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Silwan-The Politics of Archaeology in East Jerusalem

Apri1  11, 2008

The Politics of  Archaeology in East Jerusalem

Digging  for Trouble


"Archaeology has become a weapon of dispossession," Yonathan Mizrachi, an Israeli archaeologist, said in a recent telephone interview with us. He was referring to the way archaeology  is being used in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in the oldest  part of Jerusalem, where, we believe, archaeological  digs are being carried out as part of a concerted campaign  to expel Palestinians from their ancestral home.

That effort is orchestrated  by an Israeli settler organization called Elad,  a name formed from Hebrew letters that stand for "to the  City of David." For several years, Elad has used a variety of means to evict East Jerusalem Palestinians from their homes and replace them with Jewish settlers. Today Silwan is dotted with about a dozen such outposts. Moreover, practically all the green areas in the densely populated neighborhood have been transformed  into new archaeological sites, which have then been fenced and  posted with armed guards. On two of these new archaeological  sites, Jewish homes have already been built.

Although the balance of power  is clearly in the settlers' favor, Silwan's residents have begun  a campaign, "Citizens for Silwan," to stop the excavations.  They are joined by a number of noted international scholars and  a handful of Israeli academics, who are trying to help them remain  in their homes. Among those involved are David A. Bell, dean  of faculty and professor of the humanities at the Johns Hopkins  University; Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative  literature at the University of California at Berkeley; Lorraine  Daston, director of Berlin's Max Planck Institute for the History  of Science; Natalie Zemon Davis, professor of history emerita  at Princeton University; Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies  at Columbia University; Thomas W. Laqueur, professor of history  at the University of California at Berkeley; Sheldon Pollock,  professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Columbia University;  Marshall Sahlins, professor of anthropology and social sciences  emeritus at the University of Chicago; and Robert A. Schneider,  professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington and  editor of The American Historical Review. We joined David  Shulman, professor of South Asian studies, and Yaron Ezrahi,  professor of political science, both from the Hebrew University  of Jerusalem, as Israeli signatories. Notably absent from the  list are prominent Israeli archaeologists, many of whom depend  on funds from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Silwan is a stone's throw away  from the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque - among the holiest  and most sensitive sites in the Middle East. While archaeology's  mission is to study the history of peoples by excavating and  analyzing their material culture, inscriptions, and other remains,  it has often been deployed in the service of nationalism. In  Israel, for example, it has typically been used to underscore  the Jewish and biblical past of the land to differentiate Zionism  from more-traditional colonial ventures. Zionism, after all,  has always portrayed itself as a return to the original Jewish  homeland and not as a conquest of foreign lands.

According to the Old Testament,  King David established Jerusalem as his capital, but the Jews  were later conquered and expelled. Israel occupied East Jerusalem  during the Six-Day War four decades ago, and ever since Israeli  archaeologists have been trying (unsuccessfully) to produce proof  of David's presence in that area. Occasionally they have even  refrained from documenting the long Muslim presence, which is  the cultural heritage of the Palestinian inhabitants. And, at  any rate, the fact that not a single Muslim structure has been  preserved in the entire national park that has been set up in  Silwan is a clear indication of this erasure strategy. By concentrating  almost entirely on unearthing the remains of the Judean kingdom,  while ignoring the subsequent 3,000 years, archaeologists have violated several ethical rules as stipulated by the World Archaeological Congress. Those include the acknowledgment  of the "indigenous cultural heritage, including sites, places,  objects, artifacts, human remains" as well as establishing  "equitable partnerships and relationships" between  archaeologists and indigenous peoples whose cultural heritage  is being investigated.

In 1998, Elad received a major  boost when the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority  and the Jerusalem Municipality hired the settler organization  as a subcontractor to run "The City of David," the  national park located in Silwan. Subsequently Elad, which received  government money and a permit to carry out archaeological excavations  in the area, outsourced that work to a state agency, the Israel  Antiquities Authority.

Empowered by different arms  of the Israeli government, Elad accelerated its efforts to Judaize  East Jerusalem. The group successfully lobbied the municipality  to issue demolition orders for 88 Palestinian homes so that it  could build an archaeological park in the neighborhood - a plan  that has temporarily been suspended because of international  pressure.

More recently the Israel Antiquities  Authority began digging under the homes of some of Silwan's residents  without informing them. Fearing that their buildings' foundations  were being undermined, the residents petitioned the Israeli Supreme  Court. On the very same night they filed their appeal, their  homes were raided by Israeli police, and five people were arrested.

While the High Court of Justice  later issued a restraining order against the Antiquities Authority,  bringing a temporary halt to the most recent archaeological dig,  the court may decide for Elad when it hears the case. After all,  in the past the court has hesitated to act against Elad, refusing,  for example, to evict the settler organization from the national  park even after it was proved that basic legal protocols were  not followed when the state initially authorized it to run the  park.

Those scholars who have come  to the aid of Silwan realize that the Palestinians there have  become a symbol for the struggle over Jerusalem: a struggle that  could easily explode into not just another round of Israeli-Palestinian  violence, but, because of the neighborhood's proximity to the  Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque, also into a conflagration  that could ignite the whole Middle East.

David Shulman, who organized  the campaign,  sent a protest to Benjamin Kedar, professor of history at the  Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chairman of the board of the  Israel Antiquities Authority and Shuka Dorfman, director general  of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as well as to Israel's foreign  minister, Tzipi Livni. He and the campaign are asking Israeli  authorities to stop Elad's activities and strip the extreme settler  organization of its authority to run any archaeological excavations  in the future. It is now up to other scholars from all over the  world to  join their call.

Yigal Bronner teaches in the department of South  Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Neve Gordon is a senior lecturer in politics at  Ben Gurion University of the Negev. His book Israel's Occupation  will be published in November by the University of California  Press.