Consider this headline: “Prague Museum to Desecrate Ancient Jewish Quarter Cemetery.”
The headline isn’t true, but it got your attention. The city of Prague is not building a museum of tolerance in the Jewish Old City. But the city of Jerusalem has given the Wiesenthal Center the green light to destroy an ancient Muslim cemetery in the Mamilla neighborhood of West Jerusalem in order to build a new “musuem of tolerance” there.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist and environmental crusader, has brought the issue to the fore within the Jewish community, while Israel’s Islamic Movement has championed the cause in the Muslim community. Just as Baskin wasn’t aware of the issue until the museum had actually broken ground and begun uncovering Muslim skeletons (while having made no provisions for what to do with them once they were found), I wasn’t aware of this until reader Linda Mamoun brought Baskin’s comments in the Jerusalem Post to my attention. This has to be one of the few times when I’ll acknowledge that the Post has actually done something constructive regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though Marvin Hier will, no doubt, disagree.
I created the title in the first paragraph of this post because I want my readers to imagine how they would feel if that place of awesome repose in Prague’s Old Jewish Quarter, which I have had the good fortune to visit, were desecrated in the way the Muslim cemetery is being desecrated. Adding insult to injury, the museum is designed to promote awareness of anti-Semitism and tolerance for Judaism (certainly not for Islam).
What kind of message is the Wiesenthal Center sending to the world’s Muslims, let alone to Israeli Jews? Tolerance? Where is it? It has been widowed and orphaned. Baskin notes the horror Jews felt after the 1967 War when they returned to the Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery to see the devastation wrought by the Jordanians there. And if an arch right-winger like Reuven Rivlin can express the sentiments below, you know you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel:
…Then Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud)…spoke in the meeting [Knesset hearing] about his parents, buried in the Mount of Olives cemetery in east Jerusalem, and the rage he would feel if someone tried to build a museum on their graves.
Even if we concede that the Museum of Tolerance is not a malicious desecration, do we think that the Muslim world will have the patience to understand the nuance? Further, the Jewish presence in Israel has involved expropriation/appropriation of thousands of Arab villages and historic sites. Must we take yet another and in the guise of brotherhood?
Moving the Museum would undoubtedly involve great inconvenience and expense. But it’s simply the right thing to do. Not to move the museum is a clear message to the Muslims of Israel and the world that Jews simply do not value either live Muslims or dead ones.
It is shameful that the museum’s defenders have excoriated Gershon Baskin as a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah for his opposition to the museum. Notice how in the following passage, Rabbi Hier manages to transform Israeli Jew, Baskin and his NGO, the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information into a “Muslim group:”
…During the almost half-century that it served as a parking lot, no Muslim group, including today’s most vociferous critics of the museum – Hamas, Hizbullah and Gershon Baskin, of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information – raised a word of protest.
It is as if Baskin’s being on the same side of the issue as a supposed radical Israeli Islamic cleric, transforms Baskin from Jew to Muslim. This is a typical scurrilous tactic of the extreme Israel-First crowd. It is far easier and more convenient to smear a Jewish opponent as being an Muslim lover than it is to engage with his critical arguments.
I also find objectionable Hier’s characterization of the Muslim opponents of the project as blind haters:
It is the blind hatred and intolerance of extremists…which impede any prospects for civility and peace.
Since when does a religious adherent who objects to the desecration of the bones of his ancestors become a “blind hater” and “intolerant extremist?” If an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Hier’s Los Angeles hometown were desecrated he’d be the first to scream bloody murder. And he’d be right to do so. But when it’s his ox being gored all of a sudden he gets all holy and indignant and cries ‘Islamic extremism.’
Museum of tolerance, indeed. Rabbi Hier needs a few lesson in the subject himself. He has infinite tolerance for his own religion, little for that of his Jerusalem Muslim neighbors.
Let’s also remember that Baskin wisely articulates his argument not on the basis of it being the right thing to do for Muslims or in legal terms. But rather on the basis that it is the right thing to do as Jews. That is something that must incense Hier and why he tries to tar Baskin with the brush of being “Muslim.”
In this closing remark of Hier’s Jerusalem Post rebuttal to Baskin, the rabbi condemns himself and his own project with his own words:
The location of the museum in the center of Jerusalem has special significance, since it is a city that has a special ethical significance for three religions and an ancient history, which is unique to human civilization.
And it is for this very reason that Hier’s museum makes a travesty of its stated purpose. When it is built I will never visit it nor should any right-thinking person. It is an offense to Jewish values as well as Muslim.
I fully agree with Baskin that it’s a moral, not a legal matter, “anything can be made legal” indeed. But what is that about “not hav[ing] to give a foothold to Raed Salah in the heart of west Jerusalem”? Is he earnestly proposing that it’s right and proper to leave or put Muslim holy sites under Israeli – that is, Jewish – rule, not in terms of state sovereignty (nobody is suggesting making such sites territorial exclaves of whichever Islamic state), but in administrative terms? What would he say if Jewish cemeteries in Germany came under the “rule” (his word) of the Christian churches, even if they weren’t desecrated in any (other) way?
Jonathan Cook puts this one properly in context, as it is far from being an isolated incident: http://www.jkcook.net/Articles2/0345.htm
He also notes that
In confounding the Jewish state’s political sovereignty over its territory with his claim of the Jewish religion’s supreme rule over other religions and their sacred sites in Israel he shows himself of one with Christian Dominionism and political Islam – a “Judeofascist”, if such terms hadn’t been pretty much emptied of their meaning by now.
Gershon Baskin is having his problems with Rabbi Heir who is running his name through the mud.
I wonder if Gershon Baskin knows the details of the funding of this project. It comes through the Winnick Institute in Los Angeles.
“He (Winnick) made his biggest splash in 2000 when he announced a $40 million pledge to the Simon Wiesenthal Center to build an educational center in Israel to promote tolerance among people of differing religious faiths. Renowned architect Frank Gehry is designing the three-acre Winnick Institute Jerusalem and construction is expected to begin within the next nine to 12 months, says Wiesenthal founder, Rabbi Marvin Heir.”
Notice that? The project was originally named the Winnick Institute Jerusalem.
Read the article, it gives only a fraction of the information on how much of a CROOK Gary Winnick is (Global Crossing)
In addition, another article states Winnick has sunk 77 million in to the project.
“Mr. Winnick initially rejected the invitation to make the first big pledge for a new center in Jerusalem because he didn’t think the world needed another place to study the Holocaust, which he said the proposal then included.
Instead, Mr.Winnick told Rabbi Hier, “I would be interested in a collaboration with the Wiesenthal Center that would involve issues unrelated to the Holocaust and would involve issues of world peace.”
Says Rabbi Hier, “Gary wanted to make sure that the focus in Jerusalem would be what we consider to be the critical issue facing Israel — that is, the need to build a more tolerant society in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims can live together.”
AH, but wait, Heir stated here:
“Mr. Hier maintains that, while the museum will not conspicuously avoid the Palestinian situation, ”It’s not about the experience of the Palestinian people. When they have a state, they’ll have their own museum.”
Furthermore, Rabbi Heir signed an agreement with Vad Yashem NOT to focus on the Holocaust which is their focus.
It wasn’t Gary Winnick’s idea for a different focus and Rabbi Heir won’t “conspicuously avoid the Palestinian situation” while at the same time he states Winnick’s focus was to build a more tolerant society!
Not to worry, Frank Gehry’s projects are FAMOUS for their cost over-runs. Witness what occurred at the Walt Disney Concert Hall Project in Los Angeles.
DISNEY HALL COST-OVERRUN SUIT SETTLED
A complex lawsuit over who should bear unexpectedly high construction costs for Walt Disney Concert Hall has been settled, with builders to receive $13.3 million from the hall’s parent corporation and an additional $4.5 million under architect Frank Gehry’s professional liability insurance policy.
Steve Getzug, a spokesman for Walt Disney Concert Hall Inc., said Friday that it will meet its $13.3-million share with about $2 million left over from the $274-million construction budget, plus $11 million from “a number of supporters of the Music Center and Disney Hall” who want to be anonymous. Getzug said he didn’t know whether the money was raised specifically to pay the settlement. As a result of the settlement, he said, the price tag for Disney Hall now jumps to about $284 million.
The suit was filed less than a month after the concert hall’s October 2003 opening. M.A. Mortenson Co., the project’s general contractor, contended that it and a long list of subcontractors were owed $43.3 million because changes from the original design and flawed construction plans had caused delays and cost escalations. Disney Hall Inc. countersued, saying it was entitled to more than $6 million from builders who had been given advance study time to master the complex plans.
Did you notice those figures? Mortenson received only a THIRD of what was owed to them in this settlement which was agreed upon to avoid a lengthy and expensive legal process. Israel, Rabbi Heir, I think you have a costly future to look forward to with this project.
Acai Berri says
If you read the original article, you will also read that Hajj Amin el Husseini, the Mufti of al Quds, declared the site not holy to Muslims and planned to build a hotel there in the 1930s. How can a site be not holy if Muslims want to build there, but holy if Jews want to build there?
Rev John Momo says
What is the current use of the disputed land? Could it be returned to the Palestinians upon division of Jerusalem?
I don’t know how you’d describe the “use” of the land, but judging by photos of the site it’s still quite visibly a graveyard. It certainly doesn’t look like a parking lot, as Rabbi Hier calls it.
And if it’s in W Jerusalem, it’s not going to go to the Palestinians.
The location of this project is key, no, it wouldn’t be returned to the Palestinians should East Jerusalem become the Palestinian capital because the site is in West Jerusalem According to this August 2007 article:
Meanwhile, construction on the Museum has stopped, awaiting a ruling by the Supreme Court. One hundred and fifty million dollars has been invested in this project (cost estimated now 250 mil, just wait, it WILL go up), and the nearly year long delay in construction amounts to a considerable financial loss for the Wiesenthal Center, as well as for the Municipality of Jerusalem. This ambitious project was originally seen as a great victory for the Jerusalem Municipality, and at the 2004 ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ehud Olmert were among the distinguished guests. Frank Gehry, who, among other achievements, designed the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, was chosen as the architect of the project, which was planned to be finished in 2009. The museum, once finished, will have an exhibition hall, a library about the Holocaust, and an education center.
One of the reasons this area was chosen was its central location. The project belongs to a plan aiming to revitalize the entire area, which, for many years now, has been deteriorating into one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods. Also included in the plan to inject more money into this area is the construction of an exclusive mall and luxury flats. The area will be called the Mamilla Complex, and will, the planners hope, encourage families to go for walks here. Why allow some old bones, who no one remembers any more, to interfere in such a project?
Only a few hundred meters separate this opulent project from East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian population of the city lives. What will happen when Palestinian residents want to go for a walk through Mamilla?
Dr. Nachti believes that this is just another measure to separate the two sides—West Jerusalem, the Jewish side, and East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side. Whether it is true that the Mamilla Complex will create another strife ridden barrier, it is unlikely to be within the reach of many Palestinian residents, for whom the level of poverty is almost fifty percent more than among Jewish citizens.
BUT, you can still arrange to have your name on the project. Here’s the donor “availabilties”
Spare change anyone? Better make sure you have your sunglasses on too once the building is finished ala Frank Gehry’s favorite material to clad a building in, silver titanium.
A definite tactic that should have been taken at the Jerusalem municipality level would have been the cost to them. If this project just laid it’s first stone, the time I would estimate on the project would be MINIMUM five years. That is one very complicated project. I think it also has an underground component which will also add time. The Walt Disney Concert Hall took three years to finish AFTER all the steel was in place which took more than two years before that. Just wait for the cost over-runs. Happy piggy bank raiding! Happy BOONDOGGLE Jerusalem as the US economy where all the funding for this project is coming from is on the brink of disaster.
PS: the LA Times had an appropriately named article on this titled “Culture Monster”
Let’s just say Karma might play high jinks with this project.
John Dickerson says
There is a Palestinian cemetary involved.
Richard Silverstein says
@Acai Berri: And you apparently neglected to read Gershon Baskin’s rebuttal in which he noted that this is the very same Mufti who my right wing readers like to quote as the infamous friend of Adolph Hitler. In addition, the Mufti was ignominiously ejected from his position amidst a corruption scandal. So is this the so-called Muslim notable on whose opinions you & Hier want to rest yr case?
Rev John Momo says
If Muslims are buried there, why shouldnt it be returned to the Palestinians?
Acai Berri says
I personally think that Hajj Amin was a despicable creature and was a participant in the Holocaust. However, he is the acknowledged father of Palestinian nationalism and his views have credence in the Palestinian community. Thus he can be quoted in this argument
In addition, the Mufti was ignominiously ejected from his position amidst a corruption scandal…I am unaware of this. According to the history that I read, he fled to Beirut after the Palestinian defeat in 1948 and lived happily ever after, dying in 1974. If he was ejected due to corruption, how does that differ from Olmert?
Izzy Duna says
Thank you fro bringing this to my attention.
I wonder, is there any kind of forum that I, not an Israeli, can write to, expressing my distaste for this project?
Are there names for those in the Israeli courts who will be reviewing this? Activists?
Richard Silverstein says
That’s a load of bull. He’s quoted by Hier as a supposed expert on Islamic law whose legal decision about the status of the cemetery supposedly carries weight. It doesn’t. He was dumped fr. his position decades ago in disgrace. So what credence does he have for any Palestinian nowadays (or even when he made his supposed ruling)? I’m afraid you’ll have to try harder because this argument won’t fly.
Gershon Baskin writes in the JPost that he was ejected in a corruption scandal. I trust him as a journalist and respected analyst of the I-P conflict.
What does Ehud Olmert have to do w. anything? Are you going to call upon him to make a ruling in this case too?
@Richard & Acai: Your confusion comes perhaps from this sentence in Baskin’s article:
I know nothing about the kadi, but from this it seems it was him, not the Grand Mufti, who deconsecrated the site and also was involved in the corruption scandal.
Jonathan Cook (linked earlier) writes of an Islamic Trust instead:
So that’s the equivalent of the French Vichy government, or Norway’s Quisling, isn’t it?
The question is, who does represent the Israeli Muslims in religious matters? Clearly it’s not the secular PLO, Fatah, or even Hamas. Is it the Islamic Movement in Israel, and is that one of the reasons for Sheik Raed Salah’s persecution – his efficacy rather than his sometimes over the top rhethoric? Or Jerusalem’s Mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, who has also denounced the destruction of the cemetery? The crux is that who represents them is the Muslims’ business and theirs alone, just like Jews alone get to decide who is a Rabbi.
It is also a legitimate halakhic question, i.e. the question whether the rules against pinui-kever (dismantling of graves) apply to non-Jewish as well as Jewish graves, is not a settled question. i.e. it may be interpreted that the rules against pinui-kever apply to non-Jewish graves.
Zhu Bajie says
BBC World Service told the story the day before yesterday, and talked with a couple individuals who have been visiting relatives’ graves there all along.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Religion is always very concerned with archaeologists uncovering graves, because of the possibility they might be ancient Jewish graves.
Jon Gill says
On the one hand, very expensive Holocaust museums are being build while on the other hand there are many poor Holocaust survivors. Isn’t it the living that should first be honored/helped before the dead are according to Judaism?