Archaeology Misused in Jerusalem

A headline caught my eye: “Archaeology in the Struggle for Jerusalem“. As usual when archaeology is used for political ends, it is actually subservient to written history in this case.

In the Bustan neighbourhood of the Silwan precinct in East Jerusalem, the municipality of Jerusalem has ordered 88 buildings torn down. Most are inhabited by Palestinians, most were built without a permit, most can be expected to sit on top of interesting archaeology. But not just any cool anonymous Prehistoric stuff for us nerds: the municipality wants to make an national archaeological park of the area to show off a certain historically documented period. They’re not curious about the Chalcolithic, they don’t itch to learn more about Canaanite settlement, they aren’t fans of Saladin curious about the 12th century AD. When we learn that the nationalist settler association Elad are intended to run the park, we know what levels they’re going for: The Kingdom of David and the 1st Millennium BC. Anglophone readers will know the place name Silwan as Siloam, of Pool fame, one of the sites where the Old Testament can be linked to the archaeological record.

If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve seen this sort of thing after the fact: the great open pits of the Fori Imperiali, where Mussolini had entire neighbourhoods torn down in order to shovel away the Middle Ages and reach the Imperial Period. In that case, it was basically rich Italians evicting poor Italians, so any protests would have been far more quiet than in East Jerusalem.

At Tell Hazor in the Galilee, where I did my first digging in 1990, excavations have largely been funded by wealthy New Yorkers. That is, until the team reached the pre-Israelite period and hit upon the ruins of a Canaanite palace. Very cool stuff! Then it suddenly proved quite hard to find the money to build a protective roof over the remains. Canaanites, schmanaanites, you know?

Extreme nationalism is an ugly thing regardless of the specific ethnicity involved. On-lookers everywhere wish that Israel would just elect a mixed-ethnicity secular liberal government and stop looking to the past. I mean, come on, those buildings in Bustan were built without permits because Palestinians can’t get building permits in Jerusalem. Archaeology should proceed in constructive dialogue between scholars, local people and other interested parties. To project managers: if you start to feel a need to evict living people forcefully in order to get at a site, you’re doing it all wrong and for the wrong reasons.

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  1. #1 Juuro
    May 24, 2009

    Thank you. It is good to read an argument about Israeli problems that is not screeching the slogans of one side or the other, but presenting the problems as they exist, yet with suitable personal indignation.

    I’ve been to Israel several times. With some Israeli and some Palestinians it is possible to approach objective discussion, with others it has been easier to stay with small talk only.

  2. #2 DianaGainer
    May 25, 2009

    Thank you for your simple statement of what should be obvious. As one of my professors once said, “There’s nothing common about common sense.” When we lived in England, there seemed to be a general system of waiting till somebody was planning to dig up something for commercial reasons — or to fix the plumbing in the basement — and then the archeologists would come out and do “salvage archeology” and find all sorts of neat things everywhere. They worked pretty quickly, then the commerical outfits got back to work. It ought to work for Jerusalem too.

  3. #3 johannes
    May 29, 2009

    > Palestinians can’t get building permits in Jerusalem

    According to Ha’aretz – a newspaper that is fiscally conservative, but liberal when it comes to Israeli/Palestinian relations – there were 219 requests for building permits in Jerusalem by Palestinians in 2001. Of those, 191 got an approval. At the same time, there were 1519 requests from Israelis in the Jerusalem area. Of those, 1087 got an approval. This numbers reflect a different demography – Israelis being both richer and older on average, and therefore more likely to own their own homes – rather than deliberate anti-Palestinian action by the municipial authorities.

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 29, 2009

    Interesting! I wonder when those houses in Bustan were built and what the permit situation was like at the time.

  5. #5 DDeden
    May 29, 2009

    My interest in the Levant ends with the post-Natufians and begins 5ma earlier. I think human ancestors developed around the Red Sea up to the Huleh/Briqa wetlands while the chimps and gorillas had moved south along the Rift into the Congo.

    All those “recent” kings, pharoahs, emperors just don’t appeal to me. I’m more interested in where the first boats, nets, harpoons, fire, huts were developed, and what happened to make humans change so much from our close kin.

  6. #6 Luis
    June 3, 2009

    This is just another criminal abhorrence of that racist entity called Israel. Using archaeology as pretext only makes it even more despicable, specially for those who love archaeology and prehistory.

    The issue of building permits is even more sarcastic because Palestinians are just not granted anything at (building permits, water accss or even farming their legally owned lands) all while Zionist settlers just arrived from Russia have absolutely no problems whatsoever to build wherever they want.

  7. #7 Martin R
    June 3, 2009

    I agree that the basic idea behind Israel is a nationalistic (and thus outdated) one. But racist? The world’s Jewry comes in all shapes and colours. What gives you a free pass into Israel isn’t the colour of your skin or the shape of your nose. Remove clothing and hair styles from a random Israeli Jew and a random Israeli Palestinian, and you won’t be able to tell who’s who on sight.

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