Oct. 29, 2008
Etgar Lefkovits , THE JERUSALEM POST
Artist's rendering of Frank Gehry-designed Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem; Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The Islamic Movement in Israel vowed to fight a Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that a Museum of Tolerance could be built on its planned site in central Jerusalem even though it was part of the old, deconsecrated Mamila Muslim cemetery.
Work on the $250-million museum, which is being built adjacent to Independence Park by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, hit a snag three years ago when dozens of Muslim graves were found on a section of the site during the required preliminary excavations. Two years ago, a court ordered a freeze in construction.
The museum said Wednesday that construction would resume immediately.
But a showdown is expected, with the Islamic group set to announce its plans at a press conference in east Jerusalem on Thursday morning.
"All citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of this decision," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center. "Moderation and tolerance have prevailed."
In their unanimous ruling, the justices noted that no objections had been lodged back in 1960, when the municipality put a parking lot over a small section of the graveyard, and that for the past half-century the site had been in public use.
The court said that an alternative proposal put forward by planners - including reburial of the bones or covering the graves - was "satisfactory" in trying to reconcile religious attitudes toward respecting the dead with the requirements of the law.
The court also noted that the Islamic organization that had filed the appeal, Al-Aksa Foundation, which is connected with the Islamic Movement, was declared illegal by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter earlier this year for its alleged ties with Hamas. Nevertheless, the court found, this in itself was not grounds to reject the appeal.
The court also said concerns that violence would break out if the construction went ahead were "not within the confines" of the ruling.
The decision came after seven months of arbitration failed to resolve the dispute.
An attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement broke down when Islamic officials rejected an offer by the museum to move the bones to a nearby neglected Muslim cemetery and to renovate it. The Wiesenthal Center refused to relocate the museum or to avoid construction on the small section of the site where the bones were found, saying the area was needed for the museum.
The bones, several hundred years old, were found on 12 percent of the site.
Islamic officials, who had repeatedly ruled out any construction at the site, criticized Wednesday's ruling.
"We did not expect much from the court, and it is clear that it is part of the Israeli establishment," Islamic Movement spokesman Zahi Nujidat said. "We will not give up easily."
In the past, public protests organized by the movement have turned violent.
The museum was originally expected to be completed in 2007. The Wiesenthal Center has spent millions of dollars in legal fees.
Hier said construction would take between three and three-and-a-half years.
According to the court's decision, construction can resume immediately, except for the small section where the human remains were found.
The court gave project managers 60 days to agree with the Antiquities Authority on a method for either removing any human remains for reburial or installing a barrier between the building's foundations and the ground below that would prevent graves from being disturbed.
The site was the city's main Muslim cemetery until 1948.
The Wiesenthal Center has cited rulings by Muslim courts, the most recent in 1964, that canceled the sanctity of the site because it was no longer used.
Hier said that the site, which was given to the center by the Israel Lands Administration and the Jerusalem Municipality in the '90s, had never been designated by Israeli authorities as a cemetery, and that for three decades it had been used as parking lot.
He added that throughout the Arab world, including in the Palestinian Authority, there had been extensive building on abandoned cemetery sites.
The museum construction site was dedicated with great fanfare in 2004, with top government officials and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in attendance.
The museum - which is being designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and will include a theater complex, conference center, library, gallery and lecture halls - seeks to promote unity and respect among people of all faiths.
"Jerusalem is 3,000 years old, and every stone and parcel of land has a history that is revered by people of many faiths," Hier said. "We are deeply committed to do everything in our power to respect this sacred past, but at the same time, we must allow Jerusalem to have a future."
Rendering of the museum's grand hall. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center.
From the Weisenthal Center Web site:
"All citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of this decision." Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center applauded today's Israeli Supreme Court decision allowing the Frank O. Gehry-designed <http://www.wiesenthal.com/site/lookup.asp?c=fwLYKnN8LzH&b=4709251> Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem (MOTJ) to be built on its planned site in the center of the city. "All citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, are the real beneficiaries of this decision," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "Moderation and tolerance have prevailed. The MOTJ will be a great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility." Construction on the project will resume immediately.
"Jerusalem is 3,000 years old and every stone and parcel of land has a history that is revered by people of many faiths. We are deeply committed to do everything in our power to respect that sacred past, but at the same time, we must allow Jerusalem to have a future and we are honored to be given an opportunity to be a part of that future," Rabbi Hier concluded.
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As a contrast:
Here's something interesting from July 2007:
Jews outraged by construction at site of famed Vilnius cemetery
By Dinah A. Spritzer
PRAGUE (JTA) -- Jews inside and outside of Vilnius are outraged at Lithuanian officials who have allowed construction on land believed to cover part of the country's largest Jewish cemetery.
Development of the King Mindaugas apartments is the second building project in two years that authorities have allowed on the area, one of the Lithuanian capital's prime real estate sites.
The city in May reportedly agreed to an international expert committee's recommendation that construction on the site be halted and that a geophysical survey be carried out in the disputed area. But construction has continued nonetheless.
"The government is playing a game with us, saying one thing and doing another," Simon Gurevichius, executive director of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, told JTA in a telephone interview.
Gurevichius said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus promised the Jewish community that a second building would not go up, "and meanwhile the digging is going on at a frantic pace where we know there are Jewish bones."
Estimates put the number of those buried at the Snipiskes Cemetery at some 10,000 over six centuries, although many bodies were removed by the Soviet regime when it controlled Lithuania. Prior to World War II, Vilnius was one of European Jewry's most vital centers of religious life and education.
The city first sold part of a vast tract of land in the city center, occupied in part by the cemetery, to a local developer in 2003. Despite complaints by the 5,000-strong Jewish community, the city in 2005 allowed the construction of an apartment complex. Gurevichius estimates that apartment prices start at $400,000.
This February, the city granted a second building permit after receiving permission from the Ministry of Culture, which has the power to stop projects that interfere with ancient sites and ruins.
Based on archival research it commissioned, the city argued that the current construction does not overlap with the cemetery grounds.
After pressure and intervention from international voices such as the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius and the American Jewish Committee, the Lithuanian Prime Minister's Office agreed in March to an expert committee of Jewish leaders, government officials and members of the historical institute that would try to resolve the boundary dispute.
The state-run Lithuanian Historical Institute declared in May that the construction area in question does encroach on the cemetery's borders, but its recommendation to stop construction has been ignored. In an apparent bureaucratic snafu that Gurevichius attributes to ill will, the city and state authorities claim they are not following the institute document because it lacks the proper signatures.
Ina Irens, chief officer of the Vilnius municipal government's international relations department, wrote JTA by e-mail that the city was aware of the controversy on the cemetery boundaries and was still waiting for the expertise from the Lithuanian Institute of History and the final document from the panel of experts.
The document in question was signed by the institute's director, Gurevichius said, but one copy lacks the signatures of the two researchers who helped him. Now he worries that in a few months, the apartment building will be completed and the city will say, "It's here now, it would just cost too much to tear it down," Gurevichius said.
Andrew Baker, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee, said the expert group's 10 members -- half of whom were Lithuanian -- unanimously recommended that construction be halted until further research was conducted.
Baker said he told Lithuanian officials, including the foreign minister, that "this is an unacceptable response and surely the government could do more. It is hard not to conclude that the Lithuanian government has acted in bad faith."
While the wrangling continues in Vilnius, the London-based Committee to Protect Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is convinced that the ongoing apartment construction, according to its own research in Vilnius, is disrupting the dead, which is a violation of Jewish law.
The cemetery committee, the Conference of European Rabbis and some 100 observant Jews held a prayer vigil in front of the European Commission in Brussels last week to protest the construction.
Abraham Ginsberg, the executive director of the cemetery committee, said: "We will protest at Lithuanian embassies around Europe, and men in black hats and long beards will lay down on the site if the construction does not stop."