Jim Mendenhall/AP
Simon Wiesenthal in 1993.

Jewish Group Joins Fight Against Construction of Wiesenthal Museum

February 26, 2009 11:37 AM
by Josh Katz
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, renowned for hunting Nazi war criminals, has angered Jews and Muslims alike by planning to build a museum on an old Muslim cemetery site.

Reform Rabbis Lambast Jerusalem Museum Site

Reform rabbis in the United States are speaking out against the planned building of a museum over an ancient Islamic cemetery in Jerusalem. Israeli courts have already approved the construction of the new Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance at the location of the Mamilla Cemetery, “an ancient Muslim burial place off Independence Park in the heart of Jerusalem,” according to United Press International.

The burial ground is about 800 years old and covers approximately 12 percent of the plot for the new museum. Islamic groups have rallied against the construction, and had waged a legal fight for almost three years until Israel’s Supreme Court OK’d the site for the $250 million museum in October, the Jerusalem Post writes. Meanwhile the center has continued with the construction, but not on the portion of the site where human remains were discovered, according to the Post.

The Board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents about 2,000 Reform rabbis, released a statement on the matter at its 120th Annual Convention held in Jerusalem through March 1, MSNBC reports.

“Cemeteries are sacred ground in our Jewish tradition. … We would protest, in the strongest terms, not only the desecration, but any removal of a Jewish cemetery, no matter what the purpose. Therefore, it is self-evident that we must oppose the removal of another people’s sacred burial ground, no matter how worthy the purpose,” the rabbis said, according to MSNBC. “While the Israeli Supreme Court has permitted the Wiesenthal Center to move ahead, an organization with high-minded goals like those of the Museum of Tolerance cannot be satisfied with mere adherence to the law.”

The Central Conference of American Rabbis was the created in 18989, and it “is the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in North America,” according to MSNBC. The Reform rabbinate is the largest group of Jewish ecclesiastics in the world.

The group’s resolution also notes that Dr. Rafi Greenberg, a renowned archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, says that there are few Islamic sites in western Jerusalem that are still intact, and Mamilla must be preserved. The rabbis also point out that the Municipality of Jerusalem has suggested other sites that could be used for the museum.

The dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Marvin Hier, criticized the resolution and called it part of a deluded “PR campaign,” according to The Jerusalem Post.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling was not only a legal decision but a moral one which talked about the importance of having such a museum in the center of Jerusalem,” Rabbi Hier claimed. He went on to say, “We are not building on the Muslim cemetery but on a Jerusalem municipal car park which for the past 50 years has served Jews, Christians and Muslims, including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis as well as priests and imams,” he said.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the center, noting that the city built a parking lot over part of the graveyard in 1960 and no one protested the decision back then. The parking lot has been in public use ever since.

The center also offered to rebury the bones or install “a barrier between the building’s foundations and the ground below which would prevent graves from being disturbed in the area,” according to The Jersualem Post. The Israeli High Court said those proposals were “satisfactory.”

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Background: The Simon Wiesenthal Center, Marvin Heir and trouble at home

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is encountering problems at home in the United States, as well. In Los Angeles, the center is trying to expand its Museum of Tolerance but its neighbors, who are primarily Jewish, have objected, according to the Forward. The museum argues that it has taken many steps to accommodate the neighbors’ concerns. But the issue is still contentious, and 100 people attended a recent public hearing on the issue.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the Wiesenthal Center, “has become one of the most powerful Jews both in the world and locally,” Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told the Forward.

The 69-year-old Hier is well known in the movie industry and, according to the Forward, has helped boost the careers of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and DreamWorks Animation SKG CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. The Simon Wiesenthal Center also has its own film division called Moriah Films, which has won two Oscars.

His center has about 400,000 members. It is named after Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who after World War II spent nearly six decades tracking down hundreds of Nazi criminals whom he considered most responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews, gypsies and others during the war. 

The center has taken on Wiesenthal’s Nazi-hunting legacy. Each year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center releases its Annual Status Report on the Worldwide Investigation and Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals. The center rates the diligence of world nations in their efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, and provides a list of the “Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals.” The center has been integral in the recent efforts to bring former Nazi war criminals like Aribert Heim, John Demjanjuk, Søren Kam and Milivoj Asner to justice.

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center Web site, the organization is dedicated to the promotion of human rights issues, “confronting antisemitism, hate and terrorism … standing with Israel, defending the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.”

Some observers say the recent controversy could damage the image of the organization. But, since the protests began back in 2006, funding has steadily increased, according to Forward. In 2006, the museum collected $17.8 million in donations; in 2007, when the museum started quarrelling with its neighbors in LA, it took in $21 million; and for the fiscal year that concluded in June 30, 2008, the organization raised $36 million.

“They’ve always marched to their own drummer,” said Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “And that is a source of attraction to their funders.”

Related Topic: Israel gives Sergei Courtyard back to Russia

In October 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert transferred the contentious deed of Sergei Courtyard to Russia on his diplomatic trip their. The decision to return Sergei Courtyard, which is in Jerusalem, to Russia spurred debate and exasperation in a country where land transfer is not taken lightly.

Russian Czar Alexander II bought the nine-acre plot in 1860, and the courtyard was named after his brother, Grand Duke Sergei. Sergei was head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which tried to increase Russian power in the region by protecting Russian pilgrims. The British took control of the area after World War I, and that jurisdiction shifted to Israel when it gained independence in 1948. One of the main arguments against the land transfer is that it opens the door for other countries to assert land claims in Israel.

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