Opposition grows to Jerusalem’s museum of tolerance
New building being constructed in a medieval cemetery is facing protests from minority groups
By Lauren Gelfond Feldinger. Museums, Issue 226, July-August 2011
Published online: 18 July 2011
JERUSALEM. The Muslim Council, representing Muslim properties in Israel, is the latest organisation to oppose plans to build the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance on the site of the medieval Mamilla cemetery.
Jerusalem’s city planning committee approved a revised design of the controversial museum last month. Kais Nasser, a lawyer representing the Muslim Council, then announced that it would challenge the ethics of the plan and the legality of the planning process. The petition was rejected by the committee this week.
A Frank Gehry-designed tolerance museum was approved in 2005. But the US-based architect withdrew from the project in 2010 and a new design by Chyutin Architects of Tel Aviv (see right) was submitted as a revision rather than a new scheme. Nasser claimed that the plans should not have been approved because they were so different from the Gehry plan, and are not a revision. “The planning process should start over again so the public can submit objections,” he said.
Now that the district committee has approved the plan, the museum has the final go-ahead to begin construction, after many years of obstacles.
The museum initially sparked controversy over rumours that it would not include the history of local minorities, including Armenians and Arabs. Protests intensified when the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) found Muslim graves.
Israel’s supreme court later ruled that the tolerance museum could be built based on the precedent that the site had been used as a car park since the 1960s and no one had protested until it was earmarked for the museum.
The IAA said that the Muslim graves found, “were treated in exactly the same way as Jewish tombs: excavation, documentation, analysis, collection of remains, reburial”.
Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, an Israeli geographer and former rector of The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, said that some Israeli scholars oppose the project because it does not have the approval of the Muslim community.
Most municipal politicians in Jerusalem support the scheme. However, Meir Margalit, an opposition member of the city council, is among its critics. “I would be against the same thing if Europe wanted to build a tolerance museum on an ancient Jewish cemetery,” he said.
Muslim grave markers damaged
On the far side of the cemetery, where the museum is not building, Muslim grave markers were recently disturbed by a city-authorised bulldozer, according to the director of Israel's Higher Muslim Council. "They said we had built new graves without a permit, but there were no new graves and ancient headstones were destroyed," said Dr Mahmoud Masalkha.
The Israel Land Administration acknowledges that bulldozers were in the cemetery, but says that the headstones that were destroyed were "false tombs where no one has ever been buried. We observe an ongoing attempt to create facts on the ground," a spokesperson said. "It is important to emphasise that the Israel Land Administration acted in the area only after the Israeli Court permitted [it]."
The latest dispute arises a year after a Jerusalem magistrate court ruled that the cemetery is the property of the Israel Land Administration and the city must preserve the ancient graves but can remove new headstones that are placed without a permit, the spokesperson also said.
Piles of broken and unidentified stones remain in several spots.
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