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Palestinian Families Appeal to UN Over Israeli Construction of “Museum of Tolerance” on Jerusalem’s Historic Mamilla Cemetery

StoryFebruary 10, 2010
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Palestinian families have filed a petition with the United Nations over the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s plans to build a “Museum of Tolerance” over the historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. Opponents of the project have long questioned how a monument to tolerance can be built on the remains of the graves of generations of Palestinian Muslims. We speak to Columbia University professor and author Rashid Khalidi, a petitioner whose ancestors were buried at the Mamilla Cemetery; and Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the families in their petition. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A controversy over the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s project to build a “Museum of Tolerance” on a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem has gone all the way to the United Nations. Today, families defending the twelfth century Ma’man Allah or Mamilla Cemetery from desecration by Israeli authorities filed their case before the United Nations in Geneva, with news conferences in Geneva, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. The petitioners include descendants from fifteen of the oldest families in Jerusalem whose ancestors have been buried at the cemetery for centuries.

Opponents of the project have long questioned how a monument to tolerance can be built on the remains of the graves of generations of Palestinian Muslims. But the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of its construction in November 2008.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights is representing the families in their petition to the UN to safeguard their international human rights and urge Israel to halt construction of the museum.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, who is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, declined our invitation to come on the program, but sent a statement saying, quote, “The Museum of Tolerance project is not being built on the Mamilla Cemetery. It is being built on Jerusalem’s former municipal car park, where every day for nearly half a century, thousands of Muslims, Christians and Jews parked their cars without any protest whatsoever from the Muslim community.”

Well, in response to criticism that the construction on the cemetery grounds has resulted in the disinterment of graves and human remains, Rabbi Hier added, quote, “The Israeli Antiquities Authority has confirmed that there are no bones or remains on the site, which is currently undergoing infrastructure work. Remains found on the site, which have now been reinterred in a nearby Muslim cemetery were between 300-400 years old. No remains from the 12th century era were found,” he wrote.

Well, I’m joined now by one of the petitioners whose ancestors were buried at the Mamilla Cemetery. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, the Department of History, and the author of a number of books, including Sowing Crisis: American Dominance in the Cold War in the Middle East and Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood.

Michael Ratner is also with us, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

We welcome you both.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Khalidi, members of your family are buried there? Explain.

RASHID KHALIDI: This is a cemetery where people have been buried since the twelfth century. People who fought with Saladin in the Crusades are buried there. In fact, one of the descendants of one of the leading figures in the twelfth century is buried in that cemetery. And contrary to what Rabbi Hier said, that parking lot was built over a cemetery, part of it. And so, the Israeli authorities are basically pushing ahead with the desecration of a cemetery that they have been, unfortunately, slowly nibbling away at for over three decades. We and other families are taking action as a group of families to try and stop this, after other families failed in the Israeli Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: The fact that he said this has been a parking lot that no one has protested for years?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, many protests were made. There were protests made from the early ’60s, when the first of these desecrations started. That’s false. And the fact that it was desecrated in the ’60s doesn’t mean that it’s right to desecrate it further. What happened in the 1960s was that part of the cemetery was paved over for this parking lot. What they have now done is to dig down and disinter four layers, according to the chief archaeologist for the Israeli Archaeological Authority, four layers of graves. There are more probably beneath those, according to his report, which was suppressed in the submissions to the Israeli Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: And that they’re saying there are no bodies buried there?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the chief archaeologist’s report contradicts what Rabbi Hier says. I would go with the chief Israeli archaeologist over the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you met with the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center?

RASHID KHALIDI: I have not had that pleasure, no.

AMY GOODMAN: They’ve had no direct contact with Palestinian families like yours, then?

RASHID KHALIDI: No, nor did Muslim religious authorities have anything to do with the reinterment, wherever it is, of the remains, whatever they are.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

RASHID KHALIDI: We have no idea where these people were reburied. They claim they were reburied. We, families of people — there are fifteen families, sixty people, who have ancestors in that cemetery. We’re the petitioners. Nobody ever told us where these remains were reburied. I mean, imagine if, 400 years ago, you had ancestors in a cemetery, and somebody came along and said, “We’re going to build whatever it is there,” dug them up and buried them somewhere else without telling you where. This is what they’ve just done, according to his statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, you’re the president of Center for Constitutional Rights that’s working with the families to file these petitions. You just came back from there. You visited the site.

MICHAEL RATNER: Yeah, I mean, I was really shocked by what I saw. I went into West Jerusalem, and I see a wall that’s probably twenty-five feet high, surrounded by surveillance cameras, which is where they’re building this so-called Museum of Tolerance. Right up to the edge of it, you see Muslim graves, Palestinian graves, all around it. And within even the part of the cemetery that still exists, which is only a few acres, because the Israelis have paved over other parts or built a park, it’s been desecrated. And every time they, Muslim people, attempt to fix it, it’s desecrated again. And within the site itself, I mean, the archaeologist that Rashid referred to called this an archaeological crime. This is an Israeli archaeologist. And you see they took out bones in cardboard boxes, relatives of the ancestors of the people on this petition —

RASHID KHALIDI: Descendants.

MICHAEL RATNER: Descendants. And they have no sense of where those people are. And the archaeologist said there’s at least 2,000 other graves under this site. So, to hear the rabbi from the Simon Wiesenthal Center talk about “there’s no bones, there’s no bodies under here” is just — it’s just a lie. That’s all I can say. That’s what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Khalidi, what is the Center for Human Dignity, the Museum of Tolerance, that’s being built?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, as best I understand it, from what they’ve written, it’s an extension of the museum that exists in Los Angeles. And it’s pretty grotesque, to my way of thinking, to be building something that’s labeled a museum of tolerance against the protests of the people buried in a cemetery. It is the oldest Muslim cemetery, probably, in all of Palestine. It may go back to the seventh century, but it certainly goes back to the twelfth century. I mean, one of the descendants of one of the people buried there has an ancestor who is from the twelfth century. We don’t know how many other people in Jerusalem may have ancestors buried there. My sense is that even more people are going to come forward now that these press conferences have taken place.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you demanding?

RASHID KHALIDI: We are asking that this be treated as a Heritage site, which is what it is. The fact that it’s still being desecrated, not just by this museum, but by vandalism of the remaining tombs, is a scandal. This is a very, very important Heritage site. And so, one of the things we’re demanding is that it be treated as such. And we’re going to UNESCO and other bodies, asking that they do their duty.

Secondly, we’re asking that there be a reinterment under religious supervision, with the families knowing where their people have been reburied within the cemetery.

And finally, that this project, this grotesque project, be stopped. There have been offers to move the museum elsewhere. At one stage, the mayor of Jerusalem even suggested that it be moved elsewhere. Today I read that a Palestinian has offered to give land right near the wall that they’ve built right through the middle of Jerusalem for the museum to be built there. So a museum for tolerance can be built next to a forty-foot concrete barrier between different parts of the Arab East Jerusalem. So we’re asking for all of those things.

AMY GOODMAN: Center for Constitutional Rights can turn to international law, Michael Ratner?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, that’s what we do. But I do want to say something overall about what this cemetery really represented, what I saw happening there, which is to say, as Palestinians had been pushed out of Jerusalem and out of parts of the West Bank, you see — what I saw going on here is attempt to really obliterate even a Palestinian and Muslim presence in West Jerusalem by getting rid of, you know, key cultural projects, key cultural issues — I mean, key cultural places.


MICHAEL RATNER: Artifacts of the Palestinian and Muslim people. And so, they just want to obliterate it. And you can’t believe this is the Simon Wiesenthal Center doing it. And, yes, international law clearly protects it. It protects cultural artifacts. It protects religious freedom. And it protects —

RASHID KHALIDI: Sacred sites.

MICHAEL RATNER: Sacred sites — and discrimination. And when you look at the numbers — Israel has an obligation, as it admits, to protect sacred sites in Jerusalem. And what have they protected? Up ’til 2008 — and I think probably the same figure — they protected 136 Jewish sites. Not one Muslim site.

RASHID KHALIDI: Or Christian site.

MICHAEL RATNER: Or Christian site. So when you think about what’s going on there, it’s really a public outrage. And the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which now has been given other places to build, if it insists on going on with this, you can only draw one conclusion: Let’s obliterate the Muslim presence in Jerusalem.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. And we’ll certainly continue to cover this controversy. We’ve been joined by Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies in the Department of History at Columbia University, and Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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