Tormenting the dead
As if all the persecution and brutalisation meted out to the Palestinians were not enough, Israeli authorities are finalising preparations for the construction of a museum on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery in West Jerusalem.
The cemetery, known as Maamanullah (Sanctuary of God), contains the remains of over 70,000 Muslims. Some say many more are buried there. Some of the remains go back to the time of the great Muslim general Saladin. Some archaeologists believe the cemetery may even date to the time of the Prophet Mohamed.
In the early 1960s, the Israeli government — which then, as now, was trying incessantly to obliterate the historical Arab identity of the land — built a parking lot on a part of the cemetery, in disregard of Arab and international protests.
Now, on 10 February, the Israeli Court of Justice gave final clearance to the city of Jerusalem and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre to build a complex with the name of the Centre for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance. Palestinians and Muslims in general are not impressed.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, a fanatical Chabadi leader and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, is claiming that the ancient cemetery is no longer a cemetery since people have been parking their cars there for over half a century. Seemingly proceeding from supremacist view that non-Jews, whether living or dead, have no sanctity, Hier sees no difference between parking cars on top of a graveyard and digging it out for the new construction site. What is important for Hier is that none of the dead are Jewish.
Hier, along with other Israeli apologists, has been searching for a Muslim religious edict that would allow authorities to obliterate Muslim graveyards after 40-50 years. However, while some edicts allow the relocation of the remains of the dead for necessity sake, no edict has ever been made allowing the construction of buildings on top of cemeteries. One Muslim scholar scoffed at Hier’s quest, arguing: “If we are to take Hier seriously, then according to him, it is permissible to destroy the graves of prophets and saints who have been dead for thousands of years. What he is saying is nonsense and reflects ignorance and arrogance.”
Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian scholar based in the United States, describes Hier’s allegations as “misleading and mendacious”. “This is a cemetery where people have been buried since the 12th century. People who fought with Saladin in the Crusades are buried there. The Israeli authorities are basically pushing ahead with the desecration of a cemetery that they have been, unfortunately, slowly nibbling away at for over three decades. We and other families are taking action as a group to try to stop this after other families failed in the Israeli Supreme Court.”
Khalidi dismissed Hier’s claims that no protests were made in the early 1960s when the parking lot was built on top of the cemetery. “This is not true. Many protests were made. There were protests from the early 1960s, when the first of these desecrations started. What Rabbi Hier said is false. And the fact that it was desecrated in the 1960s doesn’t mean that it is right to desecrate it further.”
In Jerusalem itself, the demolition of the Maamanullah cemetery is generating fury and indignation among Muslims. The Palestinian League of Muslim Scholars strongly condemned the “brutal ugliness” of the Israeli move. “This is an act of blasphemy. How would Jews react if they saw heavy machinery crush the bones of their dead?” asked Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, an imam of Al-Aqsa Mosque. “Besides, what kind of tolerance are the Israelis talking about when they build a museum on top of the remains of dead people?”
Another scholar remarked: “What can we say when you call cruelty ‘tolerance’? This is like building a museum at Auschwitz and calling it a museum of self-abnegation.”
Diana Butto, a lawyer representing several families and relatives of people buried in the cemetery, lamented the brazen disregard of Israel for the “very essence of human dignity”. “We have exhausted all our other legal means. Even what the UN can do is limited, but they can investigate and raise awareness.” Butto revealed that Palestinian families didn’t know what was being done with the human remains uncovered by heavy machinery.
Dalia Husseini Dajani, a middle-aged East Jerusalem woman, says many of her relatives were buried in the cemetery. “This is my history, my family, everything. One day, I want to be buried there, and I want my grandchildren to come and pray for me there.”
Michael Ratner, president of the US- based Centre for Constitutional Rights, which is assisting the legal case of families against Israel’s actions and plans, relayed the following after visiting the site: “I was really shocked by what I saw. I went into West Jerusalem, and I see a wall that’s probably 25 feet high, surrounded by surveillance cameras, which is where they’re building this so-called ‘Museum of Tolerance’. Right up to the edge of it, you see Muslim graves, Palestinian graves, all around it.
“And within even the part of the cemetery that still exists, which is only a few acres, because the Israelis have paved over other parts or built a park, it has been desecrated… [O]ne archaeologist called this an archaeological crime. This is an Israeli archaeologist. And you see they took out bones in cardboards boxes, relatives of the descendants of the people on this [legal] petition. The archaeologist said there’s at least 2,000 graves under this site. So to hear the rabbi from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre talk about ‘there’s no bones, there’s no bodies under here’ is just — it is just a lie. That is all I can say. That is what it is.”
Both Simon Wiesenthal and the centre named after him have been accused of flagrant lying, exaggeration and half-truths. One researcher contended that Wiesenthal’s confabulations were never discussed among scholars, but “he would rarely let the facts get in the way of a good story. In fact, many of the things he claimed to have done were fabrications.”
In June 2009, British author Guy Walters published a book entitled Hunting Evil in which he characterised Wiesenthal as “a liar — and a bad one at that”. “He would concoct outrageous stories about his war years and make false claims about his academic careers.” Walters found that there were “so many inconsistencies between his three main memoirs and between those memoirs and contemporaneous documents it is impossible to establish a reliable narrative from them. Wiesenthal’s scant regard for truth makes it possible to doubt everything he ever wrote or said.”