Sydney’s Muslims and Jews may not see eye to eye on certain matters, especially those involving Israel, but last week the two communities found some much-needed common ground. Burial ground, that is.
With both communities facing a severe shortage of burial space at Rookwood Necropolis, believed to be the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, the New South Wales State Government officially opened the last available land there to be shared by the two faiths.
The Harbor City’s Muslim population, which numbers more than 150,000, would have run out of burial space within months, according to officials.
The city’s 45,000-plus Jewish community would have managed in the short term.
The new 3.3-hectare site will have enough burial space for both communities for the next decade or more.
Half of the new lot will be reserved for about 4000 double-depth Islamic graves; the other half will be for around 2,700 single Jewish burial plots, said Katrina Hodgkinson, the Primary Industries Minister.
The two sections will be divided by small roads inside the cemetery, she added.
The development comes amid allegations of Hezbollah sleeper cells operating in Australia and a controversial call for an academic boycott of the Technion in Haifa by students at the University of Sydney.
Yair Miller, president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, said the new burial site was proof of the healthy relationship between the two faiths in New South Wales.
“It needs to always be worked on but we have a very cordial relationship in NSW with most of the mainstream Muslim groups,” Miller said.
“The Jewish community is still in need of a long-term solution but we’re very, very thankful.”
Ahmad Kamaledine, the Muslim representative on the Rookwood General Cemeteries Trust, told local media: “Being able to see [members of] the Jewish and Muslim community being buried side by side and sharing the same ground will demonstrate the willingness of the community in Australia to work together.”
It was “vitally important for cultural and religious reasons” that the two communities had some certainty about where their loved ones would be buried, said Victor Dominello, the Minister for Citizenship and Communities.
Miller said he was not aware of any opposition within the Jewish community to the plan. “The model of a multi-faith cemetery is one we’ve lived with here in the last 200 years.
“These plots happen to be next to each other but are not intertwined. There are still roads between the sections, it’s a very big plot divided by internal roads so there’s no inter-burying.”
But Michael Burd, a vocal critic of Islamic extremism in Australia, said he was horrified. “When I read about this decision I very disappointed,” he said.
Referring to Lebanese-born Sheikh Yahya Safi, the Imam of Lakemba Mosque who was at last week’s official opening, Burd added: “Sheikh Safi presides over a mosque that is notorious for espousing hatred of Israel and Jews in Sydney. Our Jewish community representative who agreed to this joint venture should be ashamed of himself,” he said.
“I am not exactly happy about it,” added a Jewish woman from Sydney, who wished to remain anonymous.
“But then I am not happy either with all the Muslim interfaith rubbish the Board of Deputies gets up to either.”
Jeremy Jones, a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and a founder of the Australia National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims & Jews, said the local media's interest in the story was out of context with decades of Jewish-Muslim relations.
“The biggest story here is that some journalists seem surprised that Jews and Muslims work together on such matters. It was more than 30 years ago when I began working with Muslims (and vegetarians) due to a mutual interest in having food ingredients labeled.”
The two faiths have collaborated on many other matters, such as anti-discrimination legislation, he added.
But Jones conceded that “extra special care” will have to be exercised by cemetery officials for certain high-profile burials.
“But there is no reason for any group to disturb or dismay one another,” he said.