Dear Rabbi Hier,
It saddens me to find myself in opposition to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose goals and good works I have long supported.
But I have an honest and personal disagreement with a decision the center has taken, the location of the Museum of Tolerance on a Muslim burial ground.
I detailed my objection in an article entitled Dividing Jerusalem, one bad wall at a time. I noted that in the past, SWC had worked diligently and admirably in protecting the sanctity of cemeteries, in particular, that of the unmarked Jewish graves of Auschwitz.
You responded with a letter headed "Museum of Tolerance is a beacon of light, not a wall." You begin by saying that I deliberately hid the fact that the land was given to the Simon Wiesenthal Center by the government of Israel and the City of Jerusalem, who presented petitions to the Supreme Court in support of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.
It remains unclear to me why I or anyone else would want, deliberately or otherwise, to hide that fact. But, since you brought it up, here's something else that I did not include:In an interview with the Jerusalem Post in February, 2006, when you said that the plot of land was not considered a cemetery and was given to the center in good faith by the government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality, you went on to say:
"We never would have accepted a site if the government of Israel or the Jerusalem Municipality had said it was a Muslim cemetery."
"We would have laughed. It would have been preposterous. We never would have accepted it."
I believe you. Just as I still believe that as soon as bones began to be unearthed at the site, it was time to recognize that the idea of building a Museum of Tolerance over a cemetery - whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, non-denominational or animist - is, at its root, preposterous.
The same 2006 Post article, citing the Israel Antiquities Authority, notes that "The authority has already removed 250 skeletons and skulls from the site and has reported to the court that the cemetery dates back centuries and that there are at least five layers of density of graves there."
You have marshaled learned arguments to prove that the land is no longer legally sacred to Muslims.
But do you truly believe that Muslim individuals, who have come forward to state that their ancestors were buried there, are lying? Do you believe that they do not, in fact, consider this land sacred, or that their dismay over the museum plan is unjustified?
You have said that many of the critics of the plan are extremists, and that is true.
But seriously, on the most basic, human level, can you say in all honesty that you cannot understand why many Israeli citizens, moderate, tolerant Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, are vexed by the concept of a Museum of Tolerance built on a graveyard?
You have spoken eloquently and convincingly of the potential importance and contribution of the museum.
But you have not made one compelling argument for preferring the Mamilla site over other possible building sites in Jerusalem.
Finally, you have stressed that the bones found during construction were between 300 and 400 years old, the graves unmarked.
Are you telling us that in another 300 or 400 years, it will be all right for the Catholic Church to go ahead and re-build the convent near
Auschwitz that you so strongly opposed 20 years ago?Are you telling us that there is a statute of limitations on memory?People of good will in Jerusalem and its environs, intelligent, sensitive, tolerant Christians, Muslims and Jews, want to support a museum like this. These are exactly the kinds of people the museum needs to attract. These are exactly the kinds of people you need to listen to.
They are telling you that your flagship project may have lost its moral compass.
They are telling you that for all of your good will, this project, and, no less, your legacy, are in clear danger of defeating their own purpose.
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