An American Muslim group says the museum is going up on the site of a Muslim cemetery and it wants construction stopped.
Israel’s supreme court, however, ruled that the museum is being built on land that’s been used for decades as a parking lot without complaint from Muslims.
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a Jewish human rights group, recently won a three-year court battle to continue building its Museum of Tolerance. The $250-million facility is intended to promote “mutual respect and social responsibility,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, SWC’s founder and dean.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles has asked the SWC not to build on the site. In a letter to SWC on Thursday, CAIR-LA said, “the land on which you plan to build is the site of a Muslim cemetery, a historic landmark, and a place revered by many.”
According to historians, the planned museum site "was once the largest Muslim cemetery in Palestine," CAIR-LA said. Companions of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and Islamic jurists and scholars are said to be buried there.
In his letter, CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush said the Oct. 29 Israeli court decision to allow the construction to proceed “does not erase the fact that 150 skeletons have been unearthed at the cemetery, under the Wiesenthal Center's supervision. Neither can the Court's ruling erase the historic and religious value of the cemetery. You may claim the legal power to build the museum on the cemetery, but you do not possess the moral right to carry out such plans."
SWC noted on its Web site that bones found during construction of the museum were 300-400 years old and were unaccompanied by any markers, monuments, tombstone, family name or religion. (According to the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli supreme court instructed project managers to come up with a plan for removing and reburying human remains or for installing a barrier to prevent graves from being disturbed.)
According to the SWC, Muslim scholars and religious leaders have ruled that a cemetery that is not in use for 37 years is considered “mundras” – an abandoned cemetery that has lost its sanctity.
But according to CAIR, “the cemetery land… was designated as 'absentee property' when West Jerusalem came under Israel's control after 1948. The land was ruled no longer sacrosanct in 1964 by a body called the 'Islamic Sharia Court,' whose members were appointed by Israel and largely distrusted by the Muslim population. In violation of international law, the land was then designated by Israel as public open space, and the municipality built a parking lot over it.”
SWC noted that Muslims themselves have either proposed or completed construction projects on cemetery grounds over the years.
For example, in 1946, the Muslim mufti of Jerusalem planned to build a Muslim university on the entire cemetery. It was never built. And during the time of the British Mandate in the 1920s, parts of the cemetery were used for “development purposes,” including the Palace Hotel compound built by the Grand Mufti himself.
“Documents prove…the existence of building plans on the area of the cemetery that were prepared with the approval of the Muslims themselves,” Israel’s Antiquities Authority says.
Israel’s supreme court ruled in October that SWC’s planning for the museum site “was performed without prior knowledge of the finding of graves at the site; that the area has not been classified as a cemetery for decades; that the plans were prepared properly without anyone expressing opposition.”
“For decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community…no one denied this position,” the court said.
Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the Mufti of Jerusalem, was quoted as saying that the court decision harms Muslim holy sites.
But Hier rejected that criticism: “The opposition to the move is not motivated by religious concerns but is a political attempt at a land grab by Islamic fundamentalists,”
Hier was quoted as telling the Jerusalem Post.
One of those fundamentalists, Sheikh Raed Salah, heads the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. It was Salah, a man with ties to Hamas, who brought the case before Israel’s High Court in early 2006.
When the Israeli supreme court ruled that the museum construction could proceed, Salah called on the Arab and Muslim world to “mobilize” against the project.