Polemics in the park

Administered by El Ad, a private Jewish settler organization, the City of David National Park is a source of tension and contention.

City of David 521 (photo credit: Courtesy City of David)
City of David 521
(photo credit: Courtesy City of David)
Standing on a terraced courtyard in the City of David National Park, slightly above a large stepped-stone structure that is believed to have served as a large retaining wall of some kind—its building date is contended by scholars who believe it could be either the foundation of the Canaanite fortress conquered by King David or the foundations supporting King David’s Palace – a pretty, fair-skinned tour guide, wearing sandals, cropped green pants layered with a short gauzy Indian-print skirt, reads from Chapter 36 in the Book of Jeremiah in a gentle, sweet voice:
“When Michaiah, the son of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, heard all the words of the Lord from the book, he then went down to the king’s house, into the scribes chamber and there all the princes were sitting – Elishama the scribe, Delaiah the son of Shemaiah, Elnathan the son of Achbor, Gemariah the son of Shaphan, Zedekiah the son of Hananiah and all the princes. Then Michaiah declared to them all the words that he had heard when Baruch read the book in the hearing of the people.”
She continues to read from the passage that describes how King Jehoiakim takes the scroll of Jeremiah, which was dictated by God, and throws it into the flames of a fire burning in the hearth.
She sets the scene for the group. “Imagine here,” she says dramatically, her eyes wide, and her hand sweeping to the stone walls of the structure below on her right, which she has suggested as the possible site of the foundations of King David’s palace. “The city is in danger [from the Babylonian siege].”
The guide, employed by the City of David, is following the tour programming developed and implemented by El Ad, the organization that is operating the Ir David archaeological and tourist site and conducting the archaeological digs at the site, under agreement with the National Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The City of David is regarded by some as the site of the Biblical Jerusalem established by King David. Foreign and Israeli archaeologists have excavated here on and off dating back to the 19th century.
Today, the site is surrounded by the Palestinian village of Silwan and is being developed into a major tourist site, focusing on the ostensible Biblical history, by El Ad.
But El Ad is not a tourist company. It was founded in the early 1990s with the aim of settling Jews in this area (in Hebrew, el ad is an acronym for “To the City of David”) and secures and provides housing for the approximately 70 Jewish settler families who have moved into the area, including “Beit Yonatan,” a 7-story apartment building that, according to Israel’s Supreme Court, is slated for partial demolition. The settlement and the archaeological dig have been a constant source of friction with the Palestinian residents of Silwan.
El Ad’s responsibility for the site has been challenged, only partially successfully, in Israel’s courts by Ir Amim, an NGO that promotes sustainable and peaceful resolution to conflicts in Jerusalem. But proposed new legislation, apparently tailored to enable El Ad to continue to control the site, has recently been proposed, which, if passed, will put some of Israel’s most important – and contested – archaeological and natural sites in the hands of private groups.
At this site, archaeologists found a clay seal bearing the name of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, many years ago and more recently archaeologist Eilat Mazar found seals with the names Yehochal, son of Shelemayahu, in 2005 and Gedaliah ben Pashur in 2008. Such seals were used in Biblical times to securely close written scrolls.
For City of David tour guide Yaniv Levy, such finds are strong evidence of the Jewish claim to this land, proof of continued Jewish existence here since the time of King David.
“As I read the Book of Jeremiah, I can say the story took place somewhere in this area where [archaeologists] found three seals with the names of the foreign ministers of King Zedekiah. I can say the story took place somewhere in this area,” Levy, young and pleasant-looking with cropped short hair, earnestly tells another tour group, which includes a young Jewish Orthodox couple from New Jersey and their toddler, an Israeli couple accompanying friends visiting from New Jersey, a visiting English businessman from Hong Kong and a Jewish new immigrant from Toronto.
Calling the finding of the seals one of the most important archaeological finds in Israel, he enthuses, “It is the first time archaeologists can take the Bible and say, “‘Guys, it actually fits.’” The group listens intently.
Levy points to a structure that is, he says, the possible site of King David’s palace and calls attention to the fact that an engraved capital with a symbol characteristically used by stonemasons from the Tyre area – now exhibited in the Israel Museum – and a piece of 3,000-year-old wood were found here.
Analysis reveals that the wood came from a boxwood tree, cousin to the cedar tree, which only grows in Tyre; both are mentioned in the Bible in connection with King David’s palace, he says. Though nothing is one hundred percent sure, the coincidence of the finds is striking and can very well lead to the conclusion that perhaps King David’s palace was located here, he notes.
El Ad has prepared an impressive 3-D introductory film that describes King David’s conquest of the ancient Canaanite/Jebusite city that stood on the site, emphasizing the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem and neatly skipping over 2,000 years of history, following the destruction of the Second Temple. “For 2,000 years the city passed from hand to hand,” the narrator intones, adding that the Jewish connection to the city never waned. The movie picks up Jerusalem’s story in 1860 with the construction of new Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City walls.
Though on their website and in the map they hand out at their visitors’ center, El Ad mentions the various peoples ranging from the Canaanites, Byzantines, early Arabs, Fatimids and the Ottoman Empire, who had a presence at the site, their guided tours make only passing note of them.
The thick layer of ash and fossilized remains of parasitic worms found only in raw meat corroborate the Biblical story of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians as recounted in Chronicles II , Levy notes.
“Jerusalem was under siege, people had brought their animals inside the walls of the city with them. After two months of siege there was no wood, so they would have needed to eat the meat of the slaughtered animals raw,” he tells the group.
The tours also visit Hezekiah’s water tunnels and the newly uncovered staircase that, according to some, may have led to the Temple Mount from the Shiloah Pools. It is here, at the end of the tour, that the guides from El Ad dramatically recite their well-scripted story of how Jews hid in the drainage tunnels underneath the stairs during the rebellion against the Romans in the year 67, as recounted by Josephus Flavius in his book, “The Rebellion of the Jews.”
Visitors are asked to sit down on straw-seated stools situated along the stairs. Levy points to the smashed portions of the steps where, according to Josephus, the Roman soldiers ripped through the stone stairs in their search for the Jewish rebels.
“Two thousand years ago, people died inside those tunnels,” Levy declares. “But here we are 2,000 years later. A few of us here are Jewish and we can say that we are connected to those people who were killed here in these tunnels. No one is able to claim they are connected to the Romans who were here, but we can say we are connected to those people you [the Romans] tried to kill 2,000 years ago.”
As Levy leads his group through the site on the winding paths, some of which pass next to and underneath Palestinian and settler homes, they meet a group of Palestinian girls from the village returning from school, climbing up a set of stairs from the lower part of the village. Some of the girls are wearing white hijabs covering their hair.
Asked about the Palestinian village she is walking through, the recent immigrant from Toronto says, “I don’t focus on that stuff.
[The guide] didn’t touch on any politics.”
Then she glances around to the village houses across the street and on the hilly slope above and adds, “Well, it is right in their back yard.”
Indeed, the City of David site is located within the Palestinian city of Silwan, and the archaeological digs and the development of the site have been a constant source of friction between the Jewish archaeologists and settlers from El Ad and the local residents.
At the end of October, the High Court of Justice heard a petition submitted by Ir Amim, challenging the contract between El Ad, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Minister of the Environment and the Municipality of Jerusalem for the privatization of the City of David National Park. The terms of this contract were kept secret, Ir Amim maintains, and called for the transfer of its administration to the political organization. This, Ir Amim claims, is illegal, although the law does allow the National Parks Authority to use sub-contractors for the operation of sites.
In its decision, which both El Ad and Ir Amim claim as a victory, the court determined that El Ad could continue operating the site, but stipulated that when the current contract comes up for renewal in March 2012, it must include adjustments so that other tour leaders can conduct tours at the site; the veto power over decisions that El Ad wields as one of the three members of the siteʼs management committee be curtailed; and the opening hours must be changed – unlike other national parks the City of David is closed on Saturdays, since El Ad is a religious organization.
“For the first time the contract, which had been kept secret because it is illegal, was exposed to the public,” Ir Amim’s associate director Sarah Kreimer tells The Jerusalem Report.
She notes that the court additionally found that the powers given to El Ad under the current contract go beyond the scope of the law, which stipulates that the National Parks Authority can take subcontractors for operation of individual sites.
“Operation of the park is really a tool of settlement… Since El Ad has been managing the site, there has been an increase in settlers living within the national park. They have descended upon Silwan, taking one-quarter of a neighborhood,” Kreimer says.
Amnon Ramon, a researcher for the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, an independent think tank, tells The Report that the City of David area is the “heart of the volcano.”
“To give this sensitive site to an organization that is political by its definition is very problematic. They view it as a mission, as a destiny,” he says.
El Ad has been very successful in getting school groups and soldiers to visit the site, exposing them to the El Ad narrative of the site, he notes. Now they are settling Jews and bringing attention to the site and putting the City of David into the heart of Jewish society, he adds.
According to Ramon, the arrangement with El Ad was developed so that the organization is acting, in a way, on behalf of the government.
Noting El Ad’s overtly-stated goals, which coincide with the right-wing policies of the government and the municipality, he adds that the government may be assuming, “that EL Ad can act more freely than the government” in promoting its agenda.
Udi Ragones, spokesman for the City of David site, contends that Ir Amim and similar groups have their own political agenda, which they are trying to push; these organizations should, he says, “examine themselves.”
Furthermore, he continues, El Ad “is aware of the limitations to their work within a populated area and have conducted their excavations only in open areas of the village… and some of the homes that have been built in the interim were done so illegally.”
El Ad is suing Ir Amim, the activist Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement and other organizations for libel for statements they have allegedly made about the City of David and its management. “I think they are functioning against the public interest.
The Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority all say the cooperation with the City of David is good, that it is a success,” says Ragones.
Though remains at the site have been found from King Hezekiah’s period, nothing as yet has been uncovered which, according to mainstream archaeologists, can be connected to the time of King David.
The primary proponent of the connection to King David is archaeologist Eilat Mazar, who has conducted her digs at the site under the auspices of various institutions, including the conservative Shalem Center. Mazar uncovered the large structure that, she says, could likely be King David’s palace, but the rest of the archaeological community does not share her certainty.
To archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi, attempts to “match” the Bible to archaeological finds are troubling because, he contends, they serve political, rather than archaeological purposes.
Mizrahi is co-founder and director of Emek Shaveh, an organization of archaeologists and community activists focusing on the role of archaeology in Israeli society and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even if the official City of David guides qualify some of their statements with words such as “possibly,” “perhaps,” “apparently,” and “maybe” in their description of the different archaeological remains, the very fact that they carry around Bibles with them as they relate the history, which took place here,already psychologically connects the finds to the Biblical stories for their captive audience, Mizrahi contends.
Emek Shaveh offers non-official tours of the City of David. “We are not trying to challenge the Bible,” Mizrahi says. “We are trying to challenge taking specific evidence and saying that the archaeological finds match the story you read in the Bible.”
This matching, he warns, skips over the “unwanted” layers of history as well as the current situation at the site, in order to create a narrative that suits El Ad’s ideological and political worldview. He contends that even if some archaeologists do believe that a Biblical Israelite-Judean Jerusalem may have existed at this site, the rich mosaic of other cultures, which also flourished here should not be ignored.
In Mizrahi’s view, a single timeline crosses from the archaeological history of the site until today. And so while there is little dispute among archaeologists that a “Judean/Israelite Jerusalem” existed here in the 8th-7th century BCE , the fact that today the site is located in the middle of the Palestinian village of Silwan is no less significant.
“The information presented to visitors to the City of David site should focus on what they can learn about the culture of those people who lived here,” he says, including the Judeans but also other peoples, such as the ancient Canaanites, the Byzantines, the Arab period, and the Crusaders.
El Ad’s initial relationships with the Israel Antiquities Authority were very tense, Ramon notes, because the organization viewed the archaeological dig, which has been ongoing in one form or another for some 150 years, as an obstacle to their settlement goals. But then, Ramon contends, El Ad realized that the archaeological remains are a “terrific instrument for bringing mainstream Israelis, Diaspora Jews and other tourists to the city of David,” multiplying ten and twenty times the number of people who stroll through the park joining the small ranks of settlers there, hearing about the history of the place as presented to them by City of David tour guides.
Spokesm an Ragones rejects charges that El Ad ignores archaeological finds from other periods and cultures, noting that just last month a rare small Byzantine prayer box was uncovered in the current excavations that El Ad is undertaking in the Givati parking lot, across the street from the developed archaeological site, which was given great play in the media.
Much of the park, which was built only in the open spaces of the village, he reiterates, is located on property owned by El Ad, which they have made public for the benefit of the Israeli public.
“We know how to raise money and we put hundreds of millions of shekels into research and development of the site,” he says. These are funds, which the government would not have to invest in the site, so instead of leaving the site neglected, he says, El Ad has developed it to the point where it has become one of the top tourist draws in Jerusalem.
Indeed, in its 2010 version of its “Israel & Palestinian Territories” guidebook, Lonely Planet recommends the City of David as one of the top “must-see” sites during a two-day stay in Jerusalem.
In the three pages dedicated to the site, it does not include any mention of the Palestinian village of Silwan or El Ad.
The contract they have signed with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (IN PA) is not a permanent one, Ragones notes, and if the IN PA feels that El Ad is running the site contrary to the spirit appropriate for a national park, they can warn El Ad or easily cancel the contract. Furthermore, he says, other national parks such as those in Rosh Hanikra, Ma’ayan Harod and Caesarea are all operated by private entities, including kibbutzim and a private foundation.
However, opponents point out, none of these groups have a clear political agenda.
Researcher Ramon says that although he views the issue of privatization of national parks in Israel, in general, and the City of David, in particular, as problematic, today, it would be difficult to run the national park without El Ad. For example, he says, the City of David’s visitor’s center is owned by El Ad.
Until about a year ago, Ramon says, the trend seemed to be moving away from of privatization of national parks. But in July, as the Knesset was gearing up for the summer break and attention was focused on the social protests in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, a private member draft bill sponsored by MK Israel Hasson, of the Yisrael Beiteinu party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, passed a preliminary reading by a 58 to 10 vote. If passed, the bill, which opponents say seems tailor-made for El Ad, will allow for the sweeping privatization of all of the national parks and their transfer to private organizations.
On September 13, the Ir Amim NGO and the Israeli Society for the Protection of Nature launched an Internet campaign warning of the dangers of that proposed legislation. (http://notforsale.org.il/) Aside from the political implications, quips Ir Amim’s Kreimer, “Do we really want a McDonald’s at Masada?” But Mazar argues, “The Israel Antiquities Authority of the government is very limited in its budget and manpower.” If carried out properly, partnerships could be beneficial, she says. “Each site would have to be reviewed on its own merits. I think it is important to include private initiatives and work dynamically with groups that can bring in money. I am for privatization but within a strict framework of controls.”
Though theoretically the park is open to anyone, it is clear that the presence of a gate with an Israeli security guard at the entrance to the site and Israeli flags waving makes Palestinian residents of the village uncomfortable, says Mizrahi.
Near the entrance, where visitors mill around the ticket booth and concession stands, and some school groups sit in a courtyard eating their sandwiches and snapping pictures of each other, Widad – a middle-aged Palestinian woman who has lived in her Silwan house for 45 years – lets her German Shepherd dog, Goldie, out from her cage. The dog prances and wags her tail as Widad pets her and murmurs affectionately to her like a baby. She puts Goldie in the cage during the day, Widad tells The Report, because she barks a lot because of all the people who now walk near her courtyard.
A settler family lives in the house adjacent to hers. They are nice and exchange greetings when they go in and out of the house. Another neighbor who used to live there still greets her when they pass each other by in the area, she says.
“There are nice settlers and there are bad settlers,” Widad observes.
Looking out past the brown picket fence, which separates her property from the national park, Widad says she used to buy her vegetables from the farmer who owned the garden where the excavations are now located.
“It hurts inside,” she says. “It is interesting to find [archaeological remains] like that, but they ruined the garden.”