Rashid Khalidi
The Daily Beast (Opinion)
April 20, 2012 - 12:00am

It was disappointing to read Avra Shapiro’s letter on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Sadly, it was full of red herrings, distortions and falsehoods.

Firstly, Ms. Shapiro claims, “the campaign to stop construction of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem was…intended to undermine the sovereignty and authority of Israel and its juridical institutions.” She cites as evidence the role of “a declared Muslim extremist,” in initiating “the petition to Israel’s Supreme Court.”

But the sixty members of families whose ancestors are buried in Mamilla have nothing to do with the suit brought before the Israeli courts. Ours is an effort entirely organized by the families, supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, with no connection to anybody or anything else. So Ms. Shapiro’s histrionics about Shaykh Raed Salah are misplaced.

To see how shabbily the Israeli High Court acted, ignoring evidence from the chief archaeologist assigned to head the excavation by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) that massive numbers of remains were dug out and thousands more remained buried on the site, consult our petition. We have uncovered evidence that excavations are ongoing, with human remains still being found.

Secondly, Ms. Shapiro argues that “no Muslim individual or group ever protested that this was an ancient Muslim cemetery” and that our indignation is thus artificial. But in fact, there were many earlier protests against earlier desecrations of this site. Our petition lists these protests against these actions, taken in spite of previous Israeli government pledges to respect the cemetery.

Moreover, when the first such desecrations started in the early 1960’s, Palestinian inside Israel were under martial law and could not travel without permission of the General Security Services, let alone protest. Protests against the SWC project by Palestinians and Israelis alike have been ongoing since it was publicized that human remains were being exhumed. The plans had already been approved by the Israeli government by the time the public found out about it.

Ms. Shapiro points out that part of the SWC site was previously a parking lot built in the 1960s; but this does not dilute the fact that several layers of graves were paved over to construct it. These layers have now been dug up to build the Museum of Tolerance. The SWC knew full well that the site was part of the cemetery before they began any construction, having been informed of this fact by the IAA. This point was subsequently confirmed when the IAA excavations began to exhume hundreds of human skeletons and gravestones from the site. Today, the IAA continues to search for suspected additional graves and bones on the perimeter of the site, as confirmed by photographic evidence that CCR has recently obtained, putting the lie to the SWC claim that the site is currently "clean."

Thirdly, Ms. Shapiro claims that there is no reason not to relocate the graves, as the cemetery was declared “mundaras” (or abandoned) by “the President of the Sharia Court at the request of the Mayor of Jerusalem allowing public use of the area on the basis of its no longer bearing contemporary significance and lack of use.” But the cemetery was incorrectly declared “mundaras” in 1964 by a Muslim judge in Jaffa (not the President of the Shari’a Court, as Shapiro claims), appointed by Israeli authorities, who was coincidentally dismissed for fraud the following year from the Israeli government’s Sharia court system.

Our petition to the UN and other bodies quoted the authoritative ruling of the President of Israel’s Sharia Court of Appeals that in Islamic law a cemetery’s sanctity is eternal, and that the earlier judge’s ruling is null and void, not least of all because it is clear that whole skeletons still existed on the site. It is the height of arrogance that the SWC believes itself qualified to opine on Islamic law and tell Muslims when their cemeteries have lost their sanctity.

Fourthly, Ms. Shapiro argues that in the 1920s, “the Supreme Muslim Council rejected a petition to prevent removal of graves and construction of the Palace Hotel on the site of the Mamilla cemetery.” But the Palace Hotel was not built on the cemetery ground. The building is still there—right across Agron Street which has marked the cemetery’s southern boundary since at least the mid-19th century—having been confiscated by the Israeli government from its rightful owners, and it is currently being renovated as a hotel.

One could go on and on. One would think that Rabbi Heir might have responded to our petition, or to the personal letter Michael Ratner of the CCR and I wrote him, or to the appeal of eighty eminent international archaeologists. But apparently he is above that.

The only interest of our group of sixty Jerusalemites from fifteen old-established families is the restoration and preservation of the resting places of our ancestors: they include members of my family such as Shams al-Din Muhammad al-Dayri al-Khalidi (1343-1424) who served as Chief Qadi of the Mameluke Empire. If the resting place of Rabbi Hier’s ancestors was desecrated, he would be rightfully moved to action, and would resent anyone who impugned his motives. This is what he has consistently done since we began our multi-family campaign in February 2010.

Let me put it as simply as possible: The good rabbi wants to build his Museum of Tolerance and Center for Human Dignity on a section of the oldest Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem on the site of the graves of our ancestors. In the name of tolerance and human dignity, what more needs to be said?


Professor Troy, himself a historian, scolds me for overlooking “the historian’s favorite text—context” and for ignoring the complexity involved in the case of the Mamilla cemetery. Prof. Troy, a specialist in American history who rhapsodizes about walking through the cemetery with his kids, might have done himself a favor by actually reading our carefully drafted 83-page petition to the UN, or the 33-page addendum, or the petition by eighty distinguished archaeologists on the topic.

Let me take his false assertions one by one. First, Troy depicts the cemetery as having indeterminate and ever-shifting borders. But simply consulting any 19th century or early 20th century map of Jerusalem would have revealed to him that the contours of the cemetery changed not one whit for over a century. No one built on it or proposed doing so before 1948, a spurious article to this effect notwithstanding. It was untouched until that date within its boundaries marked by a wall built in the 1860’s during the Ottoman era (when an ancestor of mine was mayor of Jerusalem).

I have already responded to the canard regarding the Palace Hotel in my response to the SWC: it was always outside the boundaries of the cemetery, so the specter of the Mufti invoked by Troy, like that of Shaykh Raed Salah invoked by the earlier letter from Avra Shapiro of the SWC, is just that: a ghost rattling chains to scare the naïve and ignorant.

Secondly, there were burials in the cemetery right up to the end of the Mandate, and it was most definitely considered sacred, and still is: what does Troy make of the ruling of the highest authority in the Islamic legal system, the President of Israel’s Sharia Court of Appeals, that in Islamic law the sanctity of Mamilla has never lapsed? Perhaps he should have read our petition, which lays all this out, before responding. In any case, one cannot erase the fact that many hundreds of intact human skeletons were dug out of the SWC site, a fact that belies any previous illegitimate rulings that the cemetery was desanctified. And one cannot deny those with ancestors buried in the cemetery their rightful indignation at its treatment by a government that does not have their interests at heart, as displayed by the flawed Israeli High Court decision on the matter.

Thirdly, no “commercial activities” were carried out on the site by Arabs before 1948, while anything done to the site thereafter, such as the seizure of part of the cemetery for the building of “Independence Park” and the paving over of a section for a parking lot, are part of the desecrations by the Israeli authorities that we have documented and which were protested at the time, as our petition makes clear.

Fourthly, the SWC has no right to dispose of this site as Troy suggests even if its grotesque plans are stopped by people of common decency. This is waqf property, meaning it is an eternal pious bequest, seized by the Israel state like all other public waqfs all over Israel after 1948 in a violation of religious and private property rights, and it does not belong to the SWC or to the Israeli state for that matter.

Perhaps before shifting his gaze from American history to the complexities of Middle East history, Prof. Troy should consult experts such as Prof. Yehoshua Ben Arieh, or Professor Shimon Shamir, or the many other Israeli specialists in Middle East studies who have opposed this project for just the reasons we have adduced in our petition. He would have saved himself the embarrassment of showing his ignorance, which apparently results from his unthinkingly repeating Simon Wiesenthal Center talking points.


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