Silwan, Ir David and the Politics of Archeology

On my one free Friday in Israel, my old friend Danny agreed to play tourist with me and visit Jerusalem. We wandered around the Arab souk in the Old City, which was just as filled with smells of zaatar and Turkish coffee as I remembered. We tried to join a free guided tour, only to distract ourselves in conversation and lose the tour group completely within the first three minutes.

“Let’s visit Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” I suggested.

This was an archeological site that hadn’t yet opened when I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5 — a 1/3-mile-long tunnel deep that had been used to bring water from a spring into the Old City around the year 700 BCE. My daughter had visited it with a Jewish American teen tour in 2010. My brother and sister-in-law had visited it with a tour group from their synagogue last summer. They all raved about it – what wasn’t to love about walking for a quarter of a mile with flashlights through a wet, dark, evocative 2,700-year-old tunnel?

When we reached the entrance to the Tunnel site, though, we found a couple of dozen people sitting on prayer rugs in the street with others gathered around them.. A TV truck. A man in a courtyard giving a speech in Arabic. And a banner  announcing a “protest tent against home eviction in wadi hilweh / silwan.”

Silwan protest / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Classic Jerusalem: A casual morning outing morphs into a dose of cultural conflict and duelling realities.

It turns out that the tunnel is part of an archeological/tourism complex called Ir David that is mired in Israeli-Palestinian politics. There is a legitimate, fascinating archeological site there – the excavations were done by professional archeologists over the course of the 20th century. But then management of the site was outsourced to a group affiliated with Jewish nationalist-religious settlers who are determined to turn Silwan, the poor Arab neighborhood around the excavations, into a Jewish neighborhood.

Dozens of Palestinian families living above or alongside the archeological site are facing eviction from their homes. One was due to be evicted a few days after our visit.

And the archeological site itself has been turned into an exercise in nationalist propaganda. We watched a 20-minute 3-D film (with Avatar-type glasses and snazzy special effects) that combined the most kitschy Charlton-Heston-style images of ancient Israelites with a self-congratulatory, triumphalist narrative – all about how Ir David was the ancient, beloved home of the Jews, how it was captured by King David in blood and bravery, how now children’s voices are heard again there “for the first time in 2,000 years.” (As if no children had lived or played on that hillside in all those centuries that Jews were gone!)

Danny and I continued on and walked part of the tunnel. It’s impressive and cool. But knowing that, above you, people are being evicted as part of a religious land grab tends to dampen the historical thrill.

Inside Hezekiah's Tunnel / Photo by Tamar Hayardeni

Walkways leading into Ir David excavations / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And this is what kills me, makes me absolutely furious.  American Jews visiting Ir David with an organized tour – my brother’s family, my own daughter — experience Hezekiah’s Tunnel as a great romp. An archeological theme park.

They have no clue about the nationalist agenda and the political subtext. They have no idea that there is another side to the story. They are being duped and manipulated by the settlers.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5, the fascination and also the heartbreak was that the city holds two such completely duelling realities. Each one has its truths, and each one has its propaganda and myths.

It kills me when American Jews go to Israel and see only one side of the story. Sure, each side has its propaganda. But that makes it even more important for people to seek out and hear the stories of the other side.

And archeology doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to do archeology that respect living communities as well as dead artifacts. There are ways to do archeology that tell an inclusive story of all the peoples living at a site over the millennia, not just the story of those currently in power.

Poking around on the Web later, I found a cool site on archeology and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, called Emek Shaveh. There Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University paints an inspiring vision of how archeology at Silwan / Ir David could be inclusive, people-focused and a force for peace:

Archaeology can provide a robust and viable alternative to nationalist and exclusivist readings of history. Jerusalem’s material remains are so varied and contradictory that only by ignoring large parts of them can a single narrative be offered. Once it is recognized that conflicting narratives can coexist, and that there is no unitary historical truth, then the stranglehold of the past on the present begins to weaken…. Far from the mere confirmation of prior beliefs, the best kind of archaeology challenges what we think we know about the world and about humanity. Perhaps a little less complacency — and a little more humility — about our past is what we need to give Jerusalem a viable future.

We can do so much better, so easily.

Aargh.

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One Response to “Silwan, Ir David and the Politics of Archeology”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    Nice piece. This in many ways represents the essence of the complex feelings I have about Israel.

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