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Diaspora Jews Protest Against Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

by Alison Pragerdemo-april-2-2009

A group of American Rabbinical, Cantorial, Yeshiva and university students living in Israel organised a protest against the controversial construction of a “Museum of Tolerance” on an ancient Muslim cemetery site in central Jerusalem.

The demonstration took place on Thursday April 2nd and was against the construction on what was once Jerusalem’s main Muslim cemetery. The protestors are demanding that the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre halt building and relocate to a new site.

Police agreed to keep out of sight for the protest as a legal observer handed out lawyer’s cards and advised on what to do if arrested. But the demonstration went ahead in an atmosphere of goodwill and positive determination. The many placards displayed the spirit of the protest: “Yeshiva Bochers 4 co-existence; Preservation not Desecration; Conservative Yeshiva Students say Move the Museum; Honour the Dead: Respect the Living; Future Rabbis 4 co-existence.”

A blessing for a protest was said by Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman from Rabbis for Human Rights: “Blessed are you, adonai, determiner of the universe who gave us voice, gave us conscience, and merited us to engage in disagreement for the sake of the sacred.”

Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, who pointed out this was “not a right versus left issue,” questioned the use of the 250 million dollars the museum would cost “when Arabs and Jews are alive in this city who haven’t enough to eat.”

Chants of “Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right” were led by Drew Cohen, an American student at Pardas, a Jewish school in Jerusalem, he said: “If we’re looking at a peaceful Middle East this isn’t the best way to go about that, even if it is legal.” He added: “We are students from the USA trying to make a stand; the museum is representing this constituency.”

Another American, Deborah Zuker, from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, currently studying at the academic and spiritual centre of Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem, Machon Schechter, said: “It’s absolutely absurd to build a museum of tolerance on an Arab cemetery. This is the wrong legacy of remembrance, this creates the wrong message.”

“There is no word in Hebrew for pluralism. This is very important,” said speaker Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Centre which is the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, she went on to underline the international significance of building the museum and the protests against it.

Since 1948 the Jerusalem municipality has not allowed Palestinians to upkeep and maintain the cemetery which was why it was neglected, according to Hanna Siniora, Co-Chief Executive of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, Member of the Palestine National Council & Chairman of the East Jerusalem Development Corporation. He told the protestors that he was “proud to be with young religious American Jews.”

He informed the demonstrators about “three other offers of alternative areas to build the museum including one from a Palestinian family whose father is buried there. They have offered to donate another piece of land where Jews and Arabs can meet in tolerance.” These offers have been rejected.

The area was in use as a car park and criticism has been voiced that Palestinians have never complained about that. “Even a car park is not OK, but the Palestinians came to terms with the presence of this car park. It is grotesque the way that the municipality deals with this issue, it has become a trigger. Muslims all over the world think it is offensive.” Said Meir Margalit, a speaker at the demonstration, who is a member of the Jerusalem City Council representing Meretz, and Field Coordinator for the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions.

Londoner Oliver Joseph, a yeshiva student and an activist from Finchley joined the protest, he said: “Jerusalem is a biblical city and the conflict will be ended in the city. Every act, protest and interaction in Jerusalem is a microcosm of the conflict.”

Alana Alpert, organiser of the protest concluded the speeches by saying: “We will not be forced to make the false choice between history and progress. If our goal is to build Jerusalem as a city for all its peoples, we must carry with us all of the multiple histories here”

To protest email Rabbi Heir.  For details and to find out more see here.
Or contact Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information

Photographs by Amy Loewenthal, RRC Slifka Intern.

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