At a Glance
Desecration of the historic cemetery continues despite efforts by CCR and the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Cemetery, as well as international condemnation.
Dima Khalidi of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support
The Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery – a group of 60 individuals with ancestors buried in the cemetery.
The Mamilla Cemetery is an ancient Muslim burial ground and holy site in Jerusalem believed to date back to the 7th century. A significant portion of the cemetery has been destroyed and hundreds of human remains have been desecrated so that the Simon Wiesenthal Center can build a facility called the “Museum of Tolerance.” Since 2010, CCR and the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Cemetery have worked to halt construction of the new facility and preserve what remains of the site. To this end, we filed petitions with various UN bodies, including UNESCO to protect the sacred site. This advocacy effort is part of CCR’s longstanding commitment to support the struggle for Palestinian human rights.
Numerous saints of the Sufi faith and thousands of other officials, scholars, notables, and Jerusalem Palestinian families have been buried in the cemetery over the last 1000 years. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad were reputedly buried there. The Muslim Supreme Council declared the cemetery a historical site in 1927, and the British Mandate authorities pronounced it an antiquities site in 1944. It was an active burial ground until 1948 when the new State of Israel seized the western part of Jerusalem. Under Israeli control, the cemetery and other Islamic endowment properties, or waqf, were taken over by the Custodian for Absentee Property. Since then, Muslim authorities have not been allowed to maintain the cemetery.
The importance of the Mamilla Cemetery to Muslims is well known to the Israeli government. In 1948, the same year that Israel took control of the cemetery, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry recognized Mamilla “to be one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of Saladin’s armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars. Israel will always know to protect and respect this site.” As recently as 1986, in response to an investigation by UNESCO regarding Israel’s development projects on Mamilla, the Israeli government stated that “no project exists for the deconsecration of the site and that on the contrary the site and its tombs are to be safeguarded.” Despite these reassurances and the cemetery’s inclusion in an Israeli Antiquities Authority list of “Special Antiquities Sites,” Israel has in fact destroyed a large section of the cemetery with the construction of buildings, parks, and even parking lots.
The “Museum of Tolerance” has resulted in the disinterment of hundreds of graves, and the whereabouts of the countless human remains that have been disposed of are unknown. With the help of the Israeli government, the Simon Wiesenthal Center continues to erect the museum atop thousands more graves. They justify the project by claiming that the cemetery is no longer sanctified, based on a 1964 proclamation by a Shari’a or Islamic law judge who lacked legitimacy in the Muslim community. The President of the Shari’a Court of Appeals in Israel has since deemed this ruling to be void and affirmed that the sanctity of cemeteries is eternal in Islam.
Under international law, UN resolutions, and its own domestic law, the Israeli government has an obligation to respect and protect the holy sites of its minority religious and ethnic populations, including Mamilla Cemetery. Its unwillingness to do so has drawn international condemnation, including Human Rights Council resolutions; a public petition signed by nearly 10,000 individuals from around the world; a letter from 84 respected archaeologists decrying the archaeological practices employed on the site; a resolution by the Central Conference of American Rabbis opposing the project; and the opposition of numerous prominent Israeli scholars.