A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance Uproots Muslim Cemetery. No, Really.

This has been around for a couple of days — well, the basic story's been going on for years — and you may have already seen it, but Ha'aretz has run an investigative series on how the new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem dealt with unearthing 1000 or so bodies from the city's oldest Muslim cemetery. No, this is not a story in The Onion, but it does have a 1984 "Freedom is Slavery" feel to it: the Museum of Tolerance, funded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is uprooting an ancient Muslim cemetery. (I guess they didn't mean that kind of tolerance.)

On the positive side, this has been investigated by an Israeli newspaper and has stirred up controversy in Israel. And the linked page above not only links to all three parts of the investigative report, but also includes the Simon Wiesenthal Center's official response.

Now, bones are a big deal in Jerusalem. Ever since the Prophet Ezekiel had his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, I suppose. Most of the time, it's the haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups who are trying to block archaeologist's digs, since they fear disturbing Jewish graves. Archaeology is highly political, not just in Jerusalem, but all over the Holy Land. This time, Israel's indigenous Islamic Movement (based among Israeli Arabs in Galilee and other parts of northern Israel) was the source of protest.

Rescue archaeology is also a loaded subject, since by definition rescue digs are done under the gun: they must be finished before the construction begins; in this case, the rescue archaeology occupied five months. The Ha'aretz articles raise questions about its professionalism; I wasn't there, so judge the articles as you will.

If you know Jerusalem at all you probably know the area known as the Mamilla. Much of it is Independence (Ha-Atzma'ut) Park. A lot of stuff is nearby: the US Consulate for West Jerusalem, the Beit Agron, Jerusalem's version of Washington's National Press Club (well, but very different in feel), etc. are clustered around Mamilla. One corner where there is a parking lot (confession: I've parked in that lot, not knowing it was on an ancient cemetery) is now under development for the museum.

As the Ha'aretz article notes, the museum itself is controversial since it's essentially an American-based enterprise and the folks at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's memorial to the Holocaust, thought they were doing a good enough job promoting tolerance.

It is, in many ways, a typical Jerusalem controversy, but the Ha'aretz exposé has drawn renewed attention to a battle that's been going on for years. And of course there's that "Museum of Tolerance Uproots Cemetery" angle that adds to the ironies. And now, it appears the Islamic Movement is reviving its activism in the wake of the exposé.

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