Jerusalem Tolerance Museum Sparks Fight

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 23, 2006; 8:08 PM

JERUSALEM -- The Museum of Tolerance started off with good intentions, over $100 million in donations, an eye-catching design by architect Frank Gehry, a 2004 kickoff ceremony attended by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a great piece of Jerusalem real estate.

But underneath that real estate, it turned out, there were Muslim graves. As a result, instead of bringing this contentious city's warring tribes together, the museum has sparked a fight with political, religious and historical dimensions between Muslims and Jews _ and all this before it has even been built.

Months of arbitration have ended in deadlock, the site is enclosed in aluminum walls, and the dispute is now before Israel's Supreme Court. Even if the court gives the go-ahead, however, the Museum of Tolerance could well remain permanently tainted by allegations of intolerance.

The museum was conceived by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a nonprofit Jewish human rights group based in Los Angeles. It was to promote coexistence in a city holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians, and claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as a capital.

The center's plan includes a conference center, a theater, and museums for adults and children with exhibits covering Jewish history and Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors.

The Jerusalem municipality gave the Wiesenthal Center a municipal parking lot in central Jerusalem on which to build the museum.

But in Jerusalem, a parking lot is rarely just a parking lot. Before it was turned into a four-story underground garage in the 1970s, the land had been a small part of a sprawling Muslim cemetery.

The cemetery fell out of use after the creation of Israel in 1948, but many of its graves are still visible, crumbling among trees in what has become the heart of the Jewish side of the city. Part of the cemetery is now known as Independence Park. Another part had been sold much earlier, in the 1930s, at the initiative of the top Muslim clergyman of Jerusalem, to become the renowned Palace Hotel.

The project's backers say they didn't know the lot contained graves when they got it, and cite the Palace Hotel precedent and a 1964 ruling by a top Muslim cleric permitting construction on the land. But this has not mollified critics, who charge that nothing justifies the desecration of graves.

When surveyors found human remains at the site early this year, two Israeli Arab groups got a court order freezing construction.

One of the groups fighting the museum is the Al-Aqsa Company, affiliated with Israel's Islamic Movement, a rising political force among the country's 1.2 million Arab citizens.

"Islamic law is very clear: You can't build on land that was once a cemetery," said Muhammad Suleiman, a lawyer for the group. The cleric who issued the 1964 ruling was corrupt, Suleiman charged, and the fact that Arabs were silent about the parking lot's presence for decades doesn't mean they should remain silent now.

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