Muslim cemetery cleared as building of vast 'Museum of Tolerance' goes ahead

March 30, 2013
Sarah Benton

Although Saladin himself, depicted above, is buried under the mosque in Damascus, many of his soldiers are thought to be buried in the ancient Mamilla cemetery, Jerusalem, following his capture of the city from the Crusaders in 1187  (1).  The Israelis built a car park over the neglected cemetery and now, following a Supreme Court ruling (2), despite many protests and petitions (3),  the Simon Wiesenthal Centre is constructing a Museum of Tolerance on the site (4). It was given the land by the state of Israel and Jerusalem City Council. When it is completed, in 2015, the new Museum of Tolerance will be bigger than its parent body in LA. It will not deal with any issues of an Israel/Palestinian peace process.

The Mamilla Cemetery; A Buried History

By Asem Khalidi, Jewish Quarterly
Spring 2009, 37

When tourists and visitors of Jerusalem walk the streets of the Old City visiting historical sites like the Western Wall, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the many other historical holy sites, they usually are lectured by their tourist guides about the ancient city and its biblical history of which Jerusalemites of the three faiths are very proud. Little is usually said about the other history of the city.

Karen Armstrong, however, in her book, Jerusalem – One City, Three Faiths, gives meticulous details of many of the very important historical events that the city went through in its long history. In chapter 14 of her book she described Saladin’s first day of business in Jerusalem after he recaptured the city from the Crusaders in 1187. She wrote:

“…Saladin also invited the Jews to come back to Jerusalem, from which they had been almost entirely excluded by the Crusaders. He was hailed through the Jewish world as a new Cyrus. …”

It is a very well known fact that hundreds of Saladin’s soldiers and many of his senior generals and administrators who died in the battle for Jerusalem and those who chose to take Jerusalem as their permanent home were buried in Mamilla. What is saddening these days is that while Israeli bulldozers dig out graves of Saladin’s men and those of other Jerusalemites buried there afterwards, Israeli leaders and Supreme Court judges together with their American Wiesenthal Center partners applaud the construction of their so called Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Shouldn’t those people owe Saladin some apology.

The cemetery was full of thousands of grave markers in 1948 when it came under the guardianship of the so called Israeli Department of Absentee Landholders. Of those grave markers a handful of broken ones were found in 1967 when the whole city of Jerusalem was occupied by Israel. Now almost none of them exists.

In most countries there are laws that protect historic cemeteries against vandalism and destruction. In Israel, however, these laws do not seem to apply to Moslem cemeteries. To the contrary, Moslem cemeteries all over the country have suffered the constant obliteration of tombs and the Mamilla cemetery is no exception with only 5% of the tombs left. Tomb markers and grave stones were constantly removed from their original locations and many were broken for the purpose of wiping out any Moslem trace in downtown Jerusalem. Now with only 8% of the cemetery area left, new Israeli plans are being designed to eliminate this Moslem historical site once and for all.

During the period of Ottoman rule, the cemetery was encircled by a 2 meter high fence around the year 1847, and Jerusalemites continued to use it as a burial site for their dead up until 1927 when the Moslem Supreme Council decided to preserve it as a historical site. According to their decision, the Council continued to maintain the cemetery and look after its grounds and keep the tombs in a well maintained condition.

The Israelis, however, had different hidden schemes for the vast Moslem cemetery in downtown Jerusalem that was once the burial site for hundreds of Saladin’s martyrs and for many other Arab Jerusalemites who lived in the city for more than 800 years after Saladin recaptured the city. The Israelis also know that neglected historic cemeteries are subject to long-term deterioration from natural forces such as weathering and uncontrolled vegetation. Neglect accelerates and compounds the process. For this reason, the cemetery that was placed under the guardianship of the Israeli Department of Absentee Landholders in 1948 suffered a lot. In addition, when Israel annexed the remaining part of Jerusalem after the1967 war, they rejected a petition by the Islamic Waqf Department to give them permission to go back to their old practice of maintaining the historical cemetery. Instead they went on with their premeditated process of destruction, and in 1967 the Jerusalem municipality turned a large part of the cemetery into a public park that was named “Independence Park” In order to complete the project, many grave sites were dug out and the remains of the dead desecrated. On January 15th, 2005 the Israeli Electricity Company performed further excavations obliterating more tombs in order to lay some cables. Another part of the cemetery is used now as the main headquarters of the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry.

On May 3rd, 2004 the California governor Arnold Schwarzenger, laid the foundation stone for an American/Israeli project in a ceremony attended by Israeli government officials including then Vice Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and US ambassador Daniel Kurtzer. The huge project undertaken by The Simon Wiesenthal Center was to be constructed on the Mamilla cemetery ground. It includes two large buildings; one would be the Human Dignity, the other the Museum of Tolerance. Allocations for the project would amount to more than 200 million dollars raised mainly from American donors by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. During the first week of December 2005, some Israeli bulldozers started the new destruction effort to complete the plan of erasing the cemetery. The Wiesenthal Center’s plans has drawn outrage from Muslims and non-Muslims alike who emphasize that the museum is rejecting the very ideals it claims to stand for, tolerance.

What is striking is that even Israel’s Supreme Court whose business should be implementing historical cemetery laws even if those laws concern (non-Jewish) historical cemeteries arrived with a ruling in November 2008 saying that the project could go ahead because “… a parking lot had been built in the area (i.e. on the cemetery ground ) more than 40 years ago and then raised no objection…” This ruling was objectionable on two grounds. First, it is based on another unethical infringement and aggression on the cemetery ground that took place right after the 1967 war (more than 40 years ago). Secondly, it admits boldly and without shame that a parking lot was built on the historical site of the burial ground where Saladin buried his brave soldiers and where many Jerusalemite Moslem families continued to bury their kin up to less than 90 years ago.

The LA Museum of Tolerance

Important facts on the Israeli Supreme Court Ruling in favour of the Museum of Tolerance

Simon Wiesenthal Centre,

1. Following the unanimous decision of the Israeli Supreme Court in favor of the Center for Human Dignity, Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, the project has now resumed construction in the heart of West Jerusalem.

The Museum is not being built on the nearby Mamilla cemetery, but on the adjacent site which, for nearly a half-century, served as Jerusalem’s municipal car park where every day hundreds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims parked their cars. Electric, cable and sewer lines were laid below the ground.

During all this time, not a single Muslim group or individual, including today’s most vociferous critics said a word in protest although they argued before the Court that they had known all along it was a Muslim cemetery, yet they kept silent for nearly a half-century.

2. This is not only the opinion of the Simon Wiesenthal Center but also the opinion of the government of Israel, the City of Jerusalem, and the Antiquities Authority – an independent agency responsible for cemeteries and archaeological sites – all of whom presented their opinions to the Supreme Court.

Israel’s position before the Court
“The State agrees with the project owners [Simon Wiesenthal Center] that the claim of the Petitioners [Al-Aqsa Corporation] was tainted by a lengthy delay in filing… Starting from the beginning of the 1960’s without any objection being heard from any parties in the Muslim community…the planning procedures on the compound were carried out lawfully without any objection based on a claim of the sanctity of the site as a cemetery.”

“In the opinion of the state, the solutions that were proposed by the project owners for dealing with the remains of the graves reflect a proper balance between giving proper protection to the value of the dignity of the dead in an area where the remains of graves have been found, on the one hand, and the necessity of development and building in the various parts of Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, on the other.”

City of Jerusalem’s position before the Court
“The Jerusalem municipality agrees with the main arguments of the project owners and the State.” Shalom Goldstein, a political advisor to the Mayor of Jerusalem, on east Jerusalem affairs during the years 1995-2004, told the Court, “that to the best of his memory from his childhood the Museum compound was sometimes used for circus tents and entertainment attractions.” “The opposition to the building is in fact a political ploy which is motivated behind the scenes by Sheikh Raad Salah [Head of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch].”

Antiquities Authority’s position before the Court
“…the action of removing graves from their original site is done as a matter of course … and despite the importance of the Mamilla cemetery as a site of antiquities, already in the Mandate period [1920’s] parts of the area of the cemetery were used for development purposes…the Palace Hotel compound, [built by the Grand Mufti] the car parks that were built on the museum compound, the construction of the Bet Agron [journalist’s]building and even the building of the Experimental School that is situated to the west of the museum compound…were constructed over the years on the area of the Mamilla cemetery, without any objection from any party.”

“Documents prove…the existence of building plans on the area of the cemetery that were prepared with the approval of the Muslims themselves as can be seen in correspondence from 1946.”

Major Paragraphs from the Supreme Court’s Decision
“Details of the planning procedures on the museum compound from 1960 onward show that for almost fifty years the compound has not been a part of the cemetery, both in the normative sense and in the practical sense, and it was used for various public purposes. It was classified as an open public area and a road, an underground car park, two buildings on top of the car park, and finally the Museum of Tolerance were planned for it. During all those years no one raised any claim, on even one occasion, that the planning procedures violated the sanctity of the site, or that they were contrary to law as a result of the historical and religious uniqueness of the site.”

“Israel is a small strip of land, of great antiquity, with a history that extends over thousands of years…” “For decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community… no one denied this position.”

3. When the design was completed, the model was on display at Jerusalem City Hall and newspaper ads were taken out and posted in the Hebrew and Arab press – again, no protest from any Muslim group whatsoever.

They were silent because, as the High Court said, “…the area has not been classified as a cemetery for decades.” The bones found during construction were between 300 and 400 years old. They were unaccompanied by a single marker, monument, or tombstone, family name or religion.

Imagine the chaos to society if, after fifty years of designation for public use, land would be changed and reverted to what it may have been four or five centuries ago.

4. Muslim scholars and religious leaders have dealt with such issues for centuries and, in seeking to resolve such difficulties, ruled that a cemetery not in use for 37 years is considered mundras – an abandoned cemetery that has lost its sanctity.

In fact, because the whole area was regarded as mundras, in 1946, the mufti of Jerusalem planned to build a Muslim university on the entire Mamilla cemetery (now Independence Park). We submitted the architectural plans and drawings of that proposed university to the Supreme Court. Today, the concept of mundras is widely sanctioned and practiced throughout the Arab world, in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories.

5. While Judaism does not have a mundras concept, the Supreme Court, in its decision notes, “That despite the Jewish religious law prohibitions … to prevent the removal of graves or building on top of them, in practice, in cases where public needs required this, an agreed Jewish law solution has usually been found, and this allowed the building to be carried out in a way that minimized…the violation of the graves… Jewish religious law also allows, as we have said, the removal of graves in a dignified manner. Balanced solutions of this kind were also proposed by the respondents (Simon Wiesenthal Center), and they even agreed to pay all the expenses involved in them.”

6. It is important to note that the Sheikh initiated the proceedings before the High Court because he saw this as a land grab in the center of Jerusalem. The Court immediately ordered mediation between the parties to be conducted by former court president Meir Shamgar. Our Center was very sensitive to the issue and offered numerous compromises, but they were all rejected out-of-hand by Sheikh Salah, who refused to even meet to discuss them. He insisted that the Court rule on the matter.

Now, after over two years in the Courts, the Supreme Court has handed down a 119-page unanimous verdict in favor of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Sheikh Salah and his defenders, who eagerly sought the Court’s relief, are now agitating against its decision because they lost.

7. It is not those who lie beneath the ground who threaten the stability of the Middle East. It is the intolerance of extremists above the ground and those with an agenda who impede any prospects for civility and respect. Almost every place you dig in Jerusalem you’re going to come into contact with ancient civilizations. Is it better to let this site remain a parking lot, or build a center for human dignity there, which would teach young people mutual respect and social responsibility?

8. In the end, the Supreme Court in its verdict gave the best reasons for the need of a Museum of Tolerance, “The importance and benefit of realizing the plan to build the Museum of Tolerance in the center of the city of Jerusalem are very great. The Museum of Tolerance embodies an ideal of establishing a spiritual center that will spread a message of human tolerance between peoples, between sectors of the population and between man and his fellow-man.”

“The establishment of the museum is likely to make an important national contribution to the whole country, in which no center has yet been built with the purpose of addressing the issue of tolerance in all its aspects, and to bring about the assimilation of this idea among the general public.”

“The location of the museum in the center of Jerusalem has special significance, since it is a city that has a special ethical significance for three religions and an ancient history, which is unique to human civilization.”

Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem

Center for Constitutional Rights

[Petition, statement and documents assembled by Center for Constitutional Rights, 2010]

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and other groups have filed a petition on behalf of the Palestinian descendants of those buried in an ancient Muslim cemetery, the Mamilla Cemetery, in Jerusalem. The petition, which was filed with several international bodies, urges Israel to: halt construction of the “Museum of Tolerance” by the Simon Wiesenthal Center; investigate human rights violations; rebury human remains; and declare the Mamilla Cemetery a protected antiquities site. For additional information, please visit the Mamilla Campaign website at

Desecration of Mamilla Cemetery continues for the construction of the “Museum of Tolerance,” despite efforts by CCR and the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery, as well as international condemnation, including Human Rights Council resolutions, a public petition signed by nearly 10,000 individuals from around the world, a letter from 84 respected archaeologists decrying the archaeological practices employed on the site, a resolution by the Central Conference of American Rabbis opposing the project, and the opposition of numerous prominent Israeli scholars. CCR and the Campaign continue to advocate for the preservation of this historic and sacred site.

The Petitioners are individuals whose human rights have been violated by the destruction and desecration of an ancient Muslim cemetery, the Ma’man Allah (Mamilla) cemetery in Jerusalem, by the government of Israel working in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center (“SWC”) of Los Angeles, California. Petitioners also include human rights non-governmental organizations concerned about this desecration. A significant portion of the cemetery is being destroyed and hundreds of human remains are being desecrated so that SWC can build a facility to be called the “Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance” on this sacred Muslim site.

The Mamilla Cemetery is an ancient Muslim burial ground and holy site believed to date back to the 7th century when companions of the Prophet Muhammad were reputedly buried there. Numerous saints of the Sufi faith and thousands of other officials, scholars, notables, and Jerusalemite families have been buried in the cemetery over the last 1000 years. The Muslim Supreme Council declared the cemetery a historical site in 1927, and the British Mandate authorities pronounced it an antiquities site in 1944. It was an active burial ground until 1948. After the new State of Israel seized the western part of Jerusalem in 1948, the cemetery fell under Israeli control, and like other Islamic endowment properties, or waqf, the Mamilla Cemetery was taken over by the Custodian for Absentee Property. Since then, Muslim authorities have not been allowed to maintain the cemetery.

The Israeli government and the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) are currently building the “Center for Human Dignity–Museum of Tolerance” on a portion of the Mamilla Cemetery. This construction project has resulted in the disinterment of hundreds of graves, and the whereabouts of the countless human remains that have been disposed of are unknown. Israel and the SWC plan to continue the erection of the museum atop thousands of more graves.

The importance of the Mamilla cemetery to Muslims is well known to Israel. In 1948, the year control of the cemetery was taken over by Israel, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry recognized Mamilla “to be one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars. Israel will always know to protect and respect this site.” As recently as 1986, in response to an investigation by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) regarding Israel’s development projects on Mamilla, the Israeli government stated that “no project exists for the deconsecration of the site and that on the contrary the site and its tombs are to be safeguarded.” Despite these reassurances and the cemetery’s inclusion in an Israeli Antiquities Authority list of “Special Antiquities Sites,” Israel in fact destroyed a large section of the cemetery during the period in which the statement was made.

Despite officially recognizing its importance, Israel has steadily encroached on the Mamilla Cemetery with the erection of buildings, parks, and even parking lots. The construction of the “Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance” is only the latest such development project. Israel and the SWC have attempted to justify this development by claiming that the cemetery is no longer sanctified, based on a 1964 proclamation by a Shari’a or Islamic law judge who lacked legitimacy in the Muslim community. The President of the Shari’a Court of Appeals in Israel has since deemed this ruling to be void and affirmed that the sanctity of cemeteries is eternal in Islam.

Israel has an obligation to respect and protect the holy sites of its minority religious and ethnic populations, including Mamilla cemetery, under international law, United Nations resolutions, and its own domestic law. Despite Israel’s legal obligations, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of construction of the museum, and the government has refused to halt the disinterment of bodies and the destruction of the ancient cemetery. For this reason, the petitioners have decided to bring this issue to the international community with the aid of human rights organizations such as CCR.

Archaeologists resume work at contentious worksite of Jerusalem museum

No one involved in the digs would comment on any archaeological findings since the resumption of the excavations, which are taking place in the capital’s Mamilla neighborhood.

By Nir Hasson, Ha’aretz
November 14, 2011

Museum of Tolerance -  Olivier Fitousii - 14112011

The site of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitousii

Archaeologists have resumed excavating the Jerusalem site where the Museum of Tolerance is to go up, amid controversy surrounding the exhumation of skeletons in what had been a Muslim cemetery for nearly 1,000 years.

In addition to fielding objections to the museum site, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is sponsoring and financing the project, also has to contend with the recent resignation of the two architects who planned the museum. But for all the troubles, construction of the museum is scheduled to begin in the next few weeks.

No one involved in the digs would comment on any archaeological findings since the resumption of the excavations, which are taking place in the capital’s Mamilla neighborhood. But the first archaeologist to work at the site said there must be more skeletons there.

“There are definitely skeletons there,” said Gideon Sulimani, who also used to head the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district. “They’re digging at the edge of the excavation I conducted, and the graves continue in the direction in which they’re currently digging.”

The Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center said it would receive a summary of the archaeological findings after the excavation was completed. “The work is being conducted in accordance with the law,” the center said in a statement, adding: “As far as we know, the work will be completed very shortly.”

Architects Bracha and Michael Chyutin recently quit working on the museum over differences with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Chyutin Architects was hired to design the museum about a year ago, after the resignation of world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. Chyutin Architects has signed a contract leaving the Wiesenthal Center with the architectural copyright for the plan.

More than 1,000 skeletons were expected to be exhumed during the excavation, which has the approval of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Although the Mamilla site served as the primary Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem for centuries, it was being used as a parking lot for the past few decades.

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