November 19, 2010
In June, 2005, the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles began construction in Jerusalem of an ambitious new facility. This project was variously referred to by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and "dean" of the SWC, as the "Center for Human Dignity," the "Center for Human Dignity—Jerusalem" and most pretentiously, the "Center for Human Dignity—Museum of Tolerance." (Ground-breaking on the construction site had occurred in 2004, giving Arnold Schwarzenegger an opportunity to fly to Israel for one of his many photo ops with Rabbi Heir.) This sprawling structure was to be built on a parking lot that was supposedly adjacent to a historic Muslim ceremony; but which actually turned out to be directly on top of a part of it.
The cemetery, called the Mamilla Cemetary (Ma’Man Allah in Arabic), was an extremely old Muslim burial ground that was once the most important in Palestine, and in the Middle East generally. The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, in a petition to the UN and other international organizations to stop construction of the Wiesenthal Museum, wrote as follows: "The Mamilla Cemetery is an ancient Muslim burial ground and holy site believed to date back to the 7th century, when companions of the Prophet Muhammad were reputedly buried there. Numerous saints of the Sufi faith and thousands of other officials, scholar, notables and Jerusalemite families have been buried in the cemetery over the last 1000 years. 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."
"After the new State of Israel seized the western part of Jerusalem in 1948, the cemetery fell under Israeli control, and like other Islamic endowment properties, or waqf, Mamilla Cemetery was taken over by the Custodian for Absentee Property. Since then, Muslim authorities have not been allowed to maintain the cemetery." At that time, in 1948, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry itself acknowledged 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." It added: "Israel will always know to protect and respect this site."
But that is not what happened.
In the early 1980s, Muslims became aware that the cemetery was being encroached on and human remains were being disinterred, and protested to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1984 Israel responded to that protest by stating flatly that "no project exists for the de-consecration of the site and that on the contrary the site and its tombs are to be safeguarded." In fact even as Israel said this, however, it was engaged in parceling off pieces of the cemetery for various kinds of private developments, even as they assured UNESCO that they were protecting it.
Sadly, Palestinians had no legal instrument by which they could stop this. Although Mamilla cemetery in on a list of "Special Antiquities Sites," it is not protected as a religious site. All of the cemeteries in Israel that are protected as religious sites are Jewish. (The Israeli government designates 137 holy sites that receive such protection, but all are Jewish, a fact that the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report of 2009 protested against.) Furthermore successive governments have sought to obliterate reminders of Palestinian culture in Jerusalem; successive governments parceled out sections of Mamilla for buildings, then for the construction of the parking lot mentioned above—and in 1992, the site was transferred to the Jerusalem municipality. At one point the government built a park over a part of the cemetery, which they named Independence Park, a reference to the founding of Israel in 1948 (and a clear attempt to provoke and humiliate Palestinians).
This is completely unlike the treatment meted out to Jewish cemeteries. On the Mount of the Olives, for example, the Jewish cemetery has been lavishly refurbished and even expanded, and finally transformed into a "heritage site." On the other hand, Israel’s Muslim cemeteries have been allowed to fade into disuse, and are even destroyed when the government thinks it can get away with it. The 900-year-old Hittin mosque built by Saladin in the Galilee region has been deliberately fenced off and allowed to go to ruin. According to Bethlehem-based journalist Jonathan Cook, some mosques are used by rural Jewish communities as animal sheds. "And yet more," he writes, "have been converted into discos, bars or nightclubs, including the Dahir al-Umar mosque—now the Dona Rosa restaurant—in the former Palestinian village of Ayn Hawd."
Meron Benvenisti, a former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem who wrote Sacred Landscape: Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, has been vocal in pointing out that Muslim groups, contrary to what the Simon Wiesenthal camp is saying, pleaded over the years to be allowed to officially refurbish and keep up their sacred sites and cemeteries, but were never allowed to do so. Many important Islamic sites, he has written, have been "turned into dumps, parking lots, roads and construction sites."
The Israeli government has recently added Ibrahimi and Bilal Bin Abi Rabah Mosques to the Jewish heritage list, which means they are not protected as religious sites. This means that the Israeli government could easily sell off, close or develop the sites, just as it has the Mamilla site, which is also on the heritage list but not protected as a religious site.
On a tour of East Jerusalem in late summer 2010, activist and author Phillip Weiss wrote on his website Mondoweiss:
Maybe the most pitiable sight I saw yesterday, inside the West Bank but close to the north Jerusalem colonies of Ramot and Ramat Shlomo, [was] the hilltop tomb of the prophet Samuel, which is worshiped by Jews and Muslims. The tomb is both a mosque with a minaret and a Jewish place of worship. Well when we visited, busloads of Jewish schoolchildren were arriving and Israeli soldiers were in the tomb davening and Hasidic boys were descending, too.
But next door it was a different story:
The door is chained, pigeons fly into the outer rooms, the Palestinian who runs a store there told us that the authorities had shut down the minaret. There are no Palestinian worshipers.
Weiss points out that this is an Israeli National Park in the West Bank, which is supposedly Palestinian land and supposedly—if there were actually ever to be a two-state solution—the future site of a Palestinian state. But being under the authority of the Israeli army, the Jewish site is protected as a religious site, whereas the Muslim worship facility next to the tomb of the prophet Samuel has been closed down. It is hard not to conclude that the closing and degradation of Muslim religious sites is a deliberate and coordinated policy of the Israeli government to humiliate Palestinian Muslims, an extension of the slow ethnic cleansing currently underway in the occupied territories. The message seems to be, "If you don’t like what we’re doing to Muslim holy sites, why don’t you leave?"
The Simon Wiesenthal Center similarly claims that Mamilla deserves no protection as a religious site, citing the fact that in 1964 the government set up a Muslim trust and that the head of that council "deconsecrated" Mamilla—and supposedly declared it no longer sacred ground, thus opening it up to partial development. But the person in question was apparently a government plant brought in to give political cover to those anxious to make money by developing the cemetery. (The bogus 1964 proclamation was aggressively overturned—or ruled "void"—by the Shari’a Court of Appeals in Israel, which found the sanctity of cemeteries to be "eternal" in Islam.) Certainly one person—especially one who in 1964 had been given no authority by Muslims to represent them—cannot speak for the many families whose ancestors are buried in Mamilla. Although some tombstones appeared to have been replaced in recent years, individual attempts at upkeep haven’t been as successful as organized efforts by a Muslim trust would be.
In Death in Jerusalem, Noga Tarnopolsky writes of her friend Sari Nusseibeh, a philosopher and university president, who located the tomb of two illustrious ancestors in the Mamilla cemetery: "Nusseibeh then contacted a friend working at the Ministry for Religious Affairs and requested permission to place a plaque on the crypt. 'I thought it was important to commemorate this, and to tell people that in the case of a family like mine, we are not claiming roots here in the abstract or national sense, but in the familial sense, which is a much closer thing,’ he said."
"Nusseibeh secured permission and affixed a stone plaque explaining that the tomb belonged to Islam’s Kabrkabiyyan period and contained the remains of one Prince Iddaghji and a certain Judge Nusseibeh. The next day it was removed by municipal workers, who claimed sole jurisdiction over the entire park." This was despite the permission he had supposedly gotten from the Ministry for Religious Affairs. This could stand as a paradigm interaction of Israel and its Palestinian citizens. One can jump through all the hoops, do all the paperwork required, but if you are Palestinian you can be ignored and shut down at any moment, simply because you do not have the right religion. And your attorney will be able to do nothing for you, because in Israel the legal system is completely skewed against Palestinians.
Thus the location for SWC’s "Museum of Tolerance" had already been contested ground for some time before 2004, and in the opinion of most Palestinians a prime example of Israel’s swaggering and increasingly aggressive religious intolerance. Even the design for the new structure—by the internationally-known architect Frank Gehry—seems to have pleased nobody. (Gehry claims that it represents a bowl of fruit, a strange idea that got little traction in Jerusalem.)[i] Meron Benvenisti complained about its "geometric forms that can’t be any more dissonant to the environment in which it is planned to put this alien object." Noga Tarnopolsky characterized its design as "the image of a supernatural edifice resembling nothing so much as a crab in the process of hatching a sapphire spider with huge, glassy eyes. It is neither beautiful nor ugly; it is striking and odd." The management of the Vad Yashem Holocaust memorial were unhappy about the competition in Holocaust tourism (there’s a great comic novel in there somewhere), and the people of Jerusalem, perhaps wary of busloads of ecstatic tourists from southern California, were generally mystified by Heir’s grandiose ideas.
The "Museum of Tolerance" was built on a parking lot that was supposed to be adjacent to Mamilla cemetery. In reality it was built over part of it. This fact became painfully clear to the Wiesenthal Center as workmen began to encounter human remains. (Laying electrical cables and sewer lines probably resulted in digging deeper than had been required for building the parking lot.) At first the presence of human remains was kept secret by the SWC, but it couldn’t have surprised many people in Jerusalem, since they knew that the government had been parceling off the cemetery for some time. What the government had chosen to ignore was how resentful of this Palestinians had become over the years, especially those families with ancestors buried in Mamilla.
Reports vary, but the Wiesenthal Center workers apparently encountered remains of about two hundred people; and a decision was supposedly made to take the remains to another Muslim cemetery and re-inter them there. (What really happened can’t be confirmed because the Wiesenthal Center won’t reveal where they were taken.) The centuries-old remains have been the main sticking point for Hier and the SWC, the seriousness of which can be inferred from their insistence that they "respectfully" re-interred the bones. (If that is true, why won’t they allow journalists to take photos of their final resting place?) If the Wiesenthal Center is simply building something on a parking lot, why were they engaged in digging up human remains? And if the claims of local Muslim families were all lies, why was the Wiesenthal Center, by its own admission, re-interring those same human remains in another Muslim cemetery?
In fact, Hier and the Wiesenthal Center had known for a very long time that they were building their "Center for Human Dignity—Museum of Tolerance." on top of an historic Muslim cemetery. During the building of the original parking lot back in the 1960, hundreds of graves were disinterred, which caused anguished protests by Muslims; the same thing happened in 1984, when they appealed to UNESCO. Furthermore, as early as 1993 the municipal authorities offered the SWC the parking lot for the building of the project. Both Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert had encouraged the Simon Wiesenthal Center to build the current or similar projects at precisely this site, and they above all were in a position to know that the parking lot had been built over part of Mamilla Cemetery. Therefore Kollek, Ehud Olmert and Rabbi Hier knew exactly what lay under the parking lot. In fact, the case can be made that Hier wanted to build on a Muslim cemetery, especially given his apocalyptic ideas about the inevitability of religious war between Muslims and Jews. What could be better for fund-raising than a nice little religious war, with the frenetic Hier leading his faithful troops into the fray?
In 2005, Gideon Suleimani, a Palestinian archeologist, personally warned representatives of the SWC that the area was an antiquities site; at Seleimani’s request, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) dug test trenches, and it was revealed that hundreds of graves—as many as four layers of graves—were located under the parking lot. One has the sense that Suleimani thought that he could get the Wiesenthal Center to back off if only he could appeal to their common humanity. If so, he didn’t know the group he was dealing with—the SWC continued, in spite of being so advised; and when reports surfaced of their digging up remains and carrying them away surreptitiously in boxes, several Palestinian families in the area decided to act.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) then moved to investigate further. Suleimani, who was the Chief Excavator on the project, found that there were "at least 2000 graves," on at least four levels, with exhumed remains dating back to the 12th century, and the lowest level dating back to the 11th century. But, as Suleimann later testified in an Affidavit, people from the Simon Wiesenthal Center began to put pressure on the IAA, as did interested politicians who were invested in getting the construction done. For their part the IAA, according to Suleimani, tried to get him to stop his excavating and to alter his report. Suleimani also said that "representatives of the SWC started coming by on a daily basis, pressing for the excavation to progress quickly, to prevent the Muslims from stopping the project," not to mention entrepreneurs whose connection to the site was unclear, but who were now threatening to sue the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
In 2006 a lawsuit was filed that resulted in a court order that temporarily stopped construction. But the pressures were growing on the government. The Israeli Antiquities Authority decided, while defending against the lawsuit, to suppress the evidence their Chief Excavator Gideon Suleimani had uncovered. The High Court of Israel never found out that there were around 2,000 graves under the parking lot, going down four levels, the lowest level of graves dating back to the 11th century. They did not find out about it because the IAA suppressed the evidence that Seluimani collected, and that the IAA had asked him to collect. In an equally cynical move, the IAA apparently lied (according to affidavits by Suleimani) about his finding that only about ten percent of the excavations had been done, instead claiming that ninety percent was done.
What caused these criminal misrepresentations to the High Court, the first of which was suppression of evidence, and the second of which was perjury? For one thing, the Simon Wiesenthal Center had arranged to pay the workers doing the excavation, perhaps a violation of the law, but one that gave the SWC greater leverage over facts on the ground. Secondly, there is some evidence that the "Museum of Tolerance" was part of a larger deal which may not have been strictly legitimate (since it may have involved patronage from politicians). Thirdly, why did the IAA falsify the report they had initiated, and what did they receive in return from the Simon Wiesenthal Center? This critical piece of information can’t be determined until the principals to the controversy can be examined under oath. But given the value of the land involved it is hard to believe that they acted alone, or that they decided to suppress evidence on their own volition.
The High Court allowed construction to continue in October, 2008. Efforts were made to appeal this, since the Israel Antiquities Authority had repressed the only evidence that really counts in this case, which was testimony (and evidence) of the Chief Excavator assigned by the IAA itself, Gideon Suleimani. Despite the suppression of everything he had to say and all the evidence he had obtained, the court refused to open the case again, and insisted that construction must proceed. Exhumation of human remains resumed, and there was nothing that could be done about it. This constituted the exhaustion of appeals within the Israeli system of justice, and made the later appeal to the United Nations inevitable.
Contrary to what the IAA had told the High Court, ninety percent of the area intended for the Wiesenthal Center project still had to be dug up. The Israeli Antiquities Authority claimed that the disinterring of human remains occurring after October, 2008, involved manual removal after documentation so that the remains could be re-interred, but both the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the IAA have engaged in extreme secrecy, and it is impossible to say exactly what they did with the remains. (Needless to say, they refused to consult with appropriate Muslim authorities.) It was reported by the Palestinian News Network that during one week in 2009, some 300 Muslim graves were opened up, and the remains dumped into a mass grave. It is impossible to confirm this, but one can imagine how such reports affect the Palestinians that read them. The apparent collusion of the IAA and the Simon Wiesenthal group, and the extreme secrecy with which they operated—not to mention Rabbi Hier’s violent rhetorical attacks on any who oppose their projects as terrorists, anti-Semites, and "Islamists"—have for the time being removed hope for resolution using any of the instruments of Israeli civil society.
Therefore on 10 February 2010, in New York, Jerusalem, Geneva and Los Angeles, a petition was filed with several United Nations agencies to stop desecration of Mamilla Cemetary by Israeli authorities and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. (Press conferences were held in Geneva, Jersalem and Los Angeles.) The UN agencies to whom this was appealed were the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion and Belief and on Contemporary Forms of Racism; the Independent Expert on Culture; the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and the Director General of UNESCO, the agency that was involved in investigations of previous desecrations of Mamilla Cemetary in 1984. The Petition was filed on behalf of some 60 Palestinians from 15 Jerusalem families whose ancestors, going back to the 12th century, are buried in the cemetery. The filing was done by the Center for Constitutional Rights located in New York, which has made information about the campaign to save Mamilla available at www.mamillacampaign.org.
The press release accompanying the filing said as follows:
"This will be the first known time Palestinian individuals have taken collective action against Israel to bring such an issue before a UN forum and comes after all remedies in Israel were exhausted. The families, NGOs, and attorneys argue the desecration of the cemetery violates international conventions protecting cultural heritage, the manifestation of religious beliefs, and the right to family." Maria LaHood, a Senior Attorney as CCR, added: "Left with no recourse in Israel, families of people buried in Mamilla cemetery have come together to petition the United Nations to safeguard their international human rights to be free from discrimination, to manifest religious beliefs, and to have their cultural heritage protected. We call on the international community to denounce this shameful desecration of a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem."
The Center for Constitutional Rights was found in 1966 by lawyers involved in the civil rights movement in the US, and is "committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change." In the international arena, the CCR sees itself as "dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Predictably, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sees the Petition filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights as a scheme to overthrown the authority of the Jewish state, in the same way that the Goldstone Report is seen by them as an unfair use of international law to attack and destroy Israel.
In 2009, in the New York Sun and the Jewish press, the Simon Wiesenthal Center presented "evidence" (in the form of a story from the Palestine Post of 1945) that the Supreme Muslim Council of Jerusalem was planning a business center on the site of the Mamilla Cemetary in 1945. The Palestine Post (precursor to the Jerusalem Post) was violently Labor-Zionist in its politics, and in 1945 was not the best source for anything going on within the Palestinian community, nor the best advocate for its interests. Furthermore, the nominal head of the Muslim Council at that time was the notorious Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, who although out of the country in 1945 was still the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem; and who, besides being one of the worst anti-Semites of the 20th century, was also an enthusiastic propagandist for Hitler and the Nazis. Furthermore, the entire Muslim Council in Jerusalem at that time was rife with cronyism, corruption, and the infighting of various Jerusalem families.
Although it is somewhat dangerous to generalize, it could be said that Al-Husayni and Jerusalem’s Muslim Council in 1945 represented a snapshot of exactly what a great many secular Arab nationalists (not to mention the later Islamic Revival throughout Muslim-majority countries) aimed to get rid of—not merely cronyism, greed and class oppression but also, in the case of Al-Husaybi, European-style fascism and anti-Semitism. The fact that neither Arab nationalism nor the Islamic Revival was entirely successful in doing so does not change the fact that Al-Husayni and the Muslim Council of 1945 engaged in behavior that the best Arab thinkers were irrevocably opposed to. It was for precisely this reason that the Palestinian Liberation Organization was careful to sideline al-Husayni and to downplay his influence in the years before his death in 1974.
In any case, neither al-Husayni nor the Muslim Council of 1945 are authoritative guides to the important cultural and political decisions that face Israel/Palestine in 2010, if for no other reason than that both Palestinian and Jewish communities today are entirely different than they were in 1945, as are their leaders. Sadly but not unsurprisingly, that is difficult for Rabbi Hier and the Simon Wiesenthal Center to accept. For them, there are only "the Palestinians," much as Christians once referred to that mysterious entity known as "the Jews," who were supposedly the enemy of Christendom; in the same way, Hier sees all Palestinians as enemies of Israeli Jews.
But Hier’s rhetoric is the self-delusion of the bully, who projects his own bad conscience onto his weaker victim. In reality, there is no they in those organizations and individuals who seek to defend Mamilla Cemetary, but Muslims, Christians and Jews of many different temperaments and affiliations who share an interest in preserving one of the most important and compelling religious sites of the Middle East. But Mamilla Cemetery is also a dispute in which a dominant group of people have the power to hurt and humiliate another and weaker group of people, whose religious sites furthermore receive no protection from the government. And the most dangerous thing in the world is unlimited executive power over aggrieved but powerless people, with the impunity to hurt them and get away with it.
* * *
The Simon Wiesenthal Center is an extreme rightwing Jewish organization, tinged by neo-fascism and with many of the characteristics of a hate organization. It is based almost completely on a vulgarized, pervasive form of religious nationalism. Its vision for Israel is consistent with the neo-fascist Jabotinsky tendency within Zionism that was modeled on Italian fascism, and it also promotes the Likudnik doctrine that Judaism itself has no practical or demographic existence separate from Israel. The SWC supports the neo-con belief in permanent war in the Middle East, and it engages in the vigorous dissemination of religious bigotry against Muslims in the US. It portrays anti-Semitism as worse than it is, partly for fund-raising purposes and partly to establish an imagined victim status. It similarly uses the Holocaust both to discourage criticism of Israel and to justify Israel’s own violence, aggressively insisting that every criticism of Israel is really aimed at destroying the Jewish people. Above all, the SWC is a dangerous cultural force that seeks religious war as the standard for religious authenticity.
What kind of people make up the "400,000 member-families" the SWC claims as supporters in southern California and the US? If the SWC does indeed have that many families that contribute annually, that makes it very much a mass organization, which means that it must be taken seriously. One has the sense that Hier’s followers are primarily lower (and middle) middle-class people, perhaps small businesspersons and conservative professionals who reject Judaism’s traditional concern for social justice, whose level of cultural literacy is not particularly high, and who are attracted to the us-against-them aggression of religious nationalism. The frenetic and frequently duplicitous advocacy emanating from the Simon Wiesenthal Center has a pronounced middlebrow flavor—that is, it is pretentious, self-congratulatory and sometimes unintentionally funny. (Last year an e-mailed Passover invitation to SWC members billed Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper as "featured Scholars-in-Residence at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel and Spa.") Above all, the "member-families" of the Simon Wiesenthal Center are incessantly indoctrinated with the idea that Israel—and the Center itself—never make mistakes and are never at fault, because criticisms of them are invariably the work of anti-Semites.
The Wiesenthal Center’s exaggerations and fabrications regarding anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli attitudes are well-known. The SWC claimed that the 2002 World Social Forum in Mumbai was 'hi-jacked by anti-Israel and anti-American forces.’ This was completely untrue, as Jewish peace activist Cecilie Surasky, who was in attendance, later testified. (The SWC also claimed in the Jerusalem Post to be 'the only Jewish NGO’ at Mumbai, whereas in reality there were several, including Jewish Voice for Peace, with which Surasky is affiliated.) The Wiesenthal Center also engaged off a strenuous campaign to portray Hugo Chavez as an anti-Semite, which they attempted to do by strategically doctoring a quote by Chavez. This interventionist attitude shouldn’t surprise us—the Wiesenthal Center once presented Jeanne Kilpatrick, a US diplomatic defender of the murderous Pinochet regime in Chile, with its Humanitarian of the Year Award. (They also honored such noted humanitarians as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Robert Murdoch.)
The Wiesenthal Center also has the unenviable distinction of involvement in one of the worst journalistic blunders of modern times. In the late spring of 2006, Douglas Kelly, editor of the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, became aware of an item in a column by Iranian exile Amir Taheri, indicating that the Iranian Parliament might require Jews to wear yellow stars. A Post editor contacted the Simon Wiesenthal Center, thinking it was a legitimate human rights agency. Both Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the SWC excitedly insisted to anybody that would listen, both verbally and in an email to the Post, that the tale was "absolutely true." The Post went ahead with the story on Page One, but Taheri was a neo-con plant, and the story was a fabrication.
Within days, Post editor Kelly was obliged to make a long and detailed apology to his readers. He referred directly to the Post’s contact with both Cooper and Hier at the Wiesenthal Center, mentioning pointedly that they had both, on separate occasions, confirmed the story. The implication of having been consciously betrayed by the Wiesenthal Center was quite clear. For Hier and Cooper, however, it was a big victory—they’d been able to place a great piece of propaganda on Page One of a large daily newspaper, while managing to make the connection between Nazis and Iranians, a staple theme of the SWC.
The Wiesenthal Center is silent on the rise of fascism in Israel in 2010, probably because the Center’s own tactics are borrowed from classical fascism, such as their tireless dissemination of religious bigotry. Their more overt activity in this area involves their promotion and showing of the violently anti-Muslim film The Third Jihad, which was a project of the Clarion Fund, a shadowy rightwing Zionist operation that produced Obsession: Radical Islam’s War with the West. According to recent investigative reporting by Pam Martens appearing in Counterpunch, the Clarion Fund’s main financial supporters—Donor Capital Fund and Donors Trust—are managed by people who have a long association with Charles G. Koch, billionaire donor to the Tea Party.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center also cooperated with Aish HaTorah, a extremist rightwing Jewish group that Atlantic Magazine’s pro-Israel pundit Jeffrey Goldberg has referred to as "just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today,"[ii] a group that has strong ties to the racist settlers in Israel’s occupied territories. Before the election of 2008, the Clarion Fund functioned as a loosely-constituted front group in America for Aish HaTorah, whose operatives had produced a film in 2003 alleging Palestinian incitement against Israel and Jews. Then, in the heady post-9/11 atmosphere, the Clarion Fund went ahead to produce Obsession, and then The Third Jihad, both wildly inflammatory propaganda films that were supposedly about a minority of "radical" Muslims, but which made fantastic allegations about mainstream Muslims organizations in the US such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), alleging them to be part of a hostile international plot to infiltrate and take over America.
In the spring of 2009, the Clarion Fund released The Third Jihad, with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles enthusiastically opting to sponsor its West Coast premiere on May 17th, 2009, thereby making it a major event in their spring calendar. The Wiesenthal premiere was co-sponsored by the American Freedom Alliance, an unsavory far-right group that was unabashedly Islamophobic and pro-torture (books by John Yoo and Marc Thiessen were on sale at their website). The Washington D.C. opening of The Third Jihad, which occurred at the same time as the SWC event in Los Angeles, was co-sponsored by the International Free Press Society, another unsavory rightwing group, this one authentically neo-fascist. Two months before the Washington Premiere, the IFPS had been involved in publicizing and promoting Geert Wilders, the well-known Dutch neo-fascist with links to several far-right parties in Europe.
The climax of The Third Jihad was a supposed Federal Bureau of Investigation discovery of a subversive document—a "Grand Jihad Manifesto"—outlining a Muslim plot to take over America. Why the FBI wasn’t out making arrests, if the plot violated any laws, was left unanswered. The document was depicted as being so sensitive it couldn’t be released to the general public, perhaps because it would demoralize the nation. (Or perhaps, on the other hand, it really doesn’t exist.) "The 15-page document outlines goals and strategies for the infiltration and domination of America from within," The Third Jihad insists. "Among the strategies discussed is the establishment of 'moderate’ groups, mosques and Islamic centers across North America in an effort to strategically position Islam so that it might weaken western culture and promote the implementation of Sharia Law." (The resemblance of the alleged secret "Grand Jihad Manifesto" to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was not lost on Jewish progressives.)
The Wiesenthal Center’s cooperation with Aish HaTorah, the group behind the Clarion Fund, is problematical for other reasons. Experts on cults suggest that Aish HaTorah has either become a cult or developed profoundly cult-like behavior. Some information about these concerns—including the first-person account of a Jewish mother whose son was indoctrinated—appears on the website of the Ross A. Rick Institute, which monitors cult behavior. Ross writes that cult-like Orthodox Jewish groups like "Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach have generated serious and repeated complaints from Jewish families, including Orthodox Jewish families….Aish/Ohr has repeatedly been accused of 'brainwashing’ American Jewish tourists in Israel. These are typically young people that started out on vacation and were instead sucked into Aish/Ohr. These recruits then often gave up school, work, previously set goals and relationships to study at times for years with Aish/Ohr and stayed in Israel."
Ross continues: "Recruiting was often done at the Western Wall and began with a simple invitation to a dinner or 'Shabbat.’ Families should be aware of all this before sending their kids to Israel for any programs or vacations….Some of the most hateful and nasty emails I have ever received from any group mentioned on the Ross Institute database have been from Aish and Ohr participants, which have denounced other Jews (e.g. Reform and Conservative) and have expressed often extreme, bigoted and even violent sentiments." Like many cults, Aish HaTorah uses various excerpts from holy books to rationalize coercive or violent behavior by leaders.
At present Aish HaTorah is also little more than an extension of the worldwide Israeli propaganda effort. People associated with Aish Hatorah devised the Hasbara Fellowships, which invite (or lure) young people to Israel, indoctrinate them, and send them back to fight "the enemies of Israel." Honest Reporting, which claims to be the world’s largest pro-Israel media organization, is also a product of Aish HaTorah—its claimed 150,000 members worldwide that report on journalism they believe to be "anti-Israel." Aish HaTorah is also known to partner with a national US Jewish fraternity to run a three-week tour of Israel trip for their undergraduate members, who then receive "education" from the group. Aish HaTorah runs a plethora of groups and seminars that purport to teach "core values" of Judaism, but which actually teach a fanatical, apocalyptic version of rightwing religious Zionism. For its leaders, the final goal of life is the death or defeat of Palestinians and Arabs. In some interviews, Aish HaTorah participants have made statements that suggest that they believe that it is God’s will that the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem be destroyed—an eventuality that would, of course, spark a major religious conflagration.
It is this background of incessant Islamophobia and extremely aggressive religious nationalism that must be kept in mind when considering the Wiesenthal Center’s motivation for building the "Center for Human Dignity—Museum of Tolerance." Rabbi Hier and the SWC knew very well about the bodies buried under the parking lot at Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem. They had reportedly contemplated buying the site since at least 1993; they have been repeatedly warned that the site was built over a historic Muslim cemetery; and they have repeatedly refused suggestions of both Muslims and Jews to build somewhere else. Leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center cannot say that they did not know the potential for conflict in their choice. At its core the conflict over Mamilla Cemetery is, besides its potential for sparking religious conflict, one more attempt by rightwing Zionists to redefine Judaism as a religion that can somehow redeem the Holocaust by hurting and humiliating Palestinians.
Words like "Tolerance" and "Dignity" from the liberal and social-democratic past of European Jewry are gleefully flaunted by the SWC, but are used in the same way that Stalinists used words such as "democratic" or "liberation," to disguise the real nature of Stalinism. There is nothing "ironic" about the use of such words, as many liberal and religious-liberty groups believe, because this use of language it is a ploy, a part of SWC strategy; it serves the main function of deliberate Orwellian language, which is to communicate contempt for logic and to distract with its absurdity. Finally, it is an expression of raw illegitimate power, saying in effect to the Palestinians: "We control everything, even language. If we say that black is white, we will force you to accept it, because we have the power to humiliate and kill you." Finally, like most extremist rightwing movements, people in the leadership of the Wiesenthal Center will lie and misrepresent things anytime they think they can get away with it.
The Mamilla Cemetery site was chosen for a reason. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s real objective in building the "Center for Human Dignity—Museum of Tolerance" in Jerusalem is almost surely to ignite religious conflict, and ultimately religious war in the region. It is this pathological aggression that makes the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and its fundamentalist allies like Aish HaTorah, so dangerous. The fight over Mamilla Cemetery is a dispute in which Rabbi Hier, the very incarnation of the charismatic but morally corrupt religious fanatic, seeks to invent a new Judaism that, like medieval Christianity, defines itself by its ability to wound and torment the underdog. As American neo-conservatives made clear in their famous letter to Netanyahu in 1996, the American empire they seek depends on a state of permanent war in the Middle East. By all appearances, the Simon Wiesenthal Center aspires to be a pivotal part of this approaching religious war.
Lawrence Swaim is executive director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.
[i] Gehry latter pulled out of the project. In November, 2010, Jewish Voice for Peace announced that Gehry had joined a group of theatre professionals and people in the arts that were boycotting the Ariel performance center in the West Bank.
[ii] Ben Harris, "Rabbi Noah Wienberg, Founder of Aish HaTorah, Dies," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 6 Feb. 2009.
(This article is based on a column written for InFocus News, the national Muslim newspaper.)