Lori Lowenthal Marcus
The world press just could not resist this story: the intolerance of a Jewish Museum of Tolerance!
A piece in the Feb. 15 Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is building a Museum of Tolerance in the center of Jerusalem. Muslim leaders lament that the site being excavated sits on what was once their ancient Mamilla Cemetery.
There are at least 4 1/2 ironies in this situation; few appear in the Inquirer’s article.
First of all, an Israeli law governing the handling of human bones uncovered during any building applies to all faiths. The law requires that bones be removed respectfully, and then transferred to the religious leaders of the faith to whom the remains belong.
The paper cites Muslim critics of the project who claim that “it never would have been approved if Jewish graves were being disturbed.” But Jewish cemeteries are often moved for building purposes, according to the same rules. In fact, the Jewish haredi Orthodox community regularly protests when the state approves the removal of certain, never before disturbed, Jewish cemeteries. But the Inquirer ignores this angle.
A second irony: Muslim authorities removed graves from, and built upon, this same cemetery. In the early 1920s, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem issued a fatwa declaring the Mamilla Cemetery abandoned, and therefore no longer sacred ground. In 1929, Arabs built the Palace Hotel on part of that cemetery.
Shortly after the hotel was built, the Muslim Supreme Council began developing plans to build a pan-Islamic university on a site that included the entire Mamilla cemetery grounds; the plan was eventually scrapped due to a lack of funds.
The Inquirer article mentions the existence of the Palace Hotel. But there was no mention of the plans for the university, nor of the decades-old fatwa undermining all the Muslim claims that Jews were desecrating Muslim holy ground.
Yet the third irony — one not mentioned in the Inquirer or anywhere else — is the one that struck me hardest.
There is a long and grotesque history of Arab desecration of Jewish (and Christian) holy sites in the Middle East. Consider just a few examples:
When Israel was re-established as a Jewish state in 1948, it was immediately attacked by Arab League armies. The occupying Jordanian army pillaged the 2,500-year-old Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery. The uprooting of 38,000 Jewish gravestones used by the Jordanians to build hotels, roads and even latrines is well-documented.
Located in Hebron is the holiest of all Jewish burial sites, HaMachpela. According to the Bible, it is where six of the seven Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs lay buried. Since the fall of 2000, Palestinian gunmen have repeatedly shot at Jewish pilgrims and worshippers there. In order for Jews to pray there today, they must be accompanied by armed soldiers.
In October 2000, a Palestinian mob attacked and then set fire to the Tomb of Joseph, destroying it and burning sacred objects.
And the Muslims are now criticizing Jews for not respecting burial sites?!
Here is perhaps the supreme irony: According to the Koran, both Abraham and Joseph are holy Islamic prophets. The Arab disrespect shown to Abraham’s burial site and the destruction of Joseph’s means Arabs have debased some of the holiest of Muslim cemeteries.
And here’s the final irony, one not picked up by the Inquirer or the rest of the media: The icons of intolerance are complaining about the placement of a Museum of Tolerance. Can anyone credibly imagine a Museum of Tolerance in Syria? In Saudi Arabia? In Ramallah?
This column was written for the Israel Advocacy Task Force of the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.