Monday, November 30, 2020

Political Archeology in Jerusalem

By Sophie Crowe - July 12, 2012
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Archeology] [Jerusalem]

After over four decades of excavation work the Ophel Wall site, which is located in the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park, was opened to the public on 21 June.

The archeological findings—which were restored by the Israel Antiquities Association—include one wall, a building thought to be a gate house, and part of a tower which have been said to date from the time of King Solomon by some historians and archaeologists.

But archeology—especially in Jerusalem—is always more complicated than it seems, and usually carries political implications.

Excavation of the Ophel Wall was commissioned by government sources and began in the seventies, led then by the late Israeli archeologist Benjamin Mazar. The dig was continued in the mid-eighties by his granddaughter Dr. Eilat Mazar, a faculty member of Hebrew University.

Last year, Mazar—sponsored privately by the two Americans Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman—undertook a three-month excavation of the site. Afterwards, the Israel Antiquities Association began their restorative reconstruction.

Mazar’s work holds that the history of the site dates back to the 10th century BC, the period of the biblical King Solomon. Her inference is that the biblical narrative of Jerusalem—that the city was a well-established Jewish hub as early
as the 10th BC—has been proven with the findings here.

“The Bible is the most important historical source, Mazar told Moment Magazine. “It contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality.”

Mazar’s work supports one of Israel’s more important founding narratives: that there is a link between an ancient Jewish past and the present day return to—and rebuilding of—this country.

“I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other,” she said.

But this approach is eschewed by other archaeologists in Israel, who question the integrity of the biblical record.

Archaeologist Dr. Rafi Greenberg of Tel Aviv University takes a different approach.

“The Bible should not be the guiding principle or the yardstick of an archaeological site,” Greenberg says. “Archaeology should tell an independent story and Dr. Mazar’s style does not produce the kind of practice that moves the discipline forward.”

Yonathan Mizrachi of Emek Shaveh, a non-profit organization made up of archaeologists and community workers in Jerusalem, views Mazar’s approach as a way of claiming sole Jewish ownership over the past. Archology is more complex, Mizrachi says. Furthermore, his work has led him to conclude that the Ophel Wall findings really date from the 8th century BC, not the 10th.

The Bible is the most important historical source, Mazar told Moment Magazine. “It contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality.”

The group has criticized the handling of the Ophel Wall site for its manipulation of archaeology to promote a highly particular and exclusivist historical narrative. Multiple layers of the city’s past have been revealed here, such as Byzantine and Roman, but the Jewish period is privileged.

The Emek Shaveh organization advocates that archaeology be used to illustrate Jerusalem’s historic multiculturalism—and not to give privilege to one, Jewish narrative. This, the organization hopes, could encourage mutual respect between communities.

“There is no balance between the finds and the structure being restored,” Mizrachi argues. ”As a tourist to Ophel, you hear only the Jewish story, nothing about its multiculturalism. It is the duty of the state to protect other stories coming out of the digs.”

Dr. Greenberg agrees that Jerusalem’s heterogeneous population means “it is important to make archaeology accessible to the various groups by presenting different narratives and stories of the city.”

Mizrachi explains how important archaeology is to Israel’s collective identity. Evidence of a Jewish past inculcates a belief in the legitimacy of Israeli presence in the city today. According to such logic, they are resuming ownership of sites dated to biblical times. “It is [used as] proof that Jews resided in the city before Palestinians,” Mizrachi says.

In this way, the selective approach indicates the political, national utility of archaeology in the context of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

“Archaeologists must be cognizant of the values their work is promoting, whether it is peace or a chauvinist and racist agenda,” Dr. Greenberg notes. Archaeology should be steered away from politicization by exercising neutrality. The first place where this effort needs to be made is Jerusalem.”

However, far from being neutral, the state appears to actively prohibit divergent archaeological voices that threaten to delegitimize nationalist narratives, such as Mazar’s.

Take, for instance, the story of the Palestinian-Israeli archaeologist, Abir Zayyad. Zayyad now works for Al Aqsa Mosque Museum but used to work for the Tower of David Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem. She felt the full effect of state censorship when she wrote an article in 2009, detailing how the Bible should be treated as a religious, not historical, text.

Her piece appeared in several Arabic-language websites. She wrote in Arabic specifically to address the marginalization of Jerusalem’s Palestinians from archaeological literature, which was typically available only in Hebrew and English.

“The historical inaccuracies in the Bible have already been proven,” she wrote. “To illustrate, the cities referred to as contemporaneous to Solomon and David did not exist in the period they are said to have lived.” In her article, she argued that there was no real archaeological evidence for the existence of either figure.

Zayyad wrote that some information presented in the Tower of David Museum concerning the period of King Solomon and David was not archeologically accurate. Even some colleagues from the museum had agreed with her, in private.

The public reaction to these statements was severe.

Zayyad received hate mail and death threats; her picture and address ominously appeared on the Internet. A Hebrew-language newspaper published a lengthy, front-page article denigrating her.

She was fired from her job, in a resolution demanded by Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, whose municipality funds the Tower of David Museum.

Israeli archaeologists have made similar arguments but her article was more dangerous for being directed at Palestinians. “Arab people are kept in ignorance,” Zayyad said, “as well as tourists.”

In addition to Zayyad’s brush with censorship, six months ago, the Minister of Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov—who also belongs to the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party—stated that Palestinian-Israeli guides in Jerusalem would be fired should they tell a “Palestinian story,” or any narrative that differs from the state’s official version.

But Zayyad remains hopeful. She looks forward to a day when “religion and science can be separated so archaeology will be presented in a scientific way.”

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