A monument to insensitivity
There is a new wall in the downtown heart of the Holy City. It is, in fact, a new security fence. It is not tall, nor has it been built to last. But the wall, and what it protects, may do more to undermine Israel's moral claims to Jerusalem than the huge concrete structure that has marred the city's Arab eastern half for years.
There is no sign on the wall. There is no explanation for the posting of a uniformed guard at its entrance. There is no indication, therefore, that it protects construction of a quarter-billion-dollar monument to insensitivity.
This is also a testament to the principle that Israel's only dependable natural resource is irony: The walled-in area is a construction site where a Los Angeles-based Jewish human-rights organization, dedicated to instilling the lessons of the Holocaust and combating hatred, is building the Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, atop a Muslim cemetery.
The complex is a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose founder Rabbi Marvin Hier envisions the museum as a "great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility."
No one disputes that Jerusalem is in dire need of tolerance and human dignity. Rabbi Hier was surely right to set that as his goal. But when the Wiesenthal center chose the Mamilla cemetery site from a range of locations that were offered, it was wrong. And late last month, when Israel's Supreme Court gave the project the green light, and Rabbi Hier responded that "moderation and tolerance have prevailed," he was dead wrong.
In 2006, less than two years after Rabbi Hier, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, architect Frank Gehry and much of the Israeli cabinet attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the museum, construction was abruptly - and correctly - halted: Workers excavating the site had struck bones.
At that point, the Wiesenthal center, mindful of its stated mission, should have immediately begun a search for an alternative site. Instead, it spent a fortune in legal fees fighting a protracted court battle in which, in a very real sense, everyone came out the loser. After all, this is the same organization that labored for 15 long years, in the words of Wiesenthal center associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper, to help "galvanize world opinion to force the removal of a Carmelite convent from the grounds of Auschwitz."
Why had the center worked so hard and for so long to win the removal of a Catholic convent built there? "Auschwitz is the largest Jewish cemetery - the single largest unmarked human graveyard - in history," Cooper noted in 2005. "It deserves universal respect."
Rabbi Cooper was right: A burial ground of one faith must be respected by people of all religions, even if the graves are unmarked. So it was for Jewish graves in Auschwitz. So it was last year, in Vilnius, where Jews protested vociferously when officials granted permits for apartments to be built on top of an area believed to be part of Lithuania's largest Jewish cemetery. So it was with Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem: Jews were justifiably outraged when they learned that during Jordanian rule in that area, construction on and around the cemetery destroyed large numbers of Jewish graves. And respect for another faith should certainly be the rule in the case of a site said to have been Jerusalem's main Muslim cemetery until 1948.
In a city sacred to a large portion of the world's population, the bedrock test of the legitimacy of Israeli rule is the degree of respect the Jewish state accords the sacred sites of other faiths.
The choice of a Muslim cemetery in Jewish West Jerusalem for the museum casts doubt on Israel's guardianship of holy sites. It not only calls into question the country's moral claims to ruling all of Jerusalem - it erodes its claims to any of it.
It does Israel no honor that Supreme Court approval of the project was based, in part, on the argument that no protests were heard when the city built a parking lot on part of the cemetery in 1960. That occurred at a time when much of Israel's Arab population was under martial law, and in virtually no position to voice opposition. Moreover, it is not for Jews to decide what Muslims should or should not hold sacred.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has won its day in court. But in doing so, it defeated the very tolerance, human dignity, mutual trust and brotherhood for which the center stands. What is compassion, what is tolerance, if not the ability to reconsider one's own actions in the light of the ways in which they may injure others?
One needn't be a jurist or an expert in Middle East conflict resolution to know that Muslims will have zero tolerance for the chosen site of this museum. One need only be a lover of Jerusalem, and of Israel, to have zero tolerance for it as well.
It is not too late. Now is the time for Rabbi Hier and the Wiesenthal center to embrace the true message of the project. Make the righteous and courageous decision to leave the Mamilla cemetery and build elsewhere. It is not too late. Set an example of respect. Tear down this wall. Move the museum.