The Israeli interior ministry recently authorized construction to begin on Jerusalem’s Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance despite protestations that its siting will violate the historic Ma’man Allah, or the Mamilla Cemetery. Palestinian families whose ancestors are buried there have joined with archaeologists, academics, and artists, including Jewish allies, to voice opposition to the plan. These more recent objections illuminate an ongoing struggle to protect the cemetery, as well as the museum’s troubled past.
Ma’man Allah (Mamilla Cemetery) is a centuries-old site that, until its expropriation in 1948, was in regular use, interring the remains of some of the region’s longest Muslim family lineages. Islamic saints and scholars are buried there, including Edward Said‘s relatives, and so when the plans for the museum were first announced in 2002, the opposition’s rejoinder came swiftly. Those who mobilized against breaking ground turned up the public pressure, staging press conferences to gain international attention, and ultimately bringing the issue to the United Nations. A concurrent legal strategy was brought in Israeli courts, which succeeded in getting the excavation suspended in 2006, but two years later the Supreme Court sided with the government and resumed the project, after which remains from the graveyard were moved to the perimeter of the site.
Following this political turmoil, in early 2010 the first architect commissioned to design the building, Frank Gehry, left the project. The official reason given was that he was committed to too many projects at the time and needed to scale back. However, at the time of his withdrawal, it came to light that the Wiesenthal Center was far from its $200 million fundraising goal, and a more plausible explanation is that the star architect worried the project wouldn’t come to fruition. More, his proposal was met with mixed reviews, and its ambivalent reception no doubt factored with the negative press against his continued involvement.
Without Gehry, the project pressed on, commissioning a new design by Chyutin Architects for $150 million less than the original plan. In June of 2011, the new building was approved, and after an accelerated permitting process, construction was approved the following month. The Chyutin building will be a drastic departure from Gehry’s proposal, and, as the Jerusalem Post reports, will include an amphitheater, exhibit halls, classrooms, a stone plaza and a parking lot. Artinfo reports the far more conservative design prompted the interior ministry to comment that:
the project presents architecture that is modest and thoughtful, and contributes to the creation of a public space that is fitting for the area on a local and urban level.
Of course, it’s what is beneath the building that is at issue, and the ministry’s fanfare only adds insult to injury to those whose ancestors are being relocated. Democracy NOW! interviewed one such descendant, Columbia University professor and author Rashid Khalidi, who recounts the Wiesenthal Center’s official line – that no graves were being disturbed – in the video below.
Ma’man Allah has already once been built over in the past, to accommodate a municipal parking lot during the 1960s, and this figured into the interior ministry’s decision to rubber stamp the museum’s second proposal. Khalidi’s account of that time period conflicts with that of the Wiesenthal Center’s founder, who has claimed that the parking lot construction met with no resistance. Then, as now, Khalidi claims, the difference in protections offered to Arab and Jewish heritage sites could not be more pronounced, a view that is substantiated by his co-interviewee Michael Ratner, the current president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner notes that of Israel’s 136 protected cultural sites, not one was Muslim or Christian until at least 2008.
Khalidi and Ratner speak of the erasure of Arab and Palestinian histories from West Jerusalem in their interview, and they express regret that the Wiesenthal Center is implicated in achieving such a goal. The U.S.-based organization has established other sites in Los Angeles and New York. That an institution with as laudable a mission as the Wiesenthal Center has met with such conflict is a deep irony matched only by the notion that a museum of tolerance could be built on top of the graves of the displaced and dispossessed.