Intolerance at Jerusalem’s Museum of Tolerance

Four decades ago, the state of California purchased land in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento, and built Casa de los Gobernadores to replace the aging downtown governor’s mansion. Few realized at the time that it was also the site of a Native American burial ground. Successive California governors refused to move there, mostly on pragmatic grounds. But in declining to live over the dead bodies of this state’s native inhabitants, those governors, perhaps fortuitously, chose well.

Today, another structure, across the world, is being erected over the dead bodies of a different indigenous people that, nonetheless, has a curious connection to California.

In his first trip abroad after taking office as governor of California in 2004, Arnold Schwarzenegger attended the groundbreaking ceremony of a new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, proclaiming “this building will be a candle to light us.” The museum is a project of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, supported by the Israeli government. Our governor’s presence there, along with other luminaries, bestowed legitimacy upon the project, and the involvement of the Wiesenthal Center also gave it a distinct California cast.

Yet the museum is being constructed on the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery, desecrating the graves of the interred. Archaeologists believe the Mamilla (Faithful of God) Cemetery holds the remains of tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers of Salah ed-Din, the 12th century leader who reconquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders. The cemetery was actively used by prominent Palestinian families through 1948, when West Jerusalem fell to Israeli troops. Hence the site is immensely significant archaeologically, but is also culturally sensitive to Palestinians.

An initial petition by Palestinian families and Islamic groups to the Israeli high court delayed but did not halt museum construction. Speed was the guiding principle of the project, not care for archaeological preservation nor respect for the dead, construction workers recounted to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. The Israeli high court denied a second petition, ignoring evidence that the Israel Antiquities Authority had suppressed the opinion of its own expert in originally permitting the museum’s construction.

In fact, chief excavator Gideon Suleimani advised his Antiquities Authority superiors against construction on the site and has since characterized building there as “an archaeological crime.” Palestinian families have taken their case to the United Nations, petitioning a variety of bodies there for relief. Represented by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, the families have also dispatched letters to members of the board of the Wiesenthal Center appealing to them to press for a halt to construction.

Israel’s support for the museum project despite Palestinian and Muslim sensibilities is emblematic of its intolerant treatment of its own 1.3 million Palestinian citizens as well as of its efforts to erase Palestinian history in Jerusalem and thereby reinforce exclusive Jewish claims to the city. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem face especially acute discrimination in the provision of municipal services and access to land for residential building.

Those residing in East Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967, have been required to prove that Jerusalem constitutes their “center of life” and risk the loss of residency rights there. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem characterized the set of pressures faced by native non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem as a form of “quiet deportation.” Coupled with an aggressive campaign of Jewish settlement, Israeli policies amount to a form of 21 century colonialism.

Schwarzenegger’s 2004 visit to Jerusalem was, no doubt, well intentioned. Indeed, he has a commendable record of support for mutual respect among peoples of different faiths and origins. He went, however, not simply as an individual, but as the elected leader of this state.

The governor should now exercise his moral stature and political authority with Israeli politicians and Wiesenthal board members by disavowing support for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem and persuading them to halt construction of this ill-situated building. That is the surest way to maintain his deserved standing as an ambassador of understanding and this state’s reputation as a place where equality in human dignity is cherished above all.

GEORGE BISHARAT is a professor at Hastings College of the Law and writes frequently about law and politics in the Middle East.