The cemetery occupies prime land, adjacent to "downtown" Jerusalem of cafes and fashionable restaurants. It is next to Independence Park, the hangout of the young beer drinkers who can’t afford the city bars. Hemmed in on all sides by Israeli establishments, it was a matter of time that the cemetery became a target for the construction frenzy of Jerusalem. The cemetery is ill-tended, no doubt, and some of its land was already sold by muftis past to the Israeli government. But what remains is still symbolic of Palestinian history and the idea that it might disappear touches raw nerves. Known as "Maman Allah" to the Muslims, which evolved into "Mamilla" for the Jews, the area until 1967 sat on the border between Israeli and Jordanian-controlled sections of Jerusalem.
The warriors of the legendary Muslim king Saladin, who fought against the Crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem, are believed to be buried there. To say nothing of the ancestors of many Muslim residents of present day Jerusalem. Although the cemetery is no longer used, the decision to build upon it is seen by Palestinians as yet another attempt by Israel to wipe their presence off the city. Remember Golda Meir’s infamous statement that "there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. They didn’t exist." (The Sunday Times, June 15, 1969)
In the ongoing battle to prove what was and what wasn’t, the cemetery serves a great historical purpose. For the Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles to zoom in on this neglected but important piece of land for its $250 million project is politics. The irony couldn’t be more sweeping -- naming the project a museum of "tolerance" but breeding intolerance in its wake. Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center added insult to injury when he said the museum was a good use of "derelict land" -- not a centimetre in Jerusalem can be said to be derelict land. Every patch is claimed twice over and then some. Also, would a museum have been allowed over an ancient Jewish cemetery?
Petitions have been filed, judgments given and precedents cited but in the end, politics always slams in the face. The Israeli Supreme Court last November dashed all hopes when it ruled the site is no longer deemed holy because a parking lot was already built on some of the land. True, but bad decisions of the past must be rectified, not bolstered with more bad decisions. Who knows under what conditions the land was obtained? Given the very dark history of this part of the world, where land is confiscated simply because it can and where walls are built with fiat severing communities with no questions asked, who can say how "legal" is the parking lot? If the cemetery is important to the Palestinian residents, why not leave it alone? Surely, the Wiesenthal Center can be "allotted" land elsewhere.
But give it to the dedicated campaigners, many of them meticulous chroniclers of the wrongs committed daily, who sought support from the Orthodox Jews to protect the cemetery and got it. The idea is to declare the site "ritually impure" under Jewish law by rabbis because the project entails unearthing thousands of remains, and thereby make the museum an untouchable. Not a site the religious Jews would like to visit for a Sunday stroll. And they are a very important voice in the city’s tough politics.
This unusual initiative came from a city councilman of the leftist Meretz Party who works actively against demolitions of Palestinian homes and the head of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. Their next goal is to obtain a joint declaration by Jews and Muslim organizations but we are not there yet. So far Rabbi David Schmidl, head of the ultra-Orthodox Atra Kadisha organization, which fights against desecration of Jewish graves, has come on board but Shlomo Amar, one of the two chief rabbis of Jerusalem, has yet to give his blessing. Without Amar, the initiative won’t go far.
The support from the orthodox didn’t come free. They asked that the Palestinian Authority give in writing that it would respect Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus in the West Bank, a Jewish holy site. Rafik Husseini, chief aide of PA president Mahmoud Abbas, did the "needful," as we say, and obliged in writing, reminding everyone that it was already a commitment under the Oslo accords to protect the tomb. He then asked that Shlomo Amar show the same respect for the cemetery. That is promise to ensure its existence. So far there has been no commitment from the rabbi’s office.
Will he agree to join forces with Muslims to save the cemetery -- a decent thing to do -- or will he allow politics to ruin a fine attempt at peace-making?