Israel Debates Site for Tolerance Museum

The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered a temporary halt to work on a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, commissioned by The Simon Wiesenthal Center. Construction had begun on the site of a Muslim cemetery, and several prominent Jewish organizations want it moved.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Israel, the Supreme Court has ordered a temporary halt to work at a construction site that's on top of an old Muslim cemetery. So far, workers have uncovered more than 200 graves. This is a particularly sensitive case, given the project; it's the Museum of Tolerance they're building in Jerusalem, a project of the Jewish Human Rights Foundation based in Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

The Manila Cemetery, once Jerusalem's largest Muslim graveyard, was used from the 12th century until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and many Palestinians have relatives buried there. In the 1960s, much of the area became a city park, and in the '80s, one section was paved over to become a parking lot. On that site two years ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger laid the cornerstone for the $150 million Museum of Tolerance, designed by renowned architect Frank Geary. Its sponsors say it will focus on issues of human dignity and responsibility, and seek to promote unity and respect.

When excavations began last month, graves were almost immediately uncovered. Charlie Levine, a spokesman for the Wiesenthal Center, says that's hardly surprising.

Mr. CHARLES LEVINE (Spokesman, Simon Wiesenthal Center): Jerusalem is not Pittsburgh. It's not San Diego. It is a 3,000-year-old city. And because of that almost any place that one begins building or excavating in the center of the city, one encounters archeological remains, artifacts, human remains, or whatever. And that's just the way it is.

GRADSTEIN: Levine says human remains, uncovered at the museum site to date, have been placed in boxes and handed over to authorities for burial. He says Jewish graves have been moved for other construction projects in Jerusalem. Levine also says the Simon Wiesenthal Center offered to put up some kind of a monument to the Muslims graves as part of the museum. He says that when the area was a parking lot, there were no complaints.

Mr. LEVINEE: There may well be an element of cynicism and exploitation of a hot potato issue here, perhaps not having to do with the human remains themselves.

GRADSTEIN: But Sheikh Adnan Husseini, the Director of the Waqf, the city's Muslim religious authority, says the museum construction has hurt and angered Muslims.

SHEIKH ADNAN HUSSEINI (Director, Islamic Waqf): It's full of tombs and bones of the people who use to live in the city since 1400 years. So it is holy, it is very sensitive for the population here because their relatives were buried there. And it is also part of the history of the city.

GRADSTEIN: He says that if the cemetery in question was a Jewish one, rather than a Muslim one, the museum project would never even have begun. Some prominent American Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, have joined Muslim calls for the site to be moved.

Mr. GERSHOM BASKIN (Co-Director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information): This is a city composed of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christian and Muslims. We have to learn to respect each other's sacred spaces.

GRADSTEIN: Gershom Baskin, the head of an Israeli-Palestinian think-tank in Jerusalem, says he fears continuing the project could spark violence.

Mr. BASKIN: If a few cartoons in a newspaper in Denmark created the kind of flare-up that we saw around the world, imagine how the Muslim world is going to respond to building a museum on top of a Muslim cemetery?

GRADSTEIN: The Supreme Court today appointed a mediator, a former Chief Justice, to try to find a solution to the museum project within 30 days.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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