The Ma’man Allah (Mamilla) Cemetery was the oldest Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, with graves dating back to the seventh century, comprising 33 acres and tens of thousands of graves. After 1948 the Israeli ministry that maintained the site reassured world leaders that this important religious site would be cared for in perpetuity.
Less than 15 years later, in the 1960s, a park was built in part of the cemetery and a parking lot covered another part. These were followed by a school, football field, underground parking garage and road. Electrical wires were laid in other sections.
The final few acres were dug up recently, just before the beginning of Ramadan, in the middle of the night (as can be seen on the CNN video) so that Israel can build the Museum of Tolerance in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the United States.
An enormous amount of knowledge was lost with the destruction of the Mamilla cemetery, says St. Paul-based archeologist John E. Landgraf, since the end of the Byzantine period and the beginning of the Islamic conquest (around 638 AD) is the least well-known period of history in that area. There is much to be learned by examining skeletal remains, headstones and tombs. The Israeli Department of Antiquities does not allow any remains to be examined; Jewish remains must be re-interred as quickly as possible out of respect or because the remains are sacred, and non-Jewish remains can be disposed of along with tombstones and other debris in construction dumpsters.
Landgraf participated in many archeological digs in Israel since 1965, and said that the Israeli Department of Antiquities was never interested in the preservation of remains or artifacts that were not specifically Jewish. In 1965 the discovery of Muslim graves at Tel Gezer did not interest the head archeologist at the time and bulldozers were used to push remains, artifacts and debris back into the graves.
History exposed one layer at a time
Archeological digs are a way of learning about the past in an orderly fashion. One exposes history a layer at a time and by careful examination stories can be told of the various eras and cultures. When Israel occupied all of Jerusalem in 1967 it used bulldozers to excavate the Wailing Wall area, destroying homes and shops of Palestinians living there at the time, and destroying the long history of people who had lived there since before the Byzantine period. “There is a loss of continuity in our understanding of the past,” said Landgraf.
It is ironic that in the midst of mass hysteria over an Islamic center to be built in lower Manhattan, because some people feel that this would be disrespectful to the dead, that a genuine desecration of a sacred place occurs, unreported in most mainstream media.
“The unfortunate reality is that Indigenous populations live in a world in which we are never safe from colonizer assaults — even when we are dead,” says Wazayatawin, Indigenous Peoples Research Chair and associate professor, Indigenous Governance Program, University of Victoria, someone who has worked on behalf of indigenous peoples in this hemisphere for many years and sees many parallels with the experience of Palestinians. “The ongoing desecration of indigenous burial sites, including the Mamilla Cemetery in West Jerusalem, reflects a deeply embedded colonizer mentality that views subjugated peoples as fundamentally inferior and unworthy of even the most basic dignities afforded other human beings,” she says.
“The act of erasing a people’s memory from the landscape is a necessary element in the colonization process,” Wazayatawin says. “In order for the colonizers to legitimize their occupation of another’s land, they must eradicate all memories of the colonized, including even the human remains that demonstrate a deep and powerful connection to the land itself.”
Everywhere in Israel are the eradicated memories of the dispossessed indigenous people. Old mosques are transformed into bars and nightclubs, so that patrons drink alcohol where Muslims used to pray. The history museum in Jaffa (more of a tourist site than an educational institution) is inexplicably silent about the existence of people in the city between the Roman times and Napoleon’s invasion. Street names are changed from their ancient Arabic names to new Hebrew ones.
Golda Meir’s famous comment that “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people” reflected her desire, not a reality, but it has been repeated so often that many Israelis believe it. The destruction of a cemetery shows starkly how little regard Israel holds for the humanity of the Palestinians. As Wazayatawin says, “There is something terribly wrong with a culture that digs up the dead of others. The societal justification for such a crime reveals its own sickness.”
Sylvia Schwarz is a resident of St. Paul and member of the Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign and of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN-TC).