OP-EDS & REVIEWS
By Gil Troy, Open Zion, The Daily Beast, 4-27-12
Professor Khalidi is anxious to bar me from the debate about the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem’s building site that adjoins an ancient Moslem graveyard by questioning my credentials. And I guess he is right.
Offering a symphony of subtlety to a Middle East problem may well be too “American.” It is unfortunate that he could not see in my response any basis for common discourse or compromise or acknowledge that my essay essentially endorsed his goal of preserving the Mamilla Cemetery out of shared reverence for his ancestors and out of respect for his—and others’—feelings.
However, I am sorry to disappoint Professor Khalidi. I will not retreat in the wake of his assault. I stand by my criticism. Without rehashing the entire debate, allow me to offer three correctives to his version of events that prove my point that the whole situation is a classic Middle East muddle rather than a black-and-white situation with the Israelis and Jews acting as evil stick figures.
For starters, Khalidi indignantly dismisses what he calls “the canard regarding the Palace Hotel.” Sounding more like a lawyer than an historian, he carefully emphasizes that “it was always outside the boundaries of the cemetery, so the specter of the Mufti invoked by Troy” is like “a ghost rattling chains to scare the naïve and ignorant.” I had pointed out that the “fiery Palestinian nationalist Haj Amn al Husseini … built the magnificent Palace Hotel on one side of this huge expanse” and “decreed the end to burials in the cemetery.” If we’re interested in full disclosure, we should acknowledge that one of the architects who worked on the Palace Hotel, Baruch Katinka, wrote in his memoirs that while excavating the foundations, workers discovered human remains—suggesting that the boundaries of the Mamilla Cemetery were less clear than Khalidi would have us believe.
Moreover, when Katinka reported this discovery to the Grand Mufti, the Islamic leader ordered Katinka to rebury the bones elsewhere. To be fair, because I acknowledge complexity, I will admit that this triggered a religious and political dispute among Muslim religious leaders, and that is why I conclude that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has rights to build but would be wiser not to exercise them.
Similarly, it would be fair to acknowledge this dispute’s timeline, because that, too, lightens the burden on the Wiesenthal Center. As described in the Israeli Supreme Court opinion, the building plan was published on August 29, 2002, the application was approved on October 27, 2004, and remains were only found toward the end of 2005, triggering an even later objection. So the Museum of Tolerance did not target a Muslim cemetery. It began building an important project on an area that was an eyesore—an ugly multistory parking lot—then stumbled into this mess.
Finally, the Supreme Court judgment detailed three different compromise solutions offered, which are often used when human remains are found on building sites in Israel. These included “hand excavation,” “freezing the area” then extracting the bones, or cutting the graves out, raising them on a wooden platform and transporting them to an “alternative site” with no direct human contact being made to respect the graves’ sanctity. These proposals, even if not fully satisfying to the plaintiffs, also demonstrate more good will and intricacy than Khalidi suggests.
Maybe those Wiesenthal people have a point when they complain that their attempts at compromise have been rebuffed. But there again I guess am showing my alleged ignorance by trying to avoid a zero-sum, black-white, good versus evil discussion here.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.