Archeology in Israel as a political weapon

Emek Shaveh’s Mizrachi: When you control the past, you control the present and the future.

Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Eli Shukron shows an ancient seal, at an archaeological site known as the City of David in Jerusalem December 25, 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Eli Shukron shows an ancient seal, at an archaeological site known as the City of David in Jerusalem December 25, 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
In Israel, archeology is far more than just science.
Indeed, perhaps more than any other country, the stakes of antiquities unearthed here could not be higher in terms of geopolitical implications used by warring factions to determine “facts on the ground” in the most contested region in the world.
The battle between right- and left-wing ideologues is evident at archeological sites in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, where discoveries are routinely exhibited to the world as evidence of Israeli sovereignty in the Jewish homeland or as an occupier.
The two main opponents in the ongoing war over rightful sovereignty between Jews and Palestinians are the left-wing archeological political activist NGO Emek Shaveh, and its right-wing counterpart, the City of David Foundation (also known as Elad).
The former is primarily funded by European countries with a decidedly “anti-occupation” stance, while the latter deems the term “occupation” an incendiary insult to a people with thousands of years of history in Jerusalem.
This protracted war came to a fevered pitch in May, when UNESCO approved a resolution rejecting Jewish ties to Jerusalem – including its holiest site, the Temple Mount – prompting claims of flagrant antisemitism against the international body.
Last week, the heads of Emek Shaveh and the City of David Foundation explained why they allege the other is attempting to manipulate history to further their respective political narratives at the expense of science itself.
Yonatan Mizrachi, an Israeli archeologist who is executive director of Emek Shaveh, founded in 2009, is firmly anti-occupation, and claims Elad is compromising the integrity of the sites it oversees and presents to the public in the City of David.
Through his NGO, he has led an ongoing campaign – primarily through petitions to the High Court – to prevent Elad from pursuing multiple archeological projects there, including excavations of Silwan’s Givati Parking Lot and the nearby Western Wall Tunnels.
According to Mizrachi, Elad primarily focuses on the Jewish Biblical narrative at the sites it oversees in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority while marginalizing other civilizations and cultures, including the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim periods.
“Archeology is a science,” says Mizrachi. “It is a way to learn about the history of this land. And we identify between the way archeology is used in east Jerusalem and the West Bank compared to the rest of Israel.
“When it comes to the West Bank or east Jerusalem, our criticism is clearly how these archeological sites are managed; the narratives that are told at the sites; the way the archeology is presented to the public; and the way layers [of earth] have or have not been preserved is also an issue.”
Mizrachi claims the name “City of David” is inherently problematic in terms of presenting a neutral archeological narrative of the area to the region’s millions of international visitors.
“When you compare the City of David to a list of names of all the national parks in Israel, you find that all the other places are named according to their geography, while the City of David is named after a national figure,” he says.
Rare inscription from King David era discovered in the Valley of Elah
“The main problem with the City of David is that, from the beginning, the narrative begins with King David, and this is where people start to close their eyes to other narratives… but the site is not just about King David.”
Mizrachi continues: “The site is about how Jerusalem developed; who established Jerusalem; why it was established there; what happened to Jerusalem as it changed from a very small Canaanite city to a very large Judean city; and what happened during the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim periods.”
Mizrachi says the solution is to change the name of the area so no particular culture is considered more important than another.
“We definitely think the site should be called ‘Ancient Jerusalem’ or ‘The Place Where Jerusalem Began’ so visitors can explore why people decided to live and build in Jerusalem and what happened during its [entire] history,” he says.
“It is the way to show people that history is very diverse and archeology doesn’t belong to one nation, because it shows different cultures that lived here. And this is the opposite of what happens in the City of David because, from the beginning, it’s called ‘David’ and emphasizes the narrative of the Jewish people.”
Moreover, Mizrachi asserts that the City of David Visitor’s Center, which attracts more than 500,000 visitors from around the globe annually, disproportionately emphasizes Jewish history over all others.
“You might find stories about [other cultures and civilizations] there, but if you say 10% of the narrative is about these layers and 90% is about King David, this is a problem because it’s not balanced,” he says.
Asked for viable solutions to present a neutral historic background based solely on science to prevent the obscuration of other narratives, Mizrachi suggests that Elad’s oversight of the area should be removed and replaced exclusively by the Nature and Parks Authority.
“For example, if you compare what is happening at national parks in Israel, they are much better presented to the public than the City of David in regards to the diversity of cultures,” he says.
“So, if you had the Nature and Parks Authority exclusively and professionally develop the City of David without the political influence, I’m sure that you would see a different presentation of the sites based on evidence I have seen at other sites.”
Mizrachi also cites the Tel Shiloh and Sussiya archeological sites in the West Bank as problematic because they are run by settlers instead of a neutral body of experts.
“These sites have been handled very badly by settlers who use them to justify their settlements there and have ignored many layers of archeological evidence to focus on the Bible regarding their finds,” he says.
“We regularly criticize the way their finds are being presented because it’s always linked to the settlement. Now, I’m not saying that there is no Jewish history at these sites – we do believe Jewish history is there – but we are saying you cannot only focus on this period and ignore the whole story.”
Mizrachi continues: “When you control the past, you control the present and the future. And when you control archeological sites and control how people see it when they come to visit it, they see it through historic eyes of ‘this exclusively belongs to us.’”
Naturally, Ze’ev Orenstein, director of international affairs at the City of David Foundation, founded in the 1980s, begs to differ.
He says Emek Shaveh is little more than a proxy for UNESCO and European governments determined to remove Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem once and for all despite irrefutable evidence that it is indeed the Jewish homeland.
“The archeology that is in the City of David, among other things, proves beyond a doubt [that] thousands of years of Jewish connection to Jerusalem isn’t political, it is historic,” he says.
“The fact is there are those who are threatened by such things – be they in the United Nations, Palestinians or others – so, they are trying to take archeology and make it political.”
Noting that Emek Shaveh issued a statement deeming the UNESCO resolution disavowing Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem “balanced and necessary,” Orenstein says the NGO has an inherent bias in terms of archeological evidence, as well.
Moreover, Orenstein says Emek Shaveh’s lack of involvement in the Temple Mount Sifting Project – which painstakingly examines hundreds of tons of earth illegally dug up from Judaism’s holiest site in 1999 to build a subterranean mosque – is proof of selective outrage.
While Mizrachi notes that the incident took place nearly 10 years before his NGO formed, he nonetheless calls the event criminal, but concedes that Emek Shaveh is not as vocal about it as numerous other Elad activities.
“They are largely silent when it comes to the destruction of antiquities by the Muslim Wakf on the Temple Mount,” says Orenstein. “Why are they not partnering with the Temple Mount Sifting Project? Why is that not something they are very supportive of? You would think that Emek Shaveh, which cares so much about archeology and the preservation of all the layers of antiquities and history, would be screaming out loud about the destruction of antiquities.”
To disavow the notion that Elad is also political, Orenstein cites a recent discovery in the City of David – the earliest evidence of eggplant seeds dating back to the Muslim period, 1,100 years ago.
“If this was politics, then we’d say, ‘Oh that’s the Muslim period. Who cares about that? That’s not interesting to anyone,’” he says. “But, we and the Israeli Antiquities Authority recognize that Jerusalem has many layers of its history, and what we are trying to do is to preserve that history and share with people of all faiths and backgrounds from all over the world.”
Orenstein continues: “We acknowledge that Jews have a deep connection to Jerusalem, that Christians have a deep connection to Jerusalem and that Muslims have a connection to Jerusalem – that does not threaten the City of David and it shouldn’t threaten anyone who believes in archeology. Let it speak for itself.”
Orenstein adds that it should come as no surprise that most visitors to Jerusalem are primarily interested in history and archeological finds from the Biblical era, which have primarily been unearthed in the City of David itself.
Yet, he denies Mirzrachi’s claim that Elad ignores or mitigates the value of other non-Jewish periods, emphasizing that all digs are carried out by unbiased internationally heralded archeologists and researchers.
“It happens to be that in the City of David, predominantly the periods that are most uncovered date back to the Biblical time period,” he says. “What Emek Shaveh is doing is calling into question the credibility of some of the leading archeologists in this country and the world because it is archeologists from the Antiquities Authority and from academic institutions throughout this country who are the ones carrying out the excavations, interpreting the findings, deciding where to dig and where to stop.”
Orenstein patently denies Mizrachi’s assertion that 90% of the exhibits at the City of David’s Visitor’s Center are from Jewish history.
“Half of what you will find there is from the Canaanite Period, which is not Jewish,” he notes. “But, you may say, how come we don’t find more from the Islamic period? There is actually a very simple answer for that: If you go back 450 years ago when Suliman built the walls around Jerusalem, where did he build them? He built them by the Old City. So, when Suliman, the Ottomans and Muslims built walls around Jerusalem, as far as they’re concerned, the City of David is not part of that. Meaning that, as far as they’re concerned, Jerusalem is in the vicinity of the Old City, it is not down where the City of David is.
“It’s important to point out that when someone visits the City of David today, they can have any type of guide they want who can talk about and focus on whatever period of history they want to focus on,” he adds.
Regarding Mizrachi’s claim that calling the area the City of David is in itself problematic and shows bias, Orenstein notes that it was named long before Elad was formed.
“It’s not that the City of David Foundation named the area,” he says. “Over the last 150 years there have been archeological excavations taking place here and those excavations were largely not carried out by Israelis or by Jews who have acknowledged that this is the ancient city of David – the original site of Biblical Jerusalem. That’s not branding from the City of David Foundation – that’s 150 years of archeological excavations that they have labeled this site as that place.”
Asked for an example of how Emek Shaveh manipulates historical narratives, Orenstein cites the organization’s relative silence over the looting of antiquities on the Temple Mount and aggressive criticism of internationally respected archeologists excavating the City of David.
“They [do this] simply because it does not fit the political narrative that they are pushing, which is that Israel should not be excavating in this area – that Jewish ties to the City of David should be minimized because that is politically inconvenient to Palestinian political interests,” he says.
“They also do it because it is politically inconvenient to those European countries that are funding Emek Shaveh who would also like to see Israeli sovereignty removed from Jerusalem.”
Orenstein cites Emek Shaveh’s ongoing petitions to the High Court to cease excavations in Silwan’s Parking lot, the Western Wall Tunnels and other locales overseen by Elad as evidence of clear political bias.
“If you look at the areas where Emek Shaveh is outspoken, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of their reports focus on criticism of areas where excavations are taking place either where Emek Shaveh doesn’t believe Israel should have sovereignty, or where the excavations give historical legitimacy for why Israel is in these areas,” he says.
Asked if a neutral body could be placed in contested areas where excavations take place, Orenstein cited the City of David’s archeological system itself as the best model to ensure accuracy and transparency.
“The excavations are carried out by the IAA – a body that is respected internationally for using the highest academic and scientific standards in all of their archeological excavations,” he says.
“It’s being conducted by archeologists from leading academic institutions from Israel and around the world who have no personal ties to the City of David themselves. So, they have that neutrality there and they are seeking to uncover the history.”
He continues: “I would say that the City of David represents perhaps one of the greatest examples of how you can uncover, preserve and present history in a transparent way, allowing people of all faiths and backgrounds to connect with that history in the way that they choose to… We don’t hide other periods of history.”
Moreover, Orenstein says he has personally hosted ambassadors from Muslim countries.
“What I say to them is that I have no problem whatsoever acknowledging the deep ties that Muslims feel toward Jerusalem,” he said. “And I await the day when the majority of Muslims can say the same thing about Jewish ties to Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile, citing UNESCO’s denial of Judaism’s unquestionable connection to Jerusalem, Orenstein says it would be dangerous for such a purportedly “neutral” organization to have oversight of any kind.
“We see with all the repeated UNESCO resolutions what all the international bodies would do if they had the chance in Jerusalem,” he says. “Jewish ties would be erased and Christian ties would be erased. The worst thing that can happen, certainly if you are Jewish or Christian, would be to bring an international body in to manage the antiquities here.”
“It would be a disaster – and not just for Jews,” he adds. “And the fact that this is what Emek Shaveh is pushing for knowing from historical precedent what would happen, speaks volumes.”