Imagine if Iran decided to build a museum on the site of a 1,000-year-old Jewish cemetery, or if the Egyptian government threatened to destroy an ancient Jewish temple. Both scenarios would likely be met with outrage. Members of Congress might make indignant speeches decrying anti-Semitism. They might even threaten to tighten the spigot on aid to Egypt. They would be right to protest such acts.
Yet both offenses against another religion are being committed today — by Israel. And the outrage is conspicuously missing.
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has partnered with the Israeli government to build a new “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem. According to former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti, the museum site encompasses a Muslim cemetery seized by Israel in 1948 and long-since paved over. What does a shrine to tolerance mean when it is constructed — literally — over the dead bodies of a Palestinian population that was expelled from its homeland.
In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli archaeological excavations threaten the foundation of the compound that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, and the Dome of the Rock, whose golden dome is the most striking feature of the Jerusalem skyline. For Muslims worldwide, these mosques hold enormous religious significance. Muslims, in fact, first faced Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque in prayer, only later facing Mecca.
My own parents, born in a Palestinian village a mere 12 miles from Jerusalem, spoke often of their trips to Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa. In 1948 when Israel was established, my family was expelled and their village was destroyed. They fled to a refugee camp in Jordan where I was born and raised. Less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, I could only dream of praying in Al-Aqsa. The religious freedom denied me in my own homeland was granted to me as an American “tourist.” I traveled to Jerusalem for the first and only time as a young man in 1991. My prayers at the magnificent Al-Aqsa Mosque are perhaps the most emotionally overwhelming and fulfilling experiences of my life.
Since occupying Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has striven to solidify Jewish dominance over this city that is sacred to three faiths. Al-Aqsa stands as perhaps the most visible obstacle. In 1967, the Israeli army’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, urged Israeli forces commander Uzi Narkis, to use 100 kilograms of explosives to “get rid of” Al-Aqsa “once and for all.” Narkis, as quoted by Israeli historian Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, (W.W. Norton &Company, 2001) had the wisdom to refuse the rabbi’s request.
Al-Aqsa has been set on fire, Jewish terrorists have entered the mosque and fired on worshipers, explosives have been planted and several plots to blow up the mosque have been foiled. In parallel with these unofficial acts, Israeli government excavations and construction projects continue to chip away at the mosque’s foundation. In 2004, what is believed to be an ancient Muslim prayer room was discovered at the excavation site. For three years, Israel hid this spectacular finding from the world. Does this show respect for Jerusalem’s Muslim heritage?
Muslim communities around the world feel the same pain and anxiety that Catholics would experience if the Vatican were being violated — or Americans would feel if the Statue of Liberty were being systematically desecrated.
Here in the United States, American Muslims are gathering. They are asking how it is that — after centuries of religious tolerance for all three great faiths — respect for Islamic holy places in Jerusalem is now threatened. The Palestinians of Jerusalem, Christians and Muslims, are a living reminder that Jerusalem is a city that belongs to all.
Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid, yet she is violating American principles of equality for all religions. American leaders must insist that Israel’s respect for Jewish religious sites extend equally to Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem, a city holy to billions of people around the globe.
Omar Ahmad is the founder and chairman emeritus of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He is the CEO of a Silicon Valley technology company.
This article was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle and is republished with the author’s permission.