Antiquities and Archaeology Controversies Israel

Israeli archaeologists oppose privatisation bill

Proposed amendment related to disputed excavation

It's all in the name: Silwan or City of David (Photo: Emek Shaveh)

JERUSALEM. More than 150 Israeli archaeologists and historians have petitioned the Israeli parliament to vote down an amendment to a bill that would privatise national parks, including archaeological and historic sites. The petition, delivered to the culture and environment ministers, charges that the changes to law, if passed, would fuel political interests, hurt minority communities and undermine unbiased scientific research. “We demand that the government not change the laws... and instead strengthens academic freedom and heritage without sectarian preference,” it says. The Union for Environmental Defence and The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel have also opposed the amendment.

The bill, to be voted on in October, was proposed following protests against the management of City of David, one of Israel’s most popular, albeit politically charged, archaeological parks, sponsored and managed by a private foundation.

Based on the writings of Roman historian Flavius Josephus and in the Bible, archaeologists have been searching since the 19th century for clues to ancient Jerusalem in the Silwan neighbourhood, just south of the Old City. They named the site City of David based on biblical descriptions; the water source in biblical texts was called Shiloah in Hebrew, or Silwan in Arabic. The first excavations, run by late Ottoman-rule archaeologists, discovered that Jerusalem was first developed there as far back as the 18th century BC by the Canaanites. Archaeologists have since found complicated strata from more than a dozen periods and evidence of settlement by as many civilisations. By the early 20th century, the inhabitants were primarily Muslim, living peacefully with around 100 Yemenite Jewish families.

Today, Silwan/City of David is a powder-keg, sometimes referred to as being symbolic of the local conflict. More than 35,000 inhabitants of the disputed east Jerusalem neighbourhood, primarily poor Arab residents, live amid the wealthy archaeological park. The privately owned Elad Foundation, which manages the site, has invested millions of dollars to fund Israel Antiquities Authority digs and run tours and archaeological exhibitions that particularly focus on showing Jewish and biblical history from the Judean and Israeli periods of settlement.

Archaeology professor Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University, who dug at the site in previous years, says that there is Palestinian, Jewish and other history in the ground, and Palestinian and Jewish rights above ground, and that recognition of this by both sides is fundamental to any reconciliation. “In the meantime,” he says, “as long as Israel controls Silwan, it must restrain itself as well as those groups who would use a one-dimensional view of the past in order to further the rhetoric of disenfranchisement and displacement of Palestinians in the present.”

Elad’s mandate beyond archaeology, which includes “revitalising” Jewish settlement at City of David , has also led to its acquisition of dozens of homes for Jewish families. Occasional clashes with the new Jewish residents and their armed guards has resulted in arrests of Palestinian protestors and the fatal shooting last year of a teenaged Palestinian resident. The village authorities also maintain that a main street and several homes have suffered damage from the underground tunnelling, and that plans to demolish homes and massive traffic jams because of more than 300,000 tourists a year are the results of city planning that favour the tourist site over the residents.

Israel has always given permission to independent registered academies, such as institutes of archaeology at international universities, to dig, analyse artefacts, and publish their results, with a licence from the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) or National Parks Association. Independent development companies have also managed historic sites, as at Caesaria. But Elad is the first private organisation in Israel to fund and oversee an antiquities site inside a crowded residential Arab neighbourhood, while also pursuing an ideological mandate to settle Jewish residents there as part of connecting to and promoting a particular historic era.

Archaeologists charge that the IAA permits this because they need funding from Elad and the bill, if passed, will formalise the arrangement. “This is the most outrageous case of a political group running an archaeological site and a case study for archaeology in conflict with communities,” says archaeologist Yonatan Mizrahi, who left the IAA to found Emek Shaveh, the alternative archaeology organisation that sponsored the petition. “When you bring heritage sites to political organisations you give them political power—archaeologists should be open-minded about which layers to preserve and show to the public and what kind of co-operation to have with the surrounding public,” he says.

A number of Israeli civil rights organisations, including Rabbis for Human Rights, Peace Now, Ir Amim and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, have also protested against Elad.

Elad dismisses the criticism of it as biased, arguing that during a three-hour tour, it is not possible to represent all periods, and “like in every other site around the world, the primary periods were chosen… while Jerusalem has been inhabited by many different peoples, the time in which Jerusalem became a centre of life for the people in the area was during the Canaanite and Israelite periods (1850BC-70AD),” said Doron Spielman, Elad’s senior director. He also said that charges that Elad has a political agenda are “an attempt to undermine archaeological findings and give support to unsubstantiated claims that the Jewish people are newcomers to this area”.

Elad has hired workers from Silwan, in what it calls efforts towards good relationships, but Spielman says that “radical elements… parading under the guise of human rights” coerced 100 local Arab workers to quit. The IAA declined to comment.

Archaeologists here have often debated the role of nationalism and religion in archaeology. In the early years of the state, most local archaeologists were primarily interested in proving biblical narratives and searching for Jewish roots. Religious communities objected to the digging of areas that had human remains and, after years of conflict over the approach to burial grounds and religious law, Israel’s attorney-general declared in 1997—in contrast to antiquities authorities worldwide—that bones are not antiquities and must be turned over to religious authorities for proper burial. In the past decade, the head of the IAA, Benjamin Kedar, acknowledged that Israel did not have enough archaeologists who were experts in the Islamic periods and tried to reinvigorate the academies to broaden their fields of study.

Now, as petitions from archaeologists, environmentalists and human rights groups seek to kill the privatisation bill, archaeologists are also opposing a proposed amendment to the Israeli Antiquities Authority law that would allow the appointment of an IAA chair of the board of directors who is not a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The heads of four of the five major archaeology departments at universities—Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University and Ben Gurion University in the Negev—also sent a letter of opposition to the culture minister, Limor Livnat, against the amendment. Livnat has said that all qualified candidates should be eligible to head the IAA board of directors, as Kedar stands to step down. But the private archaeologists argue that a chair selected by the Academy of Science will be more scientifically independent and not answerable to the politics of the minister who appointed them.

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