US archaeologists bridge Israeli-Arab gap

Effort yields database of sites that could be caught in legal limbo when final borders are decided.

meggido ruins 224 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
meggido ruins 224 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Two unlikely peacemakers are proposing that if Israelis and Palestinians can agree on how to preserve and protect a common archaeological past, perhaps they can agree on a common future. If that sounds like a pipe dream, teams of scientists from the two sides and the United States - with the unofficial but full knowledge of their governments - have invested three intensive years to show that it might just work. For the first time, the would-be peacemakers publicly revealed the fruits of their negotiations, and underlying research, to some 200 Israeli archaeologists during a four-hour presentation on Tuesday evening at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. The plan involves the return of artifacts and agreement on the protection of designated archaeological sites. Archaeologists Ran Boytner of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and Lynn Swartz Dodd of USC (University of Southern California) acknowledge that their 39-point Israeli-Palestinian Archeology Working Group Agreement, an outgrowth of their Shared Heritage Project, faces massive political and emotional roadblocks, especially on the Israeli side. "In the Middle East, the archaeological links to the past represent more than scientific knowledge. They underpin each side's claims to the land," said Dodd, curator of USC's Archaeological Research Collection and lecturer in religion. Boytner and Dodd share a long-standing interest in the connection between politics and archeology and, in the first two years of a five-year process beginning in 2002, they put together an electronic database of more than 1,500 sites and tens of thousands of artifacts that would fall into a legal limbo if and when the final boundaries are drawn between Israel and a Palestinian state. Also listed are the current locations of artifacts removed by Israel since 1967 from the West Bank and the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem. Compiling the database was tougher than expected, and required not only poring over scholarly papers about present and past excavations, but also occasional "persuasion" through the Freedom of Information Act and legal action to extract data. "Now, when it comes to official negotiators sitting down at the table, at least they'll know what they're talking about," said Boytner, director for international research at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archeology. He also designed the Discovery Center at the Skirball Cultural Center. Next came the hard part: three years of discussions and negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli teams, each made up of three prominent archaeologists. The two Los Angeles professors, and even some professional facilitators, mediated when the discussions became too heated. Representing the Israeli side are Rafael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University, and David Ilan, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. The Palestinian team includes Ghattas Sayes and Nazmi al-Jubeh. One member of each of the teams declined to be identified for fear of political or professional reprisal or intimidation. Under the proposed agreement, as well as under international law, Israel would have to make the major concessions, including return of large number of sites and artifacts located in, or taken from, the territory of a future Palestinian state. These may include such sites as Qumran, where the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls may have lived and worked; Samaria, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Israel; and Mount Ibal, where Joshua built an altar to God. Other provisions of the agreement include: • Full protection of all sites and free access for scholars and the public, regardless of ethnicity or religion. • More than tripling the area of Jerusalem under special protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which now includes the Temple Mount, Western Wall and the walls of the Old City. The extended area would roughly equal Jerusalem's boundaries during the 10th-century Crusades. • Prohibiting the destruction of archaeological sites because of their religious or cultural affiliations. • Support for establishment of archaeological museums, laboratories and storehouses to assure proper handling of returned artifacts. Dodd does not underestimate the wrenching emotional price required to fulfill these conditions. "We're talking about putting your precious archaeological heritage - things you believe your ancestors created - in the hands of whom you now consider your enemy," she said. "We're asking enemies to become partners." If the archeology agreement is ratified by both sides, it could become a model for settling other outstanding issues, at the same time removing a potential stumbling block to an overall peace treaty, Boytner believes. While such issues as borders, water distribution, return of refugees and status of Jerusalem loom as the main problems to a permanent settlement, archaeological sites, because of their historical and religious significance, may well turn into an additional deal breaker. Boytner, 45, was born in Mishmar Hashiva, a moshav east of Tel Aviv, and, following army service, backpacked in South America and developed a lifelong professional interest in the archeology of the Andean region. Dodd said that for her the Near East has been "an iconic landscape" since attending a Christian Sunday school. Her Ph.D. thesis probed the uses of the past in modern politics, and she and Boytner have written a book about this interaction, titled "Filtering the Past, Building the Future: Archeology, Tradition and Politics in the Middle East." The two academics have raised more than $150,000 to underwrite their project. The initial seed money came from the US Institute of Peace, established and funded by Congress, with subsequent support from USC, UCLA and private Los Angeles donors. Boytner traces his motivation to contribute to the peace process to his Polish-born grandparents on both sides, the only ones in their families to survive the Holocaust. "When I was growing up, the lesson we drew from the Holocaust was that we must be strong, that 'Masada will not fall again'," he said. Eventually, though, Boytner moved in a different direction, became active in the Peace Now movement, and replaced the Masada slogan with the Talmudic injunction, "He who saves one life, saves the world entire." "I believe we must try everything before taking up arms," he said. "We are archaeologists, but we are peacemakers first."