Touted as any tourist’s “first stop” in a visit to Jerusalem, the City of David
is considered one of Israel’s most important historical landmarks. It is also
one of the country’s most complicated sites, as a right-wing organization uses
the site’s archeological findings to prove a continuous Jewish presence in
Jerusalem and Palestinians in the nearby Silwan fear it is encroaching on their
neighborhood. And Silwan is no stranger to violent uprisings. It is in this
tinderbox that Tel Aviv University archeologists, in cooperation with the
Antiquities Authority, began excavating the site in December 2012, taking over
from AAhired archeologists who were paid by the Elad organization.
controversial as the site is, the university says it pays “particular attention
to professional ethics” and works only under the AA’s supervision.
our story begins further back.
Elad, which stands for El-Ir David, or “to
the City of David,” is an organization founded in 1986 by David Be’eri with the
mission of acquiring the former homes of Jewish families who left Silwan after
the 1936 riots.
Jerusalem annexed Silwan, a village today of some 40,000
Palestinian residents, in 1967. Working through the Jewish National Fund, Elad
was granted the power to reclaim property in Silwan through the use of the
Absentee Properties Law, sometimes evicting Palestinian families from their
homes in the process. Eventually, Elad began acquiring property directly from
the owners, using Palestinian intermediaries, and also constructing new
buildings altogether. Today, there are nearly 100 Jewish families living in
Silwan, many under the protection of privately contracted security.
property acquisition and evictions have not been peaceful. Tension in Silwan is
at a high in an already tense city, and violent riots, even deaths, have
occurred over the last several years.
Fall 2010 was a time of particular
unrest. An Israeli guard protecting a Jewish family shot and killed a
Palestinian throwing stones, sparking widespread rioting throughout east
Jerusalem. Three weeks later, footage was captured of Be’eri hitting two young
Palestinian rock throwers with his car, as they pelted him while he drove
through the village.
To understand the storm surrounding the ongoing land
acquisition and construction, one must first approach the history of the site
now known as the City of David – a long history that is sometimes validated by
concrete evidence, and sometimes only by negligible archeological
The City of David, or Wadi Hilweh as it is known to the
Palestinians, is located on a ridge known as the Ophel, which leads south of the
Temple Mount on a valley-bordered peninsula: the Tyropoeon to the west, to the
south, Hinnom, and to the east, the Kidron Valley.
Perhaps the most
important geographical marker is the Gihon Spring, one of only a handful of
freshwater sources around Jerusalem, and in this case, essentially the source of
life in the city itself.
Archeologists agree that this small ridge, and
eventually the area of the Temple Mount, comprised the original Jerusalem at its
apex – that is, the Jerusalem of the Biblical King David. It is there, in that
small city some 3,000 years ago, that today’s controversy begins.
founding and goals are based on the assertion that the Biblical land on which
modern Silwan was built, must be re-inhabited by Jewish families. To that end,
they have been bankrolling excavations in the village for decades, and the main
finds can be seen today at the City of David, a national archeological park that
was privatized and given to Elad, and which attracts some half a million
The archeologists digging at the site were hired by
the AA, but paid by Elad.
The park includes Hezekiah’s Water Tunnel, the
Siloam Pool and various other structures. There have been extensive finds over
the years: bullae with unique Hebrew inscriptions, coins and jewelry, and even a
small golden bell claimed to have fallen, perhaps, from the robe of a priest on
his way to the Temple.
In short, no one doubts that a rich history is
being excavated at the site.
The controversy stems from the fact that the
AA, which oversees all archeological work and certainly at the City of David, is
essentially in partnership with and funded by a private organization with clear
ideological goals – chiefly, to utilize the archaeological finds as a means of
promoting the self-described “Judaization of east Jerusalem.”
and human rights group like Ir Amim have fought legal battles for years in an
effort to minimize Elad’s control over land in Silwan, finding limited
The High Court struck down an attempt by Ir Amim to challenge
Elad’s right, as a private organization, to control a national park in 2011. Ir
Amim charged that Elad, as a political organization, had a clear conflict of
interest in managing a national site. The ruling stated, however, that
administration and major decisions of the City of David park should be left to
the National Parks Authority.
It is through these layers of modern day
politics that archeologists who by participating in the project open themselves
up to attack and criticism, attempt to excavate the site. As a result, none of
the archeologists contacted for this article agreed to speak without the AA’s
approval – which they could not obtain – so cautious are they about expressing
an opinion on the site and its findings.
One archeologist, however, in
another report, claims that the best way to handle the politics is simply to
In an interview last year in Haaretz, Professor Ronny Reich
of Haifa University, one of the longest-excavating archeologists in Jerusalem
and one of the most highly-regarded, took criticism of his involvement with Elad
“I have no agenda to find any particular thing,” he said.
“Besides, if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be.
And he would
uncover the same artifacts. So what’s the difference?” If all the artifacts are
there to be found, do the politics of the group funding the excavations somehow
change their meaning? Elad has been accused of mishandling artifacts, and the AA
for being complicit. The excavations at the site of the Givati parking lot, led
by AA officials and underwritten by Elad, have produced some interesting finds,
which may likely be on display in the tourism center the City of David plans to
open in that very spot once the digging ends.
What will not be on display
are dozens of skeletons dating to the early Islamic period that went missing
from the site in 2008, an incident for which the AA took responsibility. The
excavation of bones is always a delicate process in archeology, but it is
complicated further by religion and politics. AA rules require any graves
discovered to be reported immediately to the Religious Services Ministry and to
Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox organization that preserves Jewish grave sites.
Neither they, nor any Muslim equivalent, were informed until the skeletons were
There are, of course, criticisms aimed at the
Palestinians over arguably much more brash and open mishandling of archeological
material – namely the removal of some 300 truckloads of topsoil and fill from
under the Temple Mount by the waqf during the construction of the underground
el-Marwani Mosque between 1996 and 1999. This move was roundly decried by
archeologists, who pointed out that much of the area dug up hadn’t been touched
since antiquity, and that the use of large, earth-moving machines showed no
respect for the archeological method.
It is into this murky back and
forth that a new player wades. Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archeology,
for better or worse, has remained tight-lipped about its assumption of
excavations at the City of David. Its critics, however, have not. Emek Shevah, a
group of archaeologists critical of Elad (and now the university, for agreeing
to work with them) released a petition last December calling on TAU to cease
activity in the City of David.
“In entering into such a partnership, Tel
Aviv University will be granting the Elad Foundation the professional
recognition it seeks,” the petition states, “recognition that academic
institutions in Israel and abroad have thus far refused to grant.”
nearly 250 signatures on the petition, three dozen are TAU faculty, some of who
are connected to the archeology department. Already opposed to Elad’s
involvement in the excavations, the group appears to be concerned about the
effect TAU’s involvement will have on Israeli academia’s reputation abroad,
particularly given the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
institute responded quickly: “The area designated for the excavation is located
far from the houses of Silwan. The dig will be carried out using modern
scientific methods, at the highest professional standards, with particular
attention paid to professional ethics. In the dig, a great deal of attention
will be paid to the needs of those living nearby and the dig will be open to
visits by local residents and tourists.
“Other than cooperation and
professional oversight by the Israel Antiquities Authority, as required by law,
no directives from any other organization will be accepted and there will be no
supervision by any other group of the Tel Aviv University
Strictly in terms of archeology, TAU’s involvement in the
dig is mutually beneficial for both the university and the AA. The institute
possesses the resources to take on such a project, with a large staff of
accomplished, fieldready professors and a fast turnaround on the publication of
excavation reports and scholarly articles, a boon to any project. In return, the
university stakes its claim in what is, surprisingly, its first Jerusalem dig.
It also expands its involvement in an early Iron Age site, which is of
particular interest to the archeology institute.
TAU’s best defense
against its critics may already rest in some of the highly critical assessment
put forth by Tel Aviv archeologists against the work of Prof. Eilat Mazar, who
excavated at the site between 2005 and 2008. Mazar concluded that a Stepped
Stone Structure and Large Stone Structure which they found was some sort of
royal palace, very possibly King David’s, and this claim is promoted by the City
Not long after, several Tel Aviv archeologists, including Prof.
Israel Finkelstein, lambasted Mazar in a rejoinder to her published findings for
her reliance on the Bible in making her assessment of the palace.
Biblical text dominates this field operation, not archaeology,” the article
accuses. “Had it not been for Mazar’s literal reading of the Biblical text, she
never would have dated the remains to the 10th century BCE with such
The authors of the article suggested that Mazar took very
broad creative license with her reconstruction of the palace, utilizing a type
of Bible-centered archeological practice that had fallen out of popularity in
the late 20th century, but had, as they deemed, “reemerged with all its
attributes in the City of David.”
The dark, damp walk through Hezekiah’s
Water Tunnel is a popular draw at the City of David.
According to the
Biblical narrative, this was the means by which Hezekiah prepared Jerusalem
against an impending Assyrian siege, diverting the spring waters into the city.
The exit from Hezekiah’s tunnel opens to the Pool of Siloam, where it is said
that Jesus sent a blind man to be healed. Just a few steps from there is an exit
– visitors can either walk back up a steep hill to the City of David park, or
down the dusty street into Silwan. It is in this spot that the magnitude of the
archeologists’ task in excavating the site brightly glares – a task not only of
preserving and understanding an ancient history, but of life in a modern city.