The building of the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, a $200 million complex designed by architect Frank Gehry, has hit yet another political snag. Inspectors have halted construction on some areas of the site following the discovery of Muslim graves.
By law, the state-sponsored Israel Antiquities Authorities (IAA) is obliged to block any construction that could damage historical ruins. To date, building on the 400,000 square-foot site near Independence Park has all been above ground, according to IAA spokesperson Osnat Guez. “No graves have been damaged.”
“All of Jerusalem is an archaeological site and there are graves everywhere,” she added. “We don’t check if the graves are Muslim or Jewish or pagan, there is no difference to us, they are antiquities. It is our job to [protect] antiquities.” The bones themselves, however, are considered the responsibility of the relevant religious authorities.
According to Jerusalem geographer Ronnie Ellenblum, this graveyard dates back to the seventh-century Byzantine period and was later used by Crusaders, Mamluks and finally Muslims. “It’s a huge, historical cemetery, one of the most important in Jerusalem,” he says. “But the graves should be moved, the living are more important than the dead.”
In the past, ultra-Orthodox Jews have clashed with city officials over graves under construction sites. The site of the new museum was known to have Muslim graves nearby and Muslim officials have worried from the start that more graves could be hidden underground.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has come under fire since it announced plans to build a museum of tolerance in Jerusalem and laid the cornerstone last year, with the help of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The international organisation’s mission is to combat anti-Semitism, racism, terrorism and genocide.
Critics have protested that a museum dedicated to remembering and preventing racial and cultural hatred should be more inclusive of other local histories, like those of the Armenians and Palestinians. In deference to complaints by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, the new museum will not focus on this historical chapter.
“If there is a tolerance museum in Jerusalem, it should be a world example for multi-culturalism and coexistence,” says Mr Ellenblum. Wiesenthal officials declined to comment.