Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition with the ultra-Orthodox splinter parties threatens the future of Israeli excavation.

The state of archaeology in Israel today suggests there are bones of contention


While archaeology is still alive and well in Israel—there are 30,000 archaeological sites operating today and five university archaeology faculties compared to only one thirty years ago—it is increasingly threatened by the political and religious opportunism of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government.

“I have been digging in Jerusalem since 1969 and I have witnessed this war escalate for several decades, but it has definitely got worse in the past few years, as the ultra-Orthodox have learned how use democracy for their own means in the current coalition,” said Ronny Reich the chief of excavations for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in charge of the south-west corner of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: the site of Jewish, Christian and pagan remains and one of the most important digs in Israel.

On 1 July, several hundred archaeologists smashed pottery urns in front of the Israeli Parliament to protest Mr Netanyahu’s reported plans to give religious Jews control over archaeological digs. Their principal concern was the rumour that Mr Netanyahu would replace Amir Drori, the much-respected director of the IAA, with a political-religious appointment. Faced with a slender 61-59 seat majority in a 120-member parliament, the Prime Minister had cut a deal in private with the extreme, four-member Ultra Torah Judaism Party, who threatened to abandon the government coalition unless they were given control of tomb excavations.

In a similar move in 1996, Mr Netanyahu promised the ultra-Orthodox a new antiquities law which would designate every tomb a holy place and require a religious overseer for every excavation. It failed to go through the first time, but archaeologists fear that with a religious minister at the head of the IAA it could pass. Now the religious parties are jostling to put their members on the board of directors of the IAA, a move which would break the IAA’s statutes requiring that all directors be archaeologists.

Amir Drori, a tough former general and an amateur archaeologist, has so far refused to surrender to the ultra-Orthodox pressures. “The ultra-Orthodox are a disease but not a terminal one,” he said. Despite having had an evil eye cast on him, had his phone lines jammed with 200 harassing calls a day and receiving threatening letters, he shows no signs of leaving his post before the end of his five-year term in 2000. “We’re fighting so that archaeology can continue,” asserted General Drori. “If they stop the excavation of tombs, there will be no science.”

Fifty years ago today

In 1948 the archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik bought the first Dead Sea scroll from a Bethlehem dealer. The discovery of the ancient biblical texts appeared to coincide in a fateful way with the foundation of the State of Israel and heralded what has been called the age of Zionist archaeology, in which archaeological remains were seen as a proof of Jewish right to the land of Israel.

For decades afterwards, archaeology became a kind of national sport, a way for new citizens of the new State to explore their roots, and its importance went unquestioned by successive governments. Indeed some army generals were archaeologists—the most famous being Yigael Yadin, the son of Sukenik and the excavator of Masada.

But like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the nation’s archaeological riches have opened up controversies undreamed of by their original discoverers. Archaeology has become one of the fronts in an increasingly violent cultural war between secular and religious Jews in Israel. The most internationally publicised clash is the problem of bone removal from digs.

The battle of the bones

At present there is a compromise between the archaeologists, whose interests are broadly represented by the IAA, and the ultra-Orthodox factions, in which any graves found at digs or construction sites have to be reported immediately to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

If a site planned for construction cannot be shifted or delayed in order to allow for a full excavation, a rabbi takes the bones for reburial the same day so that archaeologists have little chance to investigate them, whatever the background of the deceased. The IAA estimates that of the 3,000 tombs discovered each year only 5% are Jewish.

“It doesn’t actually matter whether or not you find graves or human bones,” said Shimon Gibson, a British-born landscape archaeologist and the head of research in the excavation and surveys department of the IAA. “I was excavating a subterranean water system in the town of Modi’in (which is where the Maccabees came from) before a school could be built. The ultra-Orthodox stoned me and yelled ‘he should lose his hands.’ They even tried to break into my car to steal a box of pig bones because they said I had stolen them from Jewish graves.”

Nonetheless ultra-Orthodox protesters continue to make violent demonstrations at archaeological digs, breaking into sites, burning cars of the IAA and even setting fire to an IAA office in the town of Hahalal in May, destroying extensive archaeological records.

The religious reason cited is that when the Messiah comes at the End of Days, to put all of the bones of the Jews back together and make them live again, he will not be able to find them.

In reality there is no Jewish law against removing and reburying bones. “Our ancestors gave priority to the living,” said Ronny Reich. “Tombs were considered impure. When a city enlarged its perimeters, rabbis 2,000 years ago moved all the tombs and reburied them and even wrote down how this should be done.”

Present day rabbis who have endorsed reburial have received death threats from ultra-Orthodox extremists for doing so. In the Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Ze’ev, 1,000 new houses have remained unoccupied since January because religious demonstrators prevented contractors from building a highway to them, claiming it would disrupt a Jewish burial ground there. When a team from the IAA attempted to excavate the site in July with permission from Rabbi Shalom Eliashiv, a respected ultra-Orthodox leader, hard-line yeshiva students stoned the rabbi’s car and police had to place a twenty-four-hour watch on him.

The ultra-Orthodox stance has as much, if not more, to do with political positioning to exploit their power in the coalition government and raise funds for their communities, as it does with actual archaeological practice.

Yigael Roman, an archaeologist who studied under Yigael Yadin and is the editor of Eretz magazine, Israel’s National Geographic, takes a cynical view. “They only protest in the summer, when the religious schools are on vacation. It’s warm and it’s the archaeology season. They can block roads, stop construction, cause riots and call attention to their cause, which is good for fund-raising.”

A loss to science

The use of archaeology as a political football has repercussions beyond politics and beyond the academic discipline of archaeology. Valuable data is being lost, insists Patricia Smith, a British-born professor of physical anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who analyses ancient bones.

“As a human being and as a Jew, I am concerned because, first, what the ultra-Orthodox are doing is done in the name of my religion, and second, it has no basis in reality and destroys everybody’s heritage.

“They are fanatics who have chosen a specific interpretation of Jewish law governing burials. Five years ago, after thorough scientific examination of the bones, they were handed over to the rabbis. Now any bones found have to be given immediately to the rabbis.

The issue of bone removal is worldwide, which has also been a problem in the US and Australia, notes Professor Smith, who has stopped analysing bones from Israel unless they are over 5000 years old. “On a scientific level, a lot of unique genetic information is being destroyed that could answer vital questions regarding past populations of this country—major questions such as who were the Phoenicians, who were the Philistines—as well as questions about patterns of diseases over time.”

Post-Zionist archaeology

Meanwhile, outside the political and religious fray, Israeli archaeology has entered what many call a more scientific “post-Zionist” age, in which it has become less coloured by nationalistic need.

“As we, the students of Yigael Yadin, and others have re-evaluated the evidence at major sites such as Megiddo, and now in the City of David in Jerusalem, we have realised that perhaps our conception of this great age of King David is an exaggeration,” explained Yigael Roman of Eretz magazine. “This is the same kind of questioning process as the ‘who wrote the Bible?’ issue which emerged after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s.”

Such an outlook is not a revolution, he insists, but rather a “realignment” of the situation. “Look at the actual land we’ve got in Israel today. Tel Aviv and the coastal plain belonged to the Philistines and then the Romans, not to the Jews. Most of the things we find here are not going to prove our heritage in this land,” said Mr Roman. “Judea and Samaria is where the Bible happened and that belongs to the Palestinians. The only people who insist on being there are the settlers—mainly Americans looking for their roots. Most Israelis are ready to say ‘You know what? We’ll visit.’”

A result of this realignment has been a broadening of interest in Early Christian, Islamic, Byzantine and Crusader archaeology at sites such as the Roman town of Caesarea, where the prison in which Saint Paul was held has recently been found.

It is now Palestinian archaeologists who are using archaeology as a vindication of their hereditary right to the land: they are searching for their heritage in the remains of the Canaanites, who were pushed out of the land by the ancient Israelites.

“Searching for roots is a natural thing, something that comes with the beginning of statehood,” says Shimon Gibson. “It has taken Israel a long time to get away from archaeology tinged with nationalism. But even if Palestinians have a bias, it does not mean they are not doing scientific archaeology. Indeed they need more support; they are badly funded.”

The embattled Israel Antiquities Authority

o The IAA is the government agency with authority for archaeology in Israel. Its budget has been reduced by 30% between 1995 and 1998. The current budget is NIS100 million ($26.5 million), reduced from NIS135 million ($36 million) in 1995.

o The IAA budget is made up of three sources: (a) the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport (MECS) (b) the rescue excavations legally required before any construction can begin on a building site (undertaken at the expense of the contractor) and (c) the Ministry of Tourism and private donations.

o In 1998 the IAA received a grant of NIS34 million ($9 million) from the MECS. This grant has been frozen at NIS34 million since 1997, representing a reduction of 10% in real terms. In 1996 the MECS grant was NIS37 million ($10 million) and in 1995 it was NIS39 million ($10.4 million).

o The grant from the Ministry of Tourism has been reduced from NIS33 million ($8.8 million) in 1995 to NIS7.5 million ($2 million) in 1998.

o The IAA currently has a staff of 350, reduced from 700 in 1995.

o There are approximately 30,000 archaeological sites in Israel.

*Source: Israel Antiquities Authority

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Bones of contention'