More than 100 rabbis have protested in front of the Swiss consulate in New York against a planned extension of the Zurich Museum of Fine Arts. They say the excavation is encroaching on the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery.
Representatives of the ultra-orthodox organisation Asra Kadisha, an international Jewish cemetery protection organisation, gathered on Monday and demanded that their ancestors be left in peace.
It is thought the land was formerly the site of a cemetery dating back to 1380, when Jews were allowed back to Zurich after a period of pogroms. The graves are assumed to be at a depth of five to seven metres.
“First, no graves have been found,” museum spokesman Björn Quellenberg told swissinfo.ch on Tuesday, adding that he had also heard of protests against the extension in London and last week in Tel Aviv.
“Second, there will be no change to the project. Third, we have already agreed a strategy with the Jewish community in Zurich on how to deal with graves in the event that some are found,” he said.
When the museum extension was decided, the city authorities said they had consulted local Jewish organisations and had agreed that a “respectful reburial” of remains would be possible.
“The city of Zurich and the construction firm have been in contact with the Jewish community in Zurich for four or five years. Jewish representatives have also been accompanying the archaeological digging. They have no problem [with the extension],” Quellenberg said.
Asra Kadisha disagrees, saying according to strict Jewish beliefs, reburials are not possible.
“The holy ground in which the mortal remains are found may not be touched,” said Sam Stern, a spokesman for Asra Kadisha in New York.
For its part, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities says it finds the New York protests “irritating”.
“The umbrella organisation for Jews in Switzerland and Jewish communities in Zurich don’t need any tips from abroad on how to deal with this issue,” said Jonathan Kreutner, general-secretary of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities and spokesman for the Jewish communities in Zurich, in an interview with the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper on Tuesday.
“What’s more, the protests are absolutely superfluous because there’s no reason to demonstrate against the action of the city of Zurich. The demonstrators are wrong when they say the earth is being desecrated here. That’s not the case.”
Confirmation by summer
Quellenberg, however, says it’s not even guaranteed that the extension will affect the cemetery.
“We don’t know for sure. We presume it will, but the land has been built over many times since the Middle Ages. A city wall was also built here and later demolished. Part of this city wall has been found and it’s in really poor condition. So there is still the possibility that we’ll discover part of a cemetery, but it’s far from certain.”
He explained that the excavation had already started and would continue until early summer, by which time they will know for sure whether there’s a cemetery or not.
The demonstrators have handed in their demands to the Swiss general consul in New York, André Schaller. Stern said Schaller had assured them he would forward their concerns to the relevant people in Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch and agencies