Bradley Burston
November 18, 2008 - 8:00pm

There is a new wall in the downtown heart of the Holy City. It is, in fact, a new security fence. It is not tall, nor built to last. But the wall, and what it protects, may do more to undermine Israel's moral claims to Jerusalem than the huge concrete structure that has marred the city's Arab eastern half for years.

There is no sign on the wall. There is no explanation for the need of a uniformed guard posted at its entrance. There is no indication, therefore, that it protects construction on a quarter-billion dollar monument to insensitivity.

It is a testament, as well, to the principle that Israel's only reliable natural resource is irony. The walled area is a construction site where a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights organization dedicated to instilling the lessons of the Holocaust and combating hatred, is building a Museum of Tolerance and Center for Human Dignity atop an ancient Muslim cemetery.

The complex is a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose founder Rabbi Marvin Hier envisions the museum as a "great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility."

No one disputes that Jerusalem is in dire need of tolerance and human dignity. Rabbi Hier was surely right to set that as his goal. But when the Wiesenthal Center originally chose the Mamilla cemetery site from a range of locations offered, it was wrong.

And late last month, when the Supreme Court gave a green light to the project, and Rabbi Hier responded that "Moderation and tolerance have prevailed," he was dead wrong.

In 2006, less than two years after Rabbi Hier, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, architect Frank Gehry and much of the Israeli cabinet broke ground on the Museum of Tolerance site, construction was abruptly ? and correctly - halted.

Workers excavating the site had struck bones.

At that point, the Wiesenthal Center, mindful of its stated mission, should have immediately begun a search for an alternative site for the museum. Instead, it spent a fortune in legal fees fighting a protracted court battle in which, in a very real sense, everyone came out the loser.

After all, this is the same organization which labored for 15 long years, in the words of Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Abraham Cooper, helping "galvanize world opinion to force the removal of a Carmelite convent from the grounds of Auschwitz."

Why had the Wiesenthal Center worked so hard and for so long to win the removal of a Catholic convent built there?

"Auschwitz is the largest Jewish cemetery - the single largest unmarked human graveyard - in history," Cooper noted in 2005.

"It deserves universal respect."

Rabbi Cooper was right. A burial ground of one faith must be respected by people of all religions, even if the graves are unmarked.

So it was for Jewish graves in Auschwitz. So it was, last year, in Vilnius, where Jews protested vociferously when officials granted permits for apartment construction atop an area believed to be part of Lithuania's largest Jewish cemetery.

So it was with Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. Jews were justifiably outraged when they learned that during the former Jordanian rule, construction on and around the cemetery uprooted and destroyed large numbers of Jewish graves.

And so it is, certainly, for a site said to have been the city's main Muslim cemetery until 1948.

There are Muslims who believe that the Mamilla cemetery includes the graves of men who fought for Saladin against the Crusaders. Archeologists believe the graves are more recent, no more than 400 years old. Either way, for the Wiesenthal Center, the following is the truth that should truly count:

In a city sacred to a majority of the world's population, the bedrock test of the legitimacy of Israeli rule is the degree of respect the Jewish state accords the sacred sites of other faiths.

The chosen location of a Muslim cemetery in Jewish West Jerusalem casts doubt on Israel's guardianship of holy sites. It calls into question not only Israel's moral claims to ruling all of Jerusalem, it erodes its claims to any of it.

It does Israel no honor that Supreme Court approval of the project was based, in part, on the argument that no protests were heard when a the city built a parking lot on part of the cemetery in 1960 ? this at a time when much of Israel's Arab population was under martial law, and in little position to voice opposition.

Moreover, it is not for Jews to decide what Muslims should and should not hold sacred.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has won its day in court. But in doing so, it defeated the very tolerance, human dignity, mutual trust, and brotherhood for which the center stands.

What is compassion, what is tolerance, if not the ability to reconsider one's own actions in the light of the ways in which they may injure others?

One needn't be a jurist, nor an expert in Middle East conflict resolution, to know that Muslims will have zero tolerance for the chosen site of this museum. One need only to be a lover of Jerusalem, and of Israel, to have zero tolerance for it as well.

It is not too late. Now is the time for Rabbi Hier and the Wiesenthal Center to embrace the true message of the project. Make the righteous and courageous decision to leave the Mamilla cemetery and build elsewhere.

It is not too late. Set an example of respect. Tear down this wall. Move the museum.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017