Archaeologists Fear Their Work in Jerusalem May Be Tainted by Settler Politics

Archaeologists Fear Their Work in Jerusalem May Be Tainted by Settler Politics
Silwan, Jerusalem
(Courtesy Brian Negin via Flickr)

Depending on whom you ask, Jerusalem has been conquered between 20 to 40 times, and in each case, a new homesteader has managed to bury whatever the last group left behind. In a particularly old homestead like Silwan, a district in East Jerusalem that has been occupied in various forms since the 4th millenium BCE, the resulting strata can be divided into at least this many layers of artifacts and debris, each left by a different human conqueror over the range of 50 to 500 years.

Since it was first excavated in the mid-19th century, Silwan has become an ideal place to observe the extent to which archaeology and conflict are connected. Whereas biblical sources would describe Silwan as the place David first conquered when he established his capital, in the present day, the neighborhood is populated predominantly by Palestinians. It has, at the same time, been a perennial target of settler groups looking to “Judaise” parts of East Jerusalem that were placed under Israeli control following the Six Day War in 1967. Critics believe that since the mid-1990s, the Ir David Foundation (also known by the Hebrew acronym “Elad”) has been underwriting excavations in the area with the intent of developing the archaeological record of one group — the Hebrew one — at the exclusion of all others. After the announcement last month that Tel Aviv University (TAU) would take part in an excavation in Silwan, funded indirectly by Elad, many left-leaning archaeologists and skeptical observers have stepped forward in protest.


Off and on since 1997, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has tasked Elad with the “guardianship and maintenance” of Silwan’s archaeologically rich City of David National Park. For a private organization, it wields an unusual amount of authority over a public entity, directing tours and charging admission, inviting soldiers on religiously minded “heritage tours,” and compelling guides to interpret ambiguous artifacts along biblical lines.

A 2006 report by Ir Amim, a left-wing advocacy group focussed on Jerusalem, described one instance in which Dr. Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist working at a dig funded by Elad, claimed to have found the pipe that David’s warriors traveled through when they conquered the city. This was despite the fact that many scholars — including Ronny Reich, an archaeologist at Haifa University who worked at the same site — were skeptical that David or Solomon had ever been there. On another occasion, Reich uncovered a Byzantine water pit and was instructed by Elad to present it as the cistern of Malkijah, the pit Jeremiah was thrown into by the son of Zedekiah, the king of Judah, according to the Old Testament. For weeks, the attribution was listed on the website and echoed by tour guides, even though Reich himself said that it was “nonsense.”

Excavators who work in Silwan largely describe themselves as beyond the reach of partisan politics, but given Elad’s extensive involvement in archaeological activity there, this can be hard to prove. Founded in 1986, the group’s stated goal has been to “strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and renew Jewish settlement in the City of David.” Ir Amim has linked the group to an array of coercive methods settler groups have employed to move space in Silwan from Palestinian to Israeli hands, including forced evictions, forged deeds, and the now-null Absentees Property Law, which allowed Israeli settlers to occupy land and buildings that had been depopulated in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

A Google search of the group’s founder, David Be’eri, leads to multiple stories about the day he passed through Silwan in a silver four-door sedan and was confronted by Palestinian youths throwing stones. He struck two of them with his car and drove off, later claiming he had felt he was in danger and was trying to flee. Though both boys avoided serious injury, the incident was broadcast on Al Jazeera as well as Israeli television, and in numerous clips on YouTube.

It's hard to imagine how an organization whose leader is best known for running over Palestinian children with his car could invite itself into archaeology, a field in which professionals pride themselves in being almost tediously objective. In recent years, however, Elad has managed to do just that, funding public education projects in Silwan that would make viewers believe that politics was not their concern.

“I think Baeri’s great achievement is to de-politicize,” Meron Rapoport, a journalist who authored the Ir Amim report, told ARTINFO. “When Elad started its activities in 1990, some years ago, they had this image of being extremist settlers who wanted to disturb life in East Jerusalem. What I think David Be’eri did in the late 1990s and from there on is to make Elad not political, to continue what they do in Silwan, but at the same time not to appear political, as if this is a scientific, touristic project, and not a political project.”

Because of the drama of archaeology in Jerusalem, in addition to the sizable funds it provides for research areas like Silwan, researchers like Reich have frequently found themselves forced to answer difficult questions about cooperating with Elad. Israel Finkelstein, a professor of archaeology at TAU who is involved in the work at Silwan and is described among colleagues as “center-left,” gave a notably guarded answer when I asked him if he had qualms about doing archaeological work in which Elad was involved. “I have always kept distance from politics, so I am not going to answer this question,” he wrote in an email. “My only interest is to better understand archaeology and history. In order to make things clear, let me add that: 1) the Tel Aviv University dig will be carried out as a joint venture with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA); no other body will be involved in the dig; 2) Tel Aviv University and its Institute of Archaeology work according to law.” 

That TAU would be working in coordination with the Israel Antiquities Authority, which will transfer funds from Elad to the university, is hardly disputed (and in fact has already been widely covered). Eliding this, Finkelstein was less than eager to comment on whether Elad might be harnessing the presence of archaeologists in Silwan to evict Palestinian residents and allow Jewish settlers to move in. Rafael Greenberg, another professor of archaeology at TAU who has stood out for his opposition to the university’s involvement in Silwan, regularly expressed concerns about Elad’s involvement to his colleague Ronny Reich, who, recently, has become the head of the IAA’s archaeological council. “Whenever I told them he was being used by the settlers,” he told ARTINFO, “He’d say, ‘No, I’m using them.’” 

Speaking over the phone last week, Greenberg repeated his feelings about Elad’s presence in the area, as well as the public relations concerns of TAU’s involvement. Part of what made him want to speak reporters, as it turned out, was how unconvincing he thought TAU’s message will be to Palestinian Silwanis, whose anxieties about losing their home might overlap with anxieties about being evicted from history. “No amount of spin or declarative sentences saying ‘we’re not being part of it,’ is going to change that, unless they actively dissociate themselves from that project,” he said. “It has to be a completely new concept, in order to carry out an excavation that is not associated with the settlers, with the Israeli view of history.”

Whereas the university might profess to doing unglamorous and uncontroversial work to better understand the exceedingly complicated history of Jerusalem, Greenberg said that for Elad, TAU’s involvement will be a “huge feather in their cap” that will further distance their brand from the stigma of settler politics. In reality, Greenberg said, “everything is happening in a political context.”

“I’ve come to the realization that archaeology is not about the past but how the past has formed the present, and what parts of the past we’re taking to the future,” he told ARTINFO. “Archaeologists are in the business of creating collective memories.”