by Osma Dossani
The Facts: The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has built the Museum of Tolerance here in LA, has been issued the permit to build a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. There is some tension behind this because many believe that it is on a Muslim cemetery. This issue ought to be judged with knowledge, said Ran Boytner, an Israeli-born archaeology professor here at UCLA. After interviewing the opposing sides, namely the Museum of Tolerance and the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Los Angeles, with the additional help of Ran Boytner, the truth finally emerged. The reason is because each said the opposite thing when asked if the Museum of Tolerance was to be built on top of a Muslim cemetery.
Ran Boytner affirmed that the site they are going to build on is a Muslim cemetery and that the cemetery will be removed and reburied elsewhere. It”s definitely a Muslim cemetery, there”s no question about that,? he said. He said that it was partially covered by a parking lot sixty years ago, and while the reasons for the building of that car park are nebulous, the fact is that there is a car park there that is on top of what was once a cemetery.
CAIR made it very clear that it is a Muslim cemetery there. This is the whole reason they are against it. Munira Syeda, a representative of CAIR-Los Angeles, said, “we never said, ‘don’t build,’ we just want it to be moved elsewhere. Not doing so will further the tension and animosity between Muslim and Jewish communities. Companions of Prophet Muhammad and other famous Muslim scholars are said to be buried there. So, obviously the site has a special religious significance for Muslims, aside from having archaeological value.” She said that this Museum will be a good thing, and it has good intentions, and it is just the placement of this Museum that is the issue”being that it is atop a Muslim cemetery. It would not be tolerant, both Boytner and Syeda noted, for a Museum of Tolerance to build on top of a Muslim cemetery.
However, when I spoke to the Museum of Tolerance, they said it is definitely not a cemetery that they are going to build on. Liebe Geft, the director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, who is also involved with the content in the museum in Jerusalem, said that, “were this the case, we would not proceed.” Clearly, they are proceeding, so maybe there is no cemetery. She also added that the site has been Jerusalem”s main parking lot since the 1960s; this parking lot is the same one that Boytner mentioned covered the cemetery. The Museum are the ones with the floor plans, and the site maps, so it makes sense that they really know where they actually are going to build. CAIR, on the other hand, said that the Museum was spreading false information, and that it is indeed on a cemetery. In fact, during the museum”s excavation of the site in 2006, more than 250 skeletons were unearthed. There”s no dispute about the existence of the cemetery,? Syeda said. She also urged the Wiesenthal Center to accord respect to non-Jewish cemeteries, as it does to Jewish cemeteries. The group spent 15 years forcing the removal of a Catholic convent from Auschwitz, saying the Jewish cemetery deserved “universal respect,”? she added, implying that this area deserves the same. The Museum, however, said that the Supreme Court ruling, which lasted over two years, confirmed that this is a site that is not considered a cemetery anymore, and it is an acceptable place to build on. CAIR, again on the other hand, said that the Supreme Court of Israel has allowed many unethical things to occur, like the continuing of an illegal occupation, the ongoing building of illegal Jewish-only settlements and the erection of an Apartheid wall, and thus cannot make any moral claims. The Museum, on the other hand, said that the main opponent of the project is a supporter of Hamas, whose intent is to destroy Israel and anything Jewish, and that this is only one of many construction projects that he has opposed in Israel. Eventually, one discredited the other, and there was nothing left to believe. It really stopped becoming about the cemetery altogether.
What could be extracted from this is that there was a cemetery in the area a while ago, and it was abandoned, and the issue is if a cemetery that is abandoned can really still be considered a cemetery. Is there a difference between bones in the ground and a cemetery? It”s true that many areas in Jerusalem have bones, and so it may be common to come by them once in a while, but this is a large concentration of bones. A similar conflict is ongoing in America with the graves of Native Americans. Archaeologists and scientists believe that by unearthing Native American burials, they may gain knowledge of the past. Native Americans believe that it is inhuman to do this to their dead, claiming also they know their past, and do not need scientists to affirm this. These issues both boil down to the issue on if it is ethical to unbury the dead, for whatever reason. Ran Boytner explained that when it comes to development, graves are unburied and reburied quite frequently. Across the world, it is routine that cemeteries are removed and people are reburied to make space for development, including for private, commercial and places of worship. Yet, given the context of the present conflict in the Middle East, no observer can escape the symbolic hypocrisy of building a Jewish Museum of Tolerance on top of a Muslim cemetery. It may be legal, but it certainly demonstrates no tolerance. Interestingly enough, there was an earlier plan to build a Muslim university on top of this same car park and cemetery a while ago, and it never went through because it did not have adequate funding. However, Affad Shaikh, another representative of CAIR-Los Angeles, said that the man who was to build this Muslim university was not considered a Muslim leader. He was very corrupt, and few agreed with his beliefs.? It is clear that this issue is really a clash of information drowned in a clash of two identities. In reference to the parking lot, Shaikh said that at the time the parking lot was being built, Muslims could not protest such an act. If they did, they were put in prison.
It is very important for the Museum to understand why this project is being contested, and for the contesters to understand why the Museum believes this place to be acceptable to build on. By truly understanding the other side, one can achieve a solution. The Native Americans versus the anthropologists issue was partially solved by NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), where a Native American must always be present at a development site, and if a grave is found, the most likely descendant is given the authority on what ought to be done with it. More often than not, the graves are unburied and reburied elsewhere. In both cases, it is the responsibility of those in charge to listen to the minority when it concerns their dead, and to address the concerns around this such that everyone may receive proper understanding of both sides, and a solution may appear.
But outside of religion and ethics, it”s clear this is also a political thing. If a Muslim cemetery is trampled on by a building that is founded by a Jew, Muslims will feel like Jews are trampling on their past. Ivan Strenski, a religious studies professor at UCLA, commented about people and religion. Religion is like an identity. It”s like being American. When you look at Iran and Iraq, the identity conflict is between Shi”as and Sunnis, and then when Israel comes in, its between Muslims and Jews.? So indeed, this is a clash between two identities. The only reason cemeteries are valued is because of their memory of the past. It”s actually brilliant that this particular museum is to be built, versus anything else, because this place is intended to be a place of tolerance. Perhaps if the Museum made an exhibit on this particular issue, or on the ancient cemetery, and chose to work closely with CAIR and other Muslim organizations in Jerusalem to bring a loud and accessible Muslim voice to the future Museum of Tolerance, the two religions would come together and learn how similar they are, and start a healing process. It is in peace that we can solve issues of violence, and we cannot be too naÃ¯ve to translate our emotions from elsewhere here”we must try, though impossibly, to solve this with a fully open mind, and really understand where the other side is coming from. These political gestures, from both sides, have a kernel of anxiety that can be addressed, and extinguished. As for the placement of the museum, it is unlikely that everyone will agree on where it ought to be placed. In hopes that the two groups come together, maybe a conversation could be had where the Museum may justify its standpoint but also listen to the others, while those against it can justify their standpoint and listen to the Museum”s. Once each understands each other, and all the contradictions follow the same grain, both hands may place the first brick for this Museum that is bound to help tolerance in the region.