Flirting With Arrest at Jerusalem's Newest Settlement

If it's built lavishly like a settlement, and it causes diplomatic damage like a settlement, and it tarnishes Israel's image like a settlement...

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

It is a sublime Tuesday in the midst of Jerusalem's hottest November since 1941. Leaving the dentist's office, I begin to worry that I may be late picking up my wife from a conference across town. A security guard, the cords in his neck growing taut as racing halyards, has just threatened me with arrest. The suspicion? Standing on the sidewalk.

Not just any sidewalk. This one runs past the San Quentin-like entrance to a building site, walled at every facet. The only sign warns of dire penalties for blocking the one entry point, also elaborately walled off. Without warning, a rare event: the entry gate unlocks for a moment. Careful to keep my distance, a full 15 feet from the wall, I peer in to see what appears to be a group of visitors from abroad, perhaps prospective donors, some of them religious, all of them smartly dressed. They are touring the property, which has been bulldozed bald. The only structures are prefabs.

The sidewalk outside the Museum of Tolerance, November 2010. Credit: Bradley Burston

In fact, the only actual work being done today is taking place on the sidewalk beside me. A group of workmen is putting up yet another high white wall, this one meant to block future access to the sidewalk.

If you didn't know better, you'd swear that this was a settlement. Especially when the pent-up security man is dressed in the loose vest characteristic of government ministry bodyguards, among them, the former commandos who keep the outside world out of particularly sensitive East Jerusalem settlements.

Still, something doesn't add up. This is the heart of Jerusalem's Jewish Western half. Apparently no one told the guard. Or maybe he thinks that I am an Arab.

Guard [Furious]: You're starting to make me mad, sir.

Journalist [Also losing it]: This is a sidewalk. It belongs to the city. It's a public place. I'm just standing here. Is this illegal?

Guard: One more word and I'll have the police here – you'll be detained for questioning.

Journalist: I'm a citizen. I'm a journalist.

Guard: Stay here, and I'll see that you get sent to prison.

I demand his name. I write it down. The cords in my neck now match his.

It appears that I was right the first time. Welcome to Jerusalem's newest settlement. Or, as it is formally known, the Center For Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.

For years now, I've wondered what the purpose of this place was. The project's guiding spirit, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, has called the project a beacon of hope and a "great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility."

One thing is clear. It has been anything but that.

It is only when the security man, eyes ablaze, threatens jail time that I at last realize what this project goes to show: With enough political connections, enough funding, and one court ruling, you can put a settlement anywhere.

Why hadn't I seen it before? After all, the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance has many of the classic characteristics of a settlement. Here are some of them:

It is being built on disputed land.

From a range of location options offered by the Jerusalem Municipality, the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center chose the site of the ancient Mamilla Muslim cemetery, despite opposition by moderate Muslims, concerned Jews, and relatives of those buried there.

Professor Yehoshua Ben-Aryeh, a laureate of the nation's prestigious Israel Prize and one of the foremost authorities on the geography of Jerusalem, has refuted at length the core arguments put forth by the Wiesenthal Center for the suitability of the cemetery site.

It will cause direct, prolonged damage to relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Prof. Ben-Aryeh: "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."

It erodes the basis of Israeli sovereignty, and bolsters allegations of Israeli arrogance.

"If one were intent on undermining Israels claim to Jerusalem, there would be no better way to accomplish this goal than to build a Jewish museum atop a historic Muslim cemetery in the heart of the city," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism and a professed admirer of the other works of the Wiesenthal Center, has written.

It tarnishes Israel's image as a democratic state respectful of the rights of other faiths and peoples.

"Lets admit the simple truth," Rabbi Yoffie concludes. "There is something profoundly disturbing about the idea of putting a Jewish Museum of Tolerance on a plot of land where Muslims have been burying their dead for most of the last 800 years."

It has a huge budget, aimed at establishing a superfluous, extrinsic, and lavish entity in a surrounding environment of social need.

And, for good measure, It has arbitrary, self-legislated security regulations, and, if the sidewalk is any measure, progressively takes up more space formerly devoted to others.

In the end, does it truly matter if the Museum of Tolerance project goes forward on the present site? It does. The question goes well beyond the eventual fate of the museum, or the good name of the Wiesenthal Center and Rabbi Hier.

It goes to the heart of Israel's brief as a custodian of the Holy Land, which the world rightly sees as a treasure belonging to all peoples. The rule of thumb is a just one: As Israel treats Jerusalem, so shall the world treat Israel. As Jerusalem goes, so goes Israel.



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