Israel Prize Laureate Opposes Museum of Tolerance

Professor Yehoshua Ben-Arieh says construction of museum will bring damage for generations.

Professor Yehoshua Ben-Arieh cannot converse politely when you mention the Museum of Tolerance that is to be built in the Mamilla Muslim Cemetery in Jerusalem. He knows, of course, that the High Court of Justice rejected the petition against building the museum in the center of the capital, but the Israel Prize laureate in the field of Land of Israel studies, who is considered one of the greatest researchers of Jerusalem, is calling upon the public to urge the museum's management to drop the dangerous idea. He himself has suggested to the American entrepreneurs other sites in Jerusalem for the building of the museum.

"I understand that this is no trivial matter, but it is essential to deal boldly with this affair," says the Jerusalemite geographer. "Building the museum will create an irreversible situation which will constitute damage for generations - a reason to criticize our attitude toward the cemeteries and holy sites of the members of other communities." He warns that we are facing an extremely dangerous precedent, which will make it possible to claim that Jewish cemeteries in Israel and abroad can also be cleared for construction.

In a document replete with maps and drawings, Ben-Arieh tries to prove that from a historical, moral and religious perspective, there is no difference between putting up a building in the area of the Muslim cemetery and putting up a similar building in the heart of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. By the same principle that is guiding the creators of the Museum of Tolerance, the Jordanian regime could have cleared parts of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, or built a splendid structure by an internationally famed architect over it on pillars, all in accordance with rabbinical law. Perhaps even an Arab museum of tolerance, which would encourage worldwide Jewish-Arab brotherhood.

In the document, Ben-Arieh explains that the origins of the Mamilla Muslim Cemetery date back to the Middle Ages and that within its area there are also a number of more ancient burial sites. In maps of the area going back to the 1860s and the earliest aerial photographs of the area, it is possible to see a fence and a dirt path that delineated the cemetery on all sides.

During the last 60 years of Ottoman rule in the city, the 30 years of British rule and at least the first 20 years of the State of Israel, the defined boundary of the area was not touched. Detailed maps from the beginning of the Mandate period, at a scale of 1:2.000, show every building, path and even trees. On these maps it is clearly seen that the gates of the houses that were built surrounding the site beginning in the 1870s do not cross the fence at any point. The maps from the period prove that this was also the case during the entire time of the British Mandate as well as during the early years of the state.

Ben-Arieh's document assertively rejects the claims of the the museum promoters that it is permissible to build in the Mamilla Cemetery because the Palace Hotel was built in 1928-1929 on cemetery land. Ben-Arieh replies that when the hotel was built, to the south of Agron Street (Mamilla Street), the street was known as the southern boundary of the cemetery.

A row of buildings, among them the building that currently houses the American Consulate and the Lepers' Hospital were built south of the street. North of it, in the area of the cemetery, no building has been erected to this day. "In light of all this there is no doubt at all that when the hotel was being constructed there was no awareness that it was going to be built on part of the area of the cemetery," notes Ben-Arieh.

He further refutes those experts who support the building of the museum, claiming that the mufti of Jerusalem approved the earlier building of the hotel on cemetery land.

This claim has been aimed at casting doubt on the importance that the Muslims attribute to the site. Ben-Arieh asserts that these experts are relying in a thoroughly unscientific way on accusations by enemies of the mufti. According to him, they are ignoring clear and conclusive proof from primary sources, people who were there at the time. Moreover, the question is not what the mufti did, says Ben-Arieh, but rather how a civilized, enlightened, Zionist society is treating an important Muslim cemetery that is located within Israel's sovereign territory.

Ben-Arieh notes that the stories about an Arab building plan in the area of the cemetery, such as an Arab university, were "curiosities" that never achieved were implemented. Ben-Arieh notes that the only ones who considered slightly reducing the area of the cemetery were the British, who wanted to widen the roads in that area and restore the Mamilla Pool. They too realized that it was wrong to touch the cemetery without the permission of the Muslim institutions responsible for it.

Ben-Arieh stresses that in the entire correspondence there is no trace of any agreement by the people of the Muslim Council to the plans proposed by British planners. And indeed, during the entire period of the British Mandate, no changes were made to the site.

Up until the establishment of the State of Israel, the site of the cemetery constituted a single original plot, which was inscribed in the Land Registry on March 5, 1938 in the name of the head of the Muslim religious trusts. Immediately after the establishment of the state, the government of Jordan officially protested "the desecration of the Muslim cemetery in Mamilla." Yaakov Yehoshua (the father of author A.B. Yehoshua) of the Religious Affairs Ministry wrote in response: "The cemetery at Mamilla is considered one of the most respected Muslim sites, where 70,000 of the Muslim fighters who were in Saladin al Ayoubi's army and many Muslim wise men are buried." He promised that the state of Israel would always preserve and respect the site.

Further evidence regarding the attitude of Israeli authorities towards the cemetery is seen in 1958, on the occasion of the celebrations in Jerusalem of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the state, there was a plan to erect an entertainment stage in the cemetery. The secretary of the Advisory Council on Muslim Affairs in the Haifa area and district sent a request to the mayor of Jerusalem to move the event to a different location and the mayor did so immediately.

However, the erosion in the status of the cemetery began in the 1960s. Initially a road was cut through it that connected Hillel Street and Ben Sira Street at the northern edge of the area of the cemetery. After that, the designated purpose of a small part of the area was changed and a number of buildings went up, including a large parking lot.

"It could be argued that all of these actions also should not have been taken," says Ben-Arieh, "but at that time it was a matter of developing (ostensibly) empty areas and essential roads in the middle of a city that was growing, for the benefit of the entire public."

Nonetheless, the construction was restricted to the margins, while the planned construction of the Museum of Tolerance includes excavating into the cemetery and exposing graves and human skeletons. "How is it possible to justify the building of an external museum, an intrusive entity, in this particular place?" asks Ben-Arieh. "Tomorrow somebody could come along and propose selling the land to contractors to put up multi-story buildings and using the money for the public welfare."