Grave Concerns

International archaeologists are calling for work to stop at the Museum of Tolerance.

Eighty-four senior archaeologists from leading research institutions around the world have called on the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jerusalem municipality and the Israel Antiquities Authority to put an end to construction of the Museum of Tolerance in the center of the city. In a letter sent to the three bodies over the weekend, the archaeologists argue that the establishment of the museum on the site of the Mamilla Muslim cemetery contradicts ethical standards in the archaeological world, as well as Israeli law. In May 2010, Haaretz published a comprehensive report on the secret removal of remains from the cemetery.

"The bulldozing of historic cemeteries is the ultimate act of territorial aggrandizement: the erasure of prior residents," says Prof. Harvey Weiss of Yale University, a leading expert on the beginning of urbanization in the world. "Desecration of Jerusalem's Mamilla cemetery is a continuing cultural and historical tragedy," he said.

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The arguments raised in the letter deal with, among other things, the treatment of skeletons found in the cemetery, and have been debated by various forums in Israel. The High Court of Justice has rejected petitions against the establishment of the museum on the site.

Yonatan Mizrahi, one of the founders of the left-wing archaeologists' organization Emek Shaveh and a signer of the letter, says the letter was the initiative of foreign academics "unconnected to any particular event," as he puts it. "Since, from the point of view of the state of Israel, the matter is already set, it was decided to put pressure on American bodies funding the project. The importance of the letter is in the figures who sign it; they are internationally known archaeologists."

In the last paragraph of the letter, the archaeologists call on the directors of the Wiesenthal Center to treat the Muslim cemetery with respect, in the same manner they demand Jewish cemeteries around the world be treated, and in the spirit of tolerance they want to advance.

Key figures in the archaeological world are signers of the letter, including Prof. Nicholas Postgate and Dr. Joan Oates of Cambridge University in England - who are experts on Mesopotamia - as well as researchers from universities in the U.S., Switzerland, France, Spain, Japan and Lebanon. Signers are supported by the American Center for Constitutional Rights, and copies have been sent to the human rights representatives of the UN and UNESCO.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center responds that "the arguments in the letter are old, of a mistaken nature and contain factual errors. All the work on the site is being carried out according to a decision of the High Court of Justice, after all petitions against it have been rejected. In its decision, the court wrote that the site has not served as a cemetery for 50 years, and in practice served as a public parking lot without the voicing of even one complaint. No one treats the site as a cemetery - not the general public and not the Muslim community."

In addition, the Wiesenthal Center said that excavations were conducted under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority and existing remains transferred for reburial to the adjacent Muslim cemetery.

The Jerusalem municipality adds that "the planning of the Museum of Tolerance has passed through all the legal and planning systems of the state of Israel, after the High Court decided on the matter and authorized the establishment of the museum - a decision that brought the legal and planning processes to an end."