Palestinians to UN and UNESCO: Stop destruction of Mamilla cemetery for “Museum of Tolerance”

Palestinians from Jerusalem and those with Israeli citizenship once again urged the United Nations and UNESCO to take action to stop the destruction of the Mamilla cemetery in Jerusalem.

Mamilla is an ancient cemetery which holds the remains of generations of prominent Jerusalem Palestinians, and apparently even those of some anti-Crusader fighters in Salah al-Din’s army — and in the last couple of years, the ultra-Zionist, California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has been bulldozing the cemetery to make way for a (cynically-named) “Museum of Tolerance.” Then-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, delivered the keynote address in May 2004 when the bulldozing of Mamilla cemetery for the Weisenthal museum began.

Since the Simon Wiesenthal Center started this massive project of Muslim grave desecration, Palestinian families in Palestine and across the global diaspora have filed petitions to the UN and to UNESCO (the UN body for world heritage sites) since 2010. However, their pleas have been met with silence. No action has yet to be taken by the international bodies, and the Museum is still being allowed to be built literally on the bones of Palestinians’ ancestors. 

On 21 July, aided by lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York City, forty-five Palestinians addressed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navenethem Pillay and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, “urging that they take action to stop the continued destruction of Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem,” CCR reported in a press release

The press release adds, in full:

The Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery –  a group of 60 individuals with ancestors buried in the cemetery who originally petitioned the same two officials in February 2010 with legal counsel from the Center for Constitutional Rights – transmitted the letter to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which submitted it to the UN and UNESCO officials [on 21 July].

The signatories span a wide political spectrum, including Israeli Arab members of the Knesset from various political parties and Jerusalemite Ministers and senior officials of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Prominent religious leaders have also joined the appeal, including Greek Orthodox Archbishop Attalah Hanna and Shaykh Akrama Sabri – President of the High Islamic Council, with inter-denominational support from Jerusalem community groups. (The list of signatories is attached).

The letter comes in the wake of the Israeli Interior Ministry’s approval on July 12, 2011 of construction plans for the U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance” on the site of part of an ancient Muslim cemetery in the heart of Jerusalem, where thousands of human remains, gravestones and archaeological artifacts have already been desecrated and destroyed. This approval gives the final administrative green light for construction to begin immediately. It also follows the Jerusalem Municipality’s razing of dozens of grave markers in the small part of the cemetery that remains intact, provoking outrage among the Petitioners and other Palestinians who consider the cemetery part of their cultural heritage.

In their letter, the community leaders expressed alarm at the official Israeli permission for construction work to begin on the site of the cemetery “for what they brazenly and unashamedly call a Center for Human Dignity – Museum of Tolerance! What humanity could this possibly refer to? And what dignity? And what tolerance?”

The letter appeals to the UN officials “for immediate intervention” by “sending a delegation to investigate the situation and putting pressure on the government of Israel, as was requested by the Human Rights Council Resolution of 2010.” It emphasizes the “sanctity, location and historical importance of this cemetery, and the fact that it is an exceptional archaeological site, which is no less holy than the Christian or Jewish cemeteries whose profanation is also prohibited.” The signatories also requested that the international officials “give the necessary priority to the study of the Petition submitted…by a distinguished group of Jerusalemites…which includes thorough historical and legal documentation on this issue, and rightful and just requests that no reasonable person could refuse.”

“This is not an issue that will disappear, and we are determined to show that it is a cause that unites all religions, and people across the political spectrum. We need action to ensure that this outrage to human dignity and tolerance does not continue, and is not repeated,” says  President of Al Quds University Sari Nusseibeh, one of 60 original Petitioners represented by CCR, and a signatory to the letter. 

This eleventh-hour appeal follows the Center for Constitutional Rights’ recent efforts to prompt action by the UNHCHR and UNESCO, which have yet to act on Petitioners’ requests. “The pleas of people who are trying to protect the remains of their ancestors buried in Mamilla Cemetery have been largely disregarded by the international community, including the United Nations officials tasked with protecting their human rights,” says CCR Acting Legal Director, Maria LaHood. “We will continue to appeal to the conscience of the world to prevent construction of the Museum, which is an attempt to erase Palestinian history and cultural heritage in Jerusalem.”

The Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery was initiated by the Petitioners, and is a wholly civil, volunteer initiative with no political coloring. All 60 individual petitioners are descendants of 15 of Jerusalem’s most prominent and longest established families and have no relation with previous individual or institutional claimants in Israeli courts. The Petition was also supported by 16 human rights non-governmental organizations, based in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem.

The Petition, Addendum and other documents are available at and



Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).