Digging for the Holy Land: The politicization of archaeology along the Israel-Palestine border

From the Temple Mount to the Israelite Tower to the Monastery of the Virgins, the significance of excavations in Jerusalem is unparalleled. Layer by layer, human history is being uncovered in the Holy Land. But these excavations are more than just an archaeological pursuit — they’re being used to solidify a national identity for the state of Israel. One artifact at a time, the “Green Line” separating Palestinian and Israeli Jerusalem becomes blurrier as Israeli claims to the land grow louder.

Nationalism and archaeology often go hand in hand — some even argue that the two are inseparable. “Nationalism requires the elaboration of a real or invented remote past,” says Philip Kohl, a professor of anthropology at Wellesley College.  That doesn’t mean the pairing always produces negative results. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the newly consolidated nation of Italy used archaeology as a connecting force. Ties to their Ancient Roman past gave Italians a communal sense of pride, and a walk through modern-day Rome proves that this concept of Italian identity is alive and well.

In Israel, however, these nationalistic impulses have caused archaeology to transgress its academic purview and become a political tool. Like any discipline — intellectual or otherwise — that engages with the Israeli-Palestine conflict, archaeology is interpreted differently depending on bias. Jerusalem, as one of the most complicated and disputed locations in the conflict, has become a test case for how archaeology is understood politically in the region. When emotions run high — as they tend to do in such a contested region — biases are vastly more evident.

One of the biggest sources of debate lies just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem. The City of David is an archaeological dig that sits amongst and underneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, long a target of Israeli settler organizations. After the passage of the “Jerusalem Law” in 1980, establishing that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel,” political and social efforts to dilute Palestinian presence in the West Bank escalated. The dig at Silwan has since become a flashpoint for these Israeli territorial claims, as it investigates the ancient Jewish presence on what is now a contested demarcation line. Through their work, Israeli archaeologists are doing more than investigating a people’s ancient past. They have sought to provide a narrative of “Jewish continuity” on the land, rooted in archaeological finds, to justify Israeli settlements.

At the center of this controversy is a foundation known as Elad. Through the purchase of Palestinian homes, Elad began to move Jewish families into the land above the City of David over 10 years ago. In 2005, the keys to the City of David were handed over to Elad, thus transferring archaeological control over this site and much of the Old City to the group. Today, the Israeli Antiquities Authority acts almost as a private contractor for Elad, conducting the digs under a self-granted license for “salvage excavations,” which allows it to dig without oversight from the Archaeological Council. Furthermore, the salvage licenses also give Elad control over presentation of the found material, as they do not require all findings to be revealed.

The group’s influence extends above ground as well as below. Hundreds of Israelis, along with private security guards, now live above a dig that connects them to their collective pasts. Approximately 700 Israelis live amongst 50,000 Palestinians in Silwan. Elad’s archaeological efforts may have helped protect the City of David, but they have also created problematic conditions on the surface. The Israeli security guards clash with locals on a regular basis while Palestinian teenagers are arrested for throwing stones almost daily.

Despite this, the results of the controversial dig have been astounding. Sprawling below the City of David site are the strata of Jerusalem’s history from the Early and Middle Bronze Age to the Byzantine era, exhibiting a near complete archaeological record of human existence in the area. Since 2005, however, when the presentation of these incredible findings was left to Elad, the focus has been overwhelmingly on the Kingdom of David and its link to the modern Israeli state. While this focus obscures thousands of years of human existence on the land, attractions like the Herodian Street and Hasmonean Tunnel also draw in tourists — Zionist and otherwise — from all over the world, bringing more funding to the projects.

The newest controversy in Silwan comes in the form of a massive crater at the entrance to the Wadi Hilweh area, just past the wall of Old Jerusalem. An expansive new visitors’ center for the City of David National Park, known as the Kedem Compound, is set to be built there. The project has been met with protests from Palestinian residents, human rights lawyers, and urban planners, who fear that it would give Elad control over entrance and exit to the largely Palestinian village. The seven-story building will contain lecture halls, exhibits, classrooms, and an underground parking lot, which many activists say will damage the artifacts lying underneath the building. Excavations on the lot began in 2003, and they have uncovered a neighborhood from the early Islamic period, a Byzantine structure, and an extensive structure from the Roman period. In addition to covering up these discoveries, the Kedem Compound will block views of the Old City.

The compound is indicative of a much bigger problem with Israeli archaeological projects in the area: the outright exclusion of Palestinians from the historiography of the region. Like many Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Silwan is a place of decaying infrastructure and government neglect. According to the human rights group Ir Amim, Palestinians receive only 10 percent of Jerusalem’s budget, even though they make up 40 percent of the city’s population. Massive tourist developments in the face of such inequality have been criticized by human rights groups, archaeological organizations, and the UN. Local archaeological groups have not consulted with the Palestinian people about excavations in the area, which have become a “permanent nuisance” to those living in Silwan — already one of the poorest areas of the city.

Perhaps most poignant is the invisibility of the Palestinians to the casual visitor. Uninformed tourists visiting sites like the City of David see almost no Palestinian presence on the land; the only story that is told is one of a Jewish history. This minimization of Palestinian history affects tourists’ perception of the region. If the Palestinians, both past and present, cannot be seen, how can their protests be heard?

Many prominent archaeologists have verbalized their dissent against bias in their field. In 1998, a group of archaeologists filed suit against Elad and its monopoly over sites like Silwan, and the Israeli High Court ordered that the authorities hand over management of the area to an unbiased party. Unfortunately, no such party existed. Elad simply outstayed the attempts to have it replaced.

Some dissenting archaeologists are attempting to bring Palestinian narratives out of the shadows. One group of archaeologists, Emek Shaveh, has become an important political organizer in Silwan. Dubbing itself “archaeology in the face of conflict,” Emek Shaveh offers alternative tours of the City of David that encompass all layers of history. Run by archaeologist Yonatan Mizrachi, the group’s “fundamental position” is that “an archaeological find should not and cannot be used to prove ownership by any one nation, ethnic group, or religion over a given place.”  But such organizations do not receive nearly as much publicity or funding as projects that fit into preconceived ideas of conflict. While Elad’s tours of the City of David receive almost half a million visitors each year, Emek Shaveh’s alternative tours educate about 1,500.

Moreover, groups like Emek Shaveh represent only a fraction of archaeologists. According to Brown University Professor Katharina Galor, many archaeologists continue to see their work as apolitical. Galor thinks this is an erroneous view, because “you’re so easily implicated into the political situation when you dig in East Jerusalem.” In addition, like many intellectual practices, archaeology lacks unbiased sources of funding, making it even more difficult for archaeologists to stay above the political fray. “When you cash millions of dollars to conduct research — no matter how conscientious a scholar you are — you use right-wing money to conduct your research,” Galor says, “and your scholarship is compromised.”

Regardless of the extraordinary findings from the excavations in Israel, it is easy to view Israeli archaeology as work “co-implicated in the Jewish colonial-nationalist project,” as Barnard College Anthropology Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj describes it. A critical review of archaeology in Jerusalem demonstrates that there is not one persistent political agenda at play. The collusion of settler organizations and archaeologists certainly raises red flags, but there are still digs that exist independent of any Zionist narrative. Still, in such a polarizing political situation, digs that provide ammunition against one side or the other are often given more clout.

“Nationalism is always problematic,” explains Professor Galor, but in Israel “the stakes are very different.” If nationalist Israeli groups choose to “zoom in” on one time period in history, Palestinian residents suffer. With each artifact documenting an ancient Jewish presence in the Holy Land comes more justification for Elad to extend its sway into East Jerusalem.