How To Model Tolerance

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion, The Daily Beast, 4-16-12

Critics of Israel are having a grand old time turning the proposed Museum of Tolerance under construction in Jerusalem into a symbol of Israeli intolerance, given the museum’s seemingly insensitive decision to build its monument to broadmindedness on a centuries-old Muslim cemetery. Rashid Khalidi’s “Tolerance of Whom?” is the latest attack on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s initiative, this time deeming it “grotesque” and an “abuse of the dead.”

But the outrage over the building is one of those made-in-the-Middle-East cases of selective indignation and political grandstanding. The Wiesenthal Center has every right to build there and is the victim of a political mugging. Nevertheless, sometimes solving a problem with a touch of grace and self-sacrifice is preferable to standing on principle and asserting your rights.

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Frank Gehry’s proposed 2004 design for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem., Getty Images

In his screed against the Wiesenthal Center, Professor Khalidi overlooked the historian’s favorite text—context—and forgot that scholars are not supposed to fear complexity. Khalidi writes poignantly about the generations of his ancestors buried there and fears that this Muslim presence is being “erased.” In fact, many Zionists welcome modern Israel’s rich Arab heritage. I, for one, share Khalidi’s appreciation for the history that consecrates the ground there for him and for many of us who cherish the traditions of all the peoples of the Middle East.

I particularly love the Mamilla burial grounds. Over the years, my children and I passed many hours on visits to Jerusalem, wandering around, absorbing the history, delighting in some of the elaborate burial structures, and imagining the biographies of the many people buried there.

But Khalidi mislead readers by failing to tell them that the story of the Mamilla Cemetery is a complicated tale of a graveyard no longer in use, no longer considered sacred, and oft-violated already by Muslims, not just Jews. Most dramatically, in the 1920s, the fiery Palestinian nationalist, Haj Amin al Husseini, decreed the end to burials in the cemetery, designated the area as a commercial space, and built the magnificent Palace Hotel on one side of this huge expanse in the heart of Jerusalem. Since then, Muslim religious authorities have considered the cemetery “Mundras,” spiritually abandoned. After 1948, much of the Mamilla area became Gan Ha’atzmaut, Independence Park, and much of the controversial corner where the Wiesenthal Center is building became a parking lot.

Moreover, the Wiesenthal Center people note that for decades, no longer considering the area sacred, Muslims approved of the various commercial activities Arabs and Israelis performed on the site. Even for the first five years after the Museum initiative began, no one filed any religious objections, until some Islamist activists sensed a good opportunity to embarrass Israel—and the trouble began. Living in the Middle East—and especially Jerusalem—means constantly time-traveling through many different historical zones. Layers of history underlie most areas, and bones show up in the most inconvenient of building sites. Here, too, although consistency is a virtue, hypocrisy is rampant. The same progressives who are so outraged at the Museum of Tolerance’s alleged intolerance seethe when ultra-Orthodox Jews try stopping archaeological digs or building projects they deem to be on Jewish burial grounds (while ignoring this controversy, of course).

Ultimately, the legal, historical, and religious record justify the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s decision to build its Museum of Tolerance on the Mamilla Cemetery’s outskirts. Yet, if I were in charge, I would make my blow for tolerance by moving the project. While reaffirming the Jewish claim, while blasting the protesters’ duplicity, while filling in the facts, I would nevertheless build elsewhere. Civility entails knowing your rights but sometimes knowing enough not to assert them fully. Civility emerges from occasionally conceding graciously, even if unilaterally, not solely for the sake of others, but for your own sake. Mamilla Cemetery should be preserved as a Garden of Tolerance, fully administered by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for a generous fee, with a Museum of Tolerance built somewhere else in Jerusalem.

Not all conflicts need be zero sum, with clear winners and losers. To give the Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli Authorities the necessary nudge, deep-pocketed, peace-loving Arabs or Europeans or Americans should help create a rare Middle Eastern win-win. Let these do-gooders tally up all the court costs, real-estate fees, and construction costs to buy out the Center, while finding the Museum of Tolerance a new home. Let the building of the Museum of Tolerance become itself a model of tolerance, achieving its founders’ vision in ways that are all too rarely achieved in the Middle East of simplistic spin and fanatic finger pointing.

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.

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1 Comment

  1. Frank Gehry decided already 2010 to drop his participation into the project: “I greatly value my relationship with Rabbi Marvin Hier and admire his determination to establish a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem that will serve as the embodiment of human respect and compassion. Unfortunately, our staff and resources are committed to other projects around the globe, and thus I will not be able to participate in the redesign effort.”
    He’s a smart guy and a humanist I always admired and was both happy and lucky to know.
    I very much agree with Gil Troy that political, historic, religious and human sensitiveness or lack thereof is what will make or brake the Museum of Tolerance the great place Simon Wiesenthal’s life and work so much deserve. But in some distance from the planned site.

    Reply

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