Analyze This...: Digging for the truth about Israeli archeology

Jewish ties to the land are repeatedly confirmed, by facts.

In his autobiography, Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life, Sari Nusseibeh writes of the disenchantment Palestinians felt after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000. "Back in Palestine, Arafat stoked this by more myth-mongering. He used a verse from the Koran to prove a crazy theory that Solomon's Temple had really been in Yemen. At some point during the forty years in the desert, the People of Israel took a wrong turn and ended up far from Jerusalem. [Arafat said] 'Do you know the story of the Queen of Sheba sending a bird to Solomon that arrived the same day. How could a bird fly there so fast? Because the temple was in nearby Yemen!' When I [Nusseibeh] heard this I feared the chairman was losing his grip on reality." Seven years later, the reality of the Jewish ancestral connection to the Temple Mount is still being challenged in some Palestinian and Islamic circles. As Israeli-Palestinian negotiations get under way that will include discussion of the future permanent status of a site holy to both Jews and Moslems, those "crazy theories" are likely once again to get more airing. Yet the depth of Jewish historical ties to the site have been repeatedly confirmed, by facts not on the ground, but in the ground - archeological discoveries and revelations that have been unearthed by excavation and reclamation work done in the area of the Mount. There have been several examples just in the past few months, including: the exposing for the first time of a site in northern Jerusalem where some of the massive stones used to construct the Second Temple were quarried; the discovery of several artifacts (shards of bowls, oil juglets and figurines) dating to the First Temple period and found during the Wakf's recent renovation work on the Mount; and the unveiling yesterday by the Israel Antiquities Authorities of a large structure just south of the Temple Mount, dating to the late Second Temple period, that fits the description of the palace of the fabled Jewish convert Queen Helena. If the latter is indeed the case, it speaks volumes about the importance of the Mount in ancient Jewish life. According to Flavius Josephus, after converting to Judaism, Helena chose to leave her native kingdom of Adiabene in the latter years of her life and settled in Jerusalem next to the Holy Temple (her gravesite is found in Jerusalem's "Tombs of the Kings"). If archeology helps prove the case for the Jewish connection to the Mount, then the next step for those who wish to deny just that is to attack the archeology itself. This ideological and intellectual assault has taken a few forms. The most pernicious, because it is the most inflammatory, have been the repeated false claims that Israeli authorities have used archeological excavations in the area of the Mount to secretly dig underneath the site itself, in a supposed effort to undermine the Moslem holy structures found there today. This calumny was directly responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis and Palestinians during the so-called "Western Wall Tunnel riots" of 1996. It has been raised again this year, sparked by efforts by Israeli authorities to carry out badly needed renovations on the Mughrabi Gate entrance ramp to the Mount from the Western Wall plaza. In an effort to dampen these inflammatory falsehoods before they do real damage, the IAA and Government Press Office have held several tours of the Mughrabi excavations and Western Wall tunnels for the foreign press, including one this week. A more sophisticated, but still insidious accusation is that Israeli archeologists are engaged in a campaign to deliberately destroy ancient Islamic remains and erase historical levels dating from periods of earlier Muslim rule in this land, in an intentional effort to strengthen Jewish claims of sovereignty. Among those making that charge is American-Palestinian anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, whose book, Facts On the Ground: Archeological Practice and Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, has been widely criticized for its flawed and tendentious scholarship, and its slandering of noted and conscientious Israeli archeologists. Unfortunately, that fact was apparently not seriously weighed in the controversial decision last month by New York's Barnard University to grant El-Haj tenure. No one denies that archeology has played a crucial role in the developing of an Israeli-Jewish national identity, in the way it has in almost every country with deep historical roots. Or that archeology, here and everywhere else, has sometimes been influenced by ideological and political pressures that impact negatively on genuine scholarly inquiry. To its credit, Israeli archeology in recent years has gone through a period of self-examination, criticism and revision, in an effort to come to grips, and when necessary correct, past errors and practices stemming from a time when the goal of just "proving the Bible" played too prominent a role in the discipline. Unfortunately, the results of that commendable work are often misused and quoted out of context by enemies of Zionism in order to completely discredit the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Visitors to the Temple Mount can get a better sense of where Israeli archeology is today by visiting the impressive remains of the Islamic Umayyad palaces (660-750 C.E.) just south of the site, excavated and restored in recent years by Israeli archeologists, working under government supervision, and funded in part by Jewish philanthropy. But they also shouldn't forgo the chance in the near future to see the remnants of the structure unveiled by the IAA yesterday, which speaks to a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount that no "myth-mongering" or pseudo-academic propaganda can deny. [email protected]