Jerusalem Tolerance Museum in Legal Limbo The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center wants to build a museum of tolerance in Jerusalem. But construction was halted months ago when local Muslims complained that the site is an old Islamic Cemetery.
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Jerusalem Tolerance Museum in Legal Limbo

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Jerusalem Tolerance Museum in Legal Limbo

Jerusalem Tolerance Museum in Legal Limbo

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Last winter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center started building a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Then construction stopped after human remains were recovered at the site of an old Muslim cemetery. Now the Wiesenthal Centre - based here in Los Angeles - has asked the Israeli Supreme Court to decide if construction can continue.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Jerusalem.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: It seems like a reasonable idea on the face of it - a $200 million Museum of Tolerance to be built in West Jerusalem, not far from the line that separated East and West Jerusalem for decades, a museum, according to the Web site, that would help promote unity and respect among people of all faiths.

Mr. KHAIRI DAJANI (Muslim Religious Authority): It's really a joke or something trying to fool people.

SULLIVAN: Khairi Dajani works for Jerusalem's Muslim Religious Authority. He's also a plaintiff in the suit to stop the museum project. Dajani says his great grandfather, a once powerful sheikh, is buried at the mostly abandoned Maamam Allah cemetery.

Push Dajani a bit, though, and he admits his great grandfather's grave is not among those that would be disturbed by the construction. Push him a little more and he also says it's been awhile since he's visited the cemetery.

Mr. DAJANI: First 1948, we just occasionally passed by it because there is no new people buried there. But that's doesn't mean that we forgot it about it. I'm defending all the graves of the Muslims in that cemetery.

SULLIVAN: For Dajani the issue is at its core political and mirrors the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. DAJANI: It's exactly like Palestinian case. They already taken 70 percent of the land of Palestine and 20 percent left for the Palestinians. And they say why shouldn't we take the rest?

SULLIVAN: For Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Wiesenthal Center, the whole thing's a massive headache he'd love to have go away. He says he wouldn't have dreamed of building on a Muslim cemetery had he known but the authorities assured him everything was fine.

Rabbi MARVIN HIER (Dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center): They told us, this is public property and any building may be built there. And no one objected for years, during the whole public process.

SULLIVAN: Nor did anyone object, Hier says, when the site was turned into a parking lot 30 years ago. And the most obvious solution, he says, is not necessarily the best - in a city more than 3,000 years old.

Rabbi HIER: For those who argue, if you find bones on a site, why don't you, in the interest of tolerance, you know, just go somewhere else. The answer is every place in Jerusalem, if you dig, you will find bones.

SULLIVAN: Which helps explain why Hier has worked for the past seven months to find a compromise. Even though he feels blindsided by what he calls Islamists not interested in compromise.

Rabbi HIER: Well our offer was, the bones would be simply intact. The whole section would be taken out, moved to the adjacent Moslem cemetery, and we in turn would beautify that ancient cemetery which has been neglected for 30 or 40 years. The Islamists rejected that offer and that's why the mediation failed.

SULLIVAN: Now that it has failed, Hier says he hopes the Supreme Court will rule on the matter soon. But it's an inauspicious start for a project aimed at promoting harmony. And a reminder of the enduring enmity here, something not even the dead can escape.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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