One of my readers, Jeff Wollock, noted in a brief comment that the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance faces yet another halachic hurdle I hadn’t realized: pinui kever (lit. “opening a grave”). In other words, Jewish tradition holds the dead and burial grounds in deep reverence. The desecration of a grave is strictly forbidden. Therefore, the necessity to destroy Muslim graves in the Mamilla cemetery where the building will go up poses an especially problematic obstacle.
One can always argue that these rules apply only to Jews, not non-Jews, thus getting Rabbi Hier off the hook. But in this learned disquisition on the laws of burial, Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz (no friend of Muslims I am sure since he specifically talks favorably about West Bank settlements here), writes:
…Assuming that the rules against pinui kever do not apply to the bones of non-Jews…in itself is subject to controversy…
In other words, this Orthodox rabbi argues that a credible case can be made that even non-Jewish remains may not be desecrated.
There are cases in which remains may be removed from a cemetery, one of which is called nezek l’rabim (“damage to the public”), by which one may disinter bodies if it promotes a significant public interest. The rabbis do not find building a building to be a significant public interest:
…The overwhelming majority of rabbanim who have addressed this matter, including R. Yitzchak Kulitz (the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem)…would not permit the initiation of commercial development with the knowledge that bones are going to have to be removed.
Yes, the Museum is not directly a “commercial development.” But Israeli commentators have noted that the Museum is part of an overall commercial development plan meant to enrich local developers building a nearby mall and residential housing:
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…is the construction of an exclusive mall and luxury flats. The area will be called the Mamilla Complex…
In that sense, we cannot simply view the Museum as a worthy endeavor promoting an altruistic purpose.
I am perfectly willing to concede that Rabbi Breitowitz, if queried about this specific case, might find many reasons to disagree with my thoughts here. But what interests me is the logic of his views and how they militate against the Museum project.
Another thought that Jews should keep in mind is that if we wish non-Jews to honor our own dead and our own cemeteries, what kind of example are we posing? Wouldn’t they be perfectly capable of pointing to the Musuem’s disregard for the concerns of Israel’s Muslims in desecrating these graves? And don’t think such cases don’t happen. In fact, in 2000, ancient Jewish graves were discovered in Prague at a building site. World Jewry united in pressuring the Czech authorities to properly respect the remains.
Imagine should such a situation develop in the future and the authorities could very well say: “If you want your graves honored why didn’t you show such respect to non-Jewish graves in Jerusalem?” People like Marvin Hier seem to forget the phrase: “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Apparently, one law applies to Jews and an entirely other law applies to non-Jews.