Haaretz's investigative reporting on the eve of Shavuot about the removal of skeletons from the Mamilla Muslim cemetery so the Museum of Tolerance can be built there rightly prompted questions from the people at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had initiated the museum project. The questions went something like this: "So what now? Let's assume we drop the project. Will we reestablish the cemetery on a site that served as a parking lot for 40 years? After all, if we start putting back cemeteries that have disappeared, the country will quickly fill up with gravestones and there will be no space for the living. So it's patently absurd."
It's no small wonder, however, that a similar case exists not far from Mamilla. Just as the large, important, ancient Muslim cemetery in Mamilla is in the heart of Jewish-Israeli Jerusalem, the large, important, ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives is in the heart of the Muslim-Palestinian city. The two cemeteries can be seen as mirror images of each other.
Each of them passed into the hands of opposing sides during the War of Independence. In the 1960s, Israel destroyed part of the Mamilla cemetery and built a parking lot on it. During those same years, the Jordanians destroyed part of the Jewish cemetery to build a gas station. Over the past decade, workmen have returned to both sites. On the Mount of Olives, a major project is underway to restore the part of the cemetery that was destroyed. At Mamilla, excavations have been undertaken to remove skeletons to make room for the Museum of Tolerance. Both moves are a mistake.
The gravestones on the Mount of Olives are a fiction. They are actually a theater set of a cemetery because no one really knows where the people are buried; fragments of their headstones lay in piles left by the Jordanian bulldozers. But removing the skeletons from the Mamilla cemetery is also a mistake. The other side in the fight over the cemetery is the Islamic Movement's northern branch, and we can't ignore that this organization is not only battling for the dignity of the dead but is also milking the issue for political considerations. As soon as it was clear that the cemetery was crowded and of historical significance, it would have been fitting to give it greater importance than the Wiesenthal Center, and the municipal and national authorities that pushed the project have.
Jerusalem has enough troubles even without adding skeletons dating from the past thousand years. It would have been appropriate to reach a compromise. It's true that during the hearings on the subject in front of the High Court of Justice, the Wiesenthal Center suggested restoring the portion of the cemetery that is not part of the museum complex. The Center also made other generous compromise proposals.
The Islamic Movement rejected the proposals, and the Wiesenthal Center took them off the table. The court's decision was followed by the rapid and secret removal of the skeletons. As an organization that claims to be a standard-bearer of tolerance, it could have devoted another moment of thought, even without the cooperation of the other side.
So what now? What will be carried out in the pit in the middle of Jerusalem? Clearly the graves and skeletons should not be brought back to the site. Just as skeletons at the site for the emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon should not be sanctified, this shouldn't happen in the center of Jerusalem. But it's also not appropriate to put up an ostentatious building dedicated to tolerance that the city's Muslims will perceive as a provocation.
One of the proposals was to create a park at the site in memory of the people buried there, serving all the city's residents. One way or another, the part of the cemetery that remains should be restored and cared for; it should be turned into one of the sites that Jerusalem is proud of. The absence of construction on the excavation site must be part of the healing process that Jerusalem so needs: healing through tolerance.
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