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The Politics of Archaeology in East Jerusalem Digging for Trouble

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. He can be reached at