Wiesenthal’s Project in Jerusalem on Hold Amid Dispute

Since its beginning in 1977, with one phone and a very long extension cord, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has seemingly moved from one success to the next, with its shrewd, strategic planning and winning message of tolerance. Now it faces a daunting, unfamiliar and discomforting challenge.

At risk is its dream project, the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem. For the past five years, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s founder and dean, has poured his formidable energies and negotiating skills into the $200 million project as the capstone of his career.

But now the project is running into a roadblock: In a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice, lawyers for two Muslim organizations asserted that thousands of Muslims who died during the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries are buried at the site where the center is being built.

They also argue that associates of the Islamic prophet Mohammed were interred at the site in the seventh century.

Muslims aren’t the only ones opposing the project — the building plan is also unpopular among many Israeli Jews.

In response, the High Court this week appointed former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar as a mediator. Shamgar has a month to find a resolution on the topic.

So far, Hier is standing his ground.

“We have done everything lawfully for the past five years,” said Hier, who noted that the site had been used for years as a parking lot. “We had open City Council meetings, put notices in the Hebrew and Arab presses and architect Frank Gehry came to Israel and gave lengthy interviews. All that time, there were no complaints from the Muslim community. Surely, it is more sacrilegious to park 700 cars on the site than to build a museum of tolerance.”

How different things looked last May, when after years of bureaucratic wrangling and vocal opposition from influential Jerusalemites, the road finally seemed clear. A gala ceremony marked the groundbreaking on the three-acre campus. Ready were Gehry’s plans for seven buildings, including a library, education center, performing arts theater, international conference center and two museums.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ehud Olmert (then the mayor of Jerusalem and now Israel’s acting prime minister) lauded the new center’s goal of promoting civility and respect among Jews and between Jews and Muslims.

In recent weeks, workmen excavating the site unearthed bones and partial skeletons from the old Muslim Mamilla, or Maman Allah, cemetery.

There is agreement among all parties that Muslims have been buried at the site for many centuries, and that bodies may possibly lie five layers deep.

Hier, in an interview with The Journal, forcefully laid out his case for moving ahead regardless with the project, on which the center has spent $10 million so far.

“Never in a million years would we have undertaken this project if the government of Israel or the Jerusalem municipality had told us that we were building atop a Muslim cemetery. We would have rejected the site out of hand.”

But Hier said he was assured by local and national authorities that there were no legal impediments to building on the site, now mainly a large open parking lot.

Also on the site is a four-level underground garage, excavated and built 30 years ago, with no protests from Muslim religious authorities.

Even earlier, in 1964, when the now-defunct Palace Hotel stood on part of the parcel, the highest Muslim religious council in Jerusalem ruled that the cemetery had been inactive for such a long time that it had lost its sacred character and could be used for public purposes.

In a region where religion and politics are so closely entwined — and where the Islamist Hamas recently won Palestinian elections and Israelis are poised to vote on March 28 — the ramifications of the dispute are bound to inflame already edgy tempers.

Lawyers for the Wiesenthal Center presented three possible compromises at last week’s Supreme Court hearing: Build a dignified monument to the ancient cemetery; refurbish a nearby modern Muslim cemetery; or rebury the bones at another site, all at the center’s expense.

“We want to do the right thing,” Hier said.

Israeli politicians have criticized the Wiesenthal Center’s plans.

Likud Party member Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset, asked, “Why, for God’s sake, does a house of tolerance need to be built on a Muslim cemetery. It goes against logic.” He added: “My parents are buried on the Mount of Olives. If someone decided they needed to be moved to build a museum of tolerance, I’d be very angry.”

The Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League has appealed to the Wiesenthal Center for a “pause” in construction, but retracted the call after the High Court appointed Shamgar.

On the Muslim side, Irkrima Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, has petitioned UNESCO to declare the disputed area an international historical site.

One underlying factor contributing to the confrontation is long-standing hostility to the project by influential segments of Jerusalem’s citizenry, despite support for it from some municipal and national political leaders.

Such opposition, well before the cemetery dispute, helps account for the antagonistic tone of some Israeli critics.

Among the early skeptics were officials at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, who argued that there was no need for a competing Holocaust museum.

The Wiesenthal Center agreed that its new museum would not deal with the Holocaust.

Hier emphasized that his goal was to press forward as planned.

“I have absolute faith that the Center for Human Dignity will rise in Jerusalem … in the present location,” he said. “We’ve gone through all the required processes for more than five years, all the architectural and building plans are for this specific site. And we’ve gone too far for any changes now.”

For one thing, Hier’s architect, the renowned Frank Gehry created a design for this specific site. For another, finding a new location is hardly a given in a city where every parcel, in effect, could be regarded as an archeological site.

This week, the project received a boost from acting Prime Minister Olmert. In a phone call with Hier and Wiesenthal Center board chair Larry Mizel, Olmert reaffirmed his full support for the museum, according to the Wiesenthal Center.

“This is an essential project for Jerusalem, a landmark that will change the face of Jerusalem forever,” said Olmert, as quoted in a center press release. “I stand behind it 100 percent, with all my power.”