One Man’s Cemetery Is Another Man’s Parking Lot

On Friday,  the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s commander -in-chief, Rabbi Marvin Hier, duked it out in the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times with Saree Makdisi, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA.   

  The object of their tussle is the Center’s attempt to construct a second Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.   Palestinian advocates claim that the museum will be built, at least partly, on the remains of an ancient Arab cemetery.  The Wiesenthal Center contends, and I should say with considerable force, that the area upon which the new building will be constructed had been used as a parking  lot by the Jerusalem municipality for nearly 50 years, with nary a whisper of protest from any living or dead Arab associated with the graveyard nearby.

Having seen the plans for the Second Coming of the Museum of Tolerance ( based on a design by architect Frank Gehry), I have to say that I am no fan nor booster of the project.   Jerusalem actually needs many more parking spaces than it does Museums and I have failed to be convinced that the new construction will be anything more than a rather grotesque monument to Marvin Hier’s ego.

But be that as it may, I had to laugh out loud when Makdisi claimed that:

“Muslim clergy and legal scholars insist on the inviolability of cemeteries in Islam”

Maybe in Islam, buddy, but that notion certainly doesn’t apply to the cemeteries of other faiths.  Who can forget the heart-rending photos of the destruction of the Jewish cemeteries on the Mount of Olives after it was liberated from the Jordanians in 1967?    After nineteen years in Jordanian hands, the cemetery, which had contained the remains of Jews over a period of  two millennia, had been completely desecrated.  Centuries-old tombstones had been shattered and used as paving stones for roads and outhouses. Graves were found open with the bones scattered everywhere and parts of the cemetery had been converted into parking lots and filling stations.  The Intercontinental Hotel itself was built right on top of the cemetery.

 I am also quite astonished to hear Makdisi rhapsodize about the sacredness of Islamic corpses.  The Syrians, in that very  same war, displayed little  concern for their own dead.  When the Israelis offered to return the corpses of the Syrian soldiers who had been gunned down guarding the Golan Heights, (some of whom had been manacled to their machine guns to prevent their surrender), the Syrians refused the offer and the Israelis were forced to bury the Syrians in a common grave. 

 I should also note that the Mamilla Cemetery, as Hier argues, really had been abandoned.  I have walked the paths of  that cemetery dozens of times on my way to the new city and always been astonished at what low regard the cemetery’s Arab custodians held the remains buried there. Each passing year made the cemetery resemble more an uncultivated paddock than sacred ground.  It is spurious to suggest that the custodians have awoken from their neglect and suddenly recognized the true sanctity of the place.

So much for Muslim dignity in death.  Maybe Makdisi should save his censure for those who send women and children to their deaths  and could care less about what becomes of their remains, than an attack on another Jewish institution that preaches a tolerance that his own people would never dream of evincing.


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