Works Begins on Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance, Despite Protests

Petition to the United Nations to stop construction claims the site was once a medieval Muslim cemetery.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said Monday it hopes to start building its Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem in the coming months despite a petition to the United Nations to stop construction because the site was once a medieval Muslim cemetery.

Since the Supreme Court's unanimous green light in late December for the project to go ahead, preparatory work has started and we are now down to bedrock, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based international Jewish human rights organization named for the late Nazi hunter.

In addition to 300- to 400-year-old human remains found earlier that have already been reburied in a Muslim cemetery, Cooper said workers discovered a wine press, part of the Herodian aqueduct that ran from Hebron to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, and ancient coins from the Macabbean and Hashemite period.

The site had been a busy underground parking lot since 1960 and Cooper said 40,000 live telephone lines were also discovered, so new cables are needed as well as slight movements of streets before construction starts, he said.

"But we're hoping in the next couple of months to begin construction," Cooper said.

After the Supreme Court rejected their 2008 appeal to stop construction of the museum, Palestinian and international human rights activists petitioned the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva last month to try to block the museum.

But any response from the UN's top rights official would carry only moral weight and is not legally binding.

Rania Madi of the Palestinian rights group BADIL, said construction of the museum would violate Muslim religious and cultural rights, and such a project would never have been undertaken if the site was home to Jewish graves.

The petition is signed by about 60 people who say their relatives are buried in the Mamilla cemetery. Palestinians say people were laid to rest there as early as the 14th century and until the 1930s.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center contends that the museum is being constructed on a parking lot that no Muslims objected to building in 1960.

Cooper said that three days after the petition to the UN was filed, a blogger unearthed a Nov. 22, 1945 article in the Palestine Post related to the Mamilla cemetery.

Much to our utter amazement it talked about an announcement by the Supreme Muslim Council of Palestine to dig up a good part of the cemetery and build factories, a hotel and university, not on what would be our piece but on the actual cemetery, he said.

Cooper said the article referred to the Muslim concept of Mundras which says that if a cemetery isn't use for 33 to 37 years it loses its sanctity and therefore the space can be used for other activities.

This adds to the Wiesenthal Center's contention that opponents of the museum are trying to run the clock, he said.

The museum will be modeled on an existing one in Los Angeles that opened in 1993 and receives over 250,000 visits a year.

Cooper said the museum will use interactive technology to present scenarios on social issues of the day including hate crimes and terrorism, he said.