A Letter from The Simon Wiesenthal Center

Dear Editor:In response to the opinion piece by Rashid I. Khalidi that appeared on April 10th in your publication, I am writing today to inform you that the information presented is disingenuous and completely misleading. Here are the facts:

In 2000, the government of Israel and the City of Jerusalem made available to the Simon Wiesenthal Center a 3-acre site that, for the last 50 years, had served as the municipal parking lot of Jerusalem (the photo in the blog is of the cemetery adjacent to our property—I reiterate again that we are building on what had for 50 years, served as Jerusalem’s municipal parking lot).

This facility contained a 3-level underground parking lot where hundreds people of all faiths parked their cars on a daily basis. Khalidi would have you believe that we are uprooting tombstones to build our Museum. That is simply not the case.

During these 50 years, no Muslim individual or group ever protested that this was an ancient Muslim cemetery. Why? Because from the very beginning, the motivation behind the campaign to stop construction of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem was political, intended to undermine the sovereignty and authority of Israel and its juridical institutions. The motivator of the campaign against the project from its inception was Sheikh Raed Salah, a declared Muslim extremist, head of the Northern Faction of the Islamic movement and leader of the illegal Al Aksa Association, a body involved in channeling funds into Hamas terror organizations, financing terror in violation of Israeli law and international decisions and norms. Sheikh Salah had already spent several years in prison for incitement to violence and for attacking police.Despite his hatred for the government of Israel, Sheikh Salah initiated the petition to Israel’s Supreme Court and the Court agreed to hear his petition. In its deliberations, the Court spent an inordinate amount of time—three years— meticulously investigating the case. During these years, the opportunity was given to the petitioners to bring all of their claims before the Supreme Court, in writing—the petitioners submitted numerous applications that received serious and comprehensive consideration by the Supreme Court—as well as orally—in this case, there were not less than four hearings in which comprehensive claims on behalf of the parties were heard in all of them.

In an astounding document uncovered by the Simon Wiesenthal Center a while ago, a story in the 1945 Palestine Post (when Jerusalem was still under British mandate and before Israel came into being) noted that the Supreme Moslem Council, in conjunction with the Government Town Planning Advisor intended to turn the actual Mamilla Cemetery into a “Business Centre,” which would include a bank and a factory. The remains buried in the cemetery would be transferred, all in accordance with Moslem tradition as stated in the article by a member of the Supreme Moslem Council.

From 2006 to 2009, the petitioners utilized the Israeli legal system to the fullest extent in order to make their case, using the Sharia (Muslim Religious) Court, the Court for Administrative Affairs and the Supreme Court of Israel. During these years, construction work on the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem was suspended. Throughout this process, all questions presented by the petitioners were examined in an extremely comprehensive, thorough and intensive manner. Additionally, a mediation process was conducted at the behest of the Supreme Court by a retired Chief Justice of the Court, but the petitioners rejected all solutions proposed by the mediator. In its unanimous opinion dated 29 October 2008, the Court held:

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...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...For decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community... no one denied this position.

Now that the Court has unanimously rejected all of their petitions and fined them for wasting the Court’s time, the Sheikh and his followers no longer trusted the Court and proceeded to take their case to the United Nations.

As opposed to the claims by the petitioners, Muslim religious law enables relocation of graves and the removal of the sanctity of cemeteries for the purpose of development and for the general good. As such, old and abandoned cemeteries are deemed mundras, thereby allowing various works to be performed on the land, including excavation and transfer of remains, when the public good mandates it.This was, in fact, the case with the Mamilla cemetery where a fatwa (religious ruling) was issued in 1964 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.Other sources in Islamic religious law, particularly the Hanafi school, make reference to the fact that a cemetery that has not been used for one generation, or when the body has decayed and the bones have disintegrated or mixed with the earth, its use can be changed for public benefit (preferably of Muslims) and the remains can be transferred.

Practice in Arab and Muslim countries indicates that cemeteries are relocated for reasons of public need and for the public good, while strictly respecting the dignity of the dead. Indeed, in the 1920s the Jerusalem Sharia Court and 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, on the grounds that such actions are permitted by Islamic law. In 1936 the Supreme Muslim council decided that the cemetery was abandoned (mundras) in order to build public buildings in the western part of the cemetery. The plans to construct a Muslim University over the entire cemetery were shelved due to lack of funds.

With these facts in mind, it is clear that Khalidi is incorrect in his assessment of both the intentions of the Wiesenthal Center in building the Museum of Tolerance and of the function of the Mamilla cemetery historically.

Sincerely,Avra ShapiroDirector, Public RelationsSimon Wiesenthal CenterMuseum of Tolerance