of Israel and its juridical institutions…

Khalidi then published a response to both Troy and Shapiro here. After more back and forth, Khalidi published a third and final response here.

For more information on the campaign to stop the construction of the “Museum of Tolerance” see the CCR’s page here.

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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7 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    May 30, 2012, 12:44 pm

    “Tolerance”, here, is a banner, not a philosophy. It is waved to make a claim to moral high-ground. The fact that this banner is deliberately waved (it could scarcely be more deliberate!) in a manner to illustrate the most grotesque intolerance is a vital part of the meaning of the banner and its waving.

    Waving this particular banner in this particular place means “We can do anything, however horrible, and paint it as “moral” under the name “tolerance”.) It is worse than George Orwell’s “newspeak”, with its misleading language (“Peace is war”, etc.) because it is a deliberate effort to make the speakers feel good about the most egregious misbehavior, misbehavior which violates the very name on the banner, “Tolerance”. It is like waving a banner that says, “we treasure all human life, especially that of babies” over a drone-control-center which deliberately and repeatedly and knowingly incinerates-by-remote-control human life in large batches, including babies.

  2. American
    May 30, 2012, 2:06 pm

    We can add the ‘right to be grave robbers” to the hasbara Jewish Right to Self Determination mantra of Israel.

  3. seafoid
    May 30, 2012, 3:42 pm

    Presumably the Museum of Tolerance will have a Sudanese wing

  4. DICKERSON3870
    May 30, 2012, 6:50 pm

    RE: “The heated dispute over the building of a “Museum of Tolerance” by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) on top of a historic Muslim cemetery shows no signs of letting up.” ~ Alex Kane

    MY COMMENT: Israel often uses U.S. entities (like SWC), corporations (like Intel), etc. in an effort to legitimize its actions.

    FOR INSTANCE, SEE: “Intel chip plant located on disputed Israeli land”, by Henry Norr, San Francisco Chronicle, 7/08/02

    (excerpts) Just how diligent was Intel’s due diligence when it chose to build a multibillion-dollar chip plant in Qiryat Gat, Israel? . . .
    . . . Intel calls the plant Fab 18 (“fab” being chip-industry jargon for a facility where the silicon wafers that are eventually turned into working chips are fabricated). The fab, which went into production in 1999, was the fruit of a $1 billion investment by the Santa Clara company, supplemented by a $600 million grant from the Israeli government. . .
    . . . But from a legal and historical point of view, Qiryat Gat happens to be an unusual location: It was not taken over by the Israeli military in 1948. Instead, it was part of a small enclave, known as the Faluja pocket, that the Egyptian army and local Palestinian forces had managed to hold through the end of the war.
    The area was surrounded by Israeli forces, however. When Israel and Egypt signed an armistice agreement in February 1949, the latter agreed to withdraw its soldiers, but it insisted that the agreement explicitly guarantee the safety and property of the 3,100 or so Arab civilians in the area.
    Israel accepted that demand.
    In an exchange of letters that were filed with the United Nations and became an annex to the main armistice agreement, the two countries agreed that “those of the civilian population who may wish to remain in Al-Faluja and Iraq al Manshiya (the two villages within the enclave covered by the letters) are to be permitted to do so. . . . All of these civilians shall be fully secure in their persons, abodes, property and personal effects.” …
    . . . Within days, the security the agreement had promised residents of the Al- Faluja pocket proved an illusion. Within weeks, the entire local population had fled to refugee camps outside of Israel.
    Morris presents ample evidence that the people of the Al-Faluja area left in response to a campaign of intimidation conducted by the Israeli military. He quotes, among other sources, reports filed by Ralph Bunche, the distinguished black American educator and diplomat who was serving as chief U. N. mediator in the region.
    Bunche’s reports include complaints from U.N. observers on the scene that “Arab civilians . . . at Al-Faluja have been beaten and robbed by Israeli soldiers,” that there were attempted rapes and that the Israelis were “firing promiscuously” on the Arab population. . .


  5. RoHa
    May 30, 2012, 8:56 pm

    I thought “tolerance” just meant “everyone else should put up with what we do”.

  6. weindeb
    May 31, 2012, 10:10 am

    I think a better name for this putative Museum of Tolerance would be Museum of Rabbi Marvin Hier. I have no idea how adept the good Rabbi is in parsing Talmud and such, but he’s always been masterful in the pursuit of publicity regarding his good works and photo ops regarding him. To offer a lousy pun, Hier today and Hier tomorrow.

  7. ahadhaadam
    May 31, 2012, 11:17 am

    Intolerance, under modern Zionist definition, is something which is done to Jews

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