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Exhibition on loan: How Israel's cultural institutions contribute to occupation

Even if bringing the Herodium exhibit to the Israel Museum is not identical to wielding physical violence against Palestinians, it seems that in everything that pertains to the West Bank, those in charge exploit resources for their own needs, be it for exhibition or settlement expansion. 

By Yonatan Mizrachi

Herodium, West Bank (photo: Wikicommons)

The exhibition “Herod the Great – The King’s Final Journey” is the largest archaeological exhibit ever showcased at the Israel Museum. In order to stage the exhibit, 30 tons of archaeological findings were transferred from the sites at Herodium and Jericho. The tremendous investment led to a successful portrayal of the glory of Roman culture, identified with the days of King Herod. Museum director James Snyder was careful to explain that exporting the findings into Israel from Herodium and Jericho, located in the West Bank, was carried out legally, and in accordance with the Oslo Accords.

In another location, ostensibly without any connection to the above-mentioned case, the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology decided to conduct excavations in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan, at a site known as “City of David.” Even before excavations began, the archaeologists and their spokespersons declared that work would be conducted in accordance with scientific guidelines and would not contribute to strengthening the settlements in East Jerusalem.

According to today’s international standards, heritage sites are not a national possession, but rather part of a place’s history, and as such, must be accessible to residents and remain under their jurisdiction. However, the prohibition on the removing findings from occupied territories enshrined in international law, and the Oslo Accords, under which archaeological sites in Area C are to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, have long become meaningless in the Israeli discourse.

Both Tel Aviv University and the Israel Museum are fastidious in presenting their activity as separate from the “unpleasant” deeds and sights of the occupation. The university claims that the violence, arrests, land theft and house demolitions in Silwan are completely unrelated to the excavations that it conducts there, as if the excavations constitute a spiritual bubble of positivity in the heart of a contested and wounded land. The museum even went to great lengths to declare that the findings transferred from Herodium and Jericho will be returned immediately upon completion of the exhibition. Details such as where exactly, and to whom, were not specified.

In both cases, it appears to be convenient for these institutions to ignore the political question and the implication of the heritage sites for the Palestinians residing in the area. The university chose to work with the Antiquities Authority and Elad (an Israeli settler organization that operates the City of David site and supports Jewish settlement in the village of Silwan); the museum chose to work with with the Civil Administration, the branch of the Israeli army in charge of the Occupied Territories. These institutions provide the scientific fig leaf and the cultural facade while their partners perform the less pleasant work of removing the findings from the territories or providing security guards for the excavations. In their defense, these institutions claim that despite the problematic aspect of their work, one cannot compare the removal of findings from the Occupied Territories to the theft of land, uprooting of olive trees or inflicting of physical harm on Palestinians. While others are engaged in a violent occupation, at worst, they represent a type of enlightened occupation.

It is easy to ignore the deeds of these institutions and to focus on violence and the daily Israeli violations in the Occupied Territories. But even if the “exhibition on loan” from the Herodium is not identical to wielding physical violence against Palestinians, it seems that in everything that pertains to the West Bank, those in charge exploit resources for their own needs, whether for exhibition, excavation or settlement expansion. The exhibition in honor of Herod and the emphasis on the importance of the Herodium site is the best way in which the Israel Museum can “contribute” –  intentionally or not – to strengthening the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and turning Herodium into a central Israeli tourism heritage site. Likewise, in the case of City of David, Tel Aviv University only has to perform its excavations professionally. Police, settlers and the authorities will handle the struggle against the local residents.

Both institutions could choose a different route. They could abide by international law in recognition of the mutual interest of all residents. They could put their work on hold until better days, when such activities can promote shared heritage and dialogue between cultures. In their decision to ignore the political implications, however, the cultural institutions’ contribution to the occupation is to dismiss it (and to ignore the Palestinians), and to present their work as investigative and cultural. And if critique is voiced, they can simply say that it’s nothing compared to violence, which we all oppose.

Yonatan Mizrachi is an archaeologist active in “Emek Shaveh,” an organization specializing in the role of archaeology within the Palestinian-Israeli political conflict.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      Emek Shaveh thanks the following for their generous support:
      - Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation (www.euromedalex.org)
      - HEKS (www.heks.ch)
      - The Beracha Foundation (berachafoundation.com)
      - Cordaid (www.cordaid.nl)
      - The Royal Norwegian Embassy Tel-Aviv
      - British Shalom-Salaam Trust (www.bsst.org.uk)

      In other words, another article brought to you by the European funding of the Israeli extreme left. Thanks Europe for being so friendly! One wonders how Europeans would react if Israel financially supported the entire extreme left or extreme right.

      I am not even going to bother responding to the meat of the article because it is basically a cut-out article where archeologists can be replaced by physicians, dentists, teachers, librarians, feminists, or any other group that decides to apply for European funding in return to jumping through hoops to denounce their own history, people, religion or government.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        Who funds the JNF? I know I did back when I was a naive 13 year old American Jew.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          The Norwegians?

          Reply to Comment
          • No, the Americans.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            You mean American Jews?

            Reply to Comment
          • Haifawi

            No. American Jewish Organizations (i.e. foreign NGOs, AIPAC, WZO, ZionistsRUs)
            Kind of like the orgs you posted up there.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            So you do mean American Jews? The Norwegian embassy’s interest in Israel is kind of like the interests of American Jewish organizations? On what planet does a foreign government even remotely have the best interests of the a foreign country at heart? On what planet does a Catholic charity have the best interests of the state of Israel in mind? On what planet do the Swiss Protestants have the best interests of Israel in mind?

            No, seriously, I get what you are trying to do here, but it is entirely nonsensical. We have a collection of foreign organizations and governments (the difference between the two is somewhat shady here) interfering directly in the society and politics of another ‘friendly’ country. And not marginally. These organizations are the only reason why the entire extreme left in Israel survives and operates. If you see an Israeli speaking in the name of an extreme left organization odds are ten to one that he is getting paid by money collected from European governments and organizations.

            Are they doing it in the interests of the country? That is debatable, but they are most certainly doing it because they see their own interests in pushing Israeli society and politics into a certain direction which has minimal actual organic support in what is already a free society. This is like Israel creating and sponsoring two dozen organizations in Europe for the purposes of promoting a marginal and extreme point of view. How long would it take before it would be banned if it could actually take place in the first place?

            Reply to Comment
          • Haifawi

            American Jewish organizations have a greater “right” to have interest in Israel than a Catholic charity?
            Oh right, you’re one of those “American Jews are just ‘pre-nationals’ of Israel,” just like how fetuses are ‘pre-born’ babies.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            What possible justification is there for allowing the entire extreme left movement in a country be sponsored by foreign governments and charities that can not possibly have the best interests of the country at heart? This is an extreme left movement that spares no expense at trying to present the country in a negative light internationally and they are getting paid for DOING PRECISELY THAT. In other words, the Europeans are paying for Israelis to act internationally against their own country. And there was some joker here telling me that Israel is a bad friend to Europe.

            Are you seriously comparing that to the work that American Jewish organizations do in Israel? You might not be here, but if you were and did even a lick of research at your surroundings you would understand that American Jewish organizations have been sponsoring the construction of the infrastructure of this state since 1948. And you are comparing it with these sickening European organizations that are scouting for the most self-hating Israelis in order to use them in international forums against the interests of their own country?

            Reply to Comment
      • carl

        Great article, thank you.

        Reply to Comment
      • rose

        So Kolumn, we should be grateful to these European companies that shed a bit of light on your dark world.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Rose, with your politics I would be surprised if you weren’t grateful to the suicide bombers for killing 7 year old female Zionists.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      So the exhibition should have been held in Ramallah?

      Who would assume the cost to hold the exhibit there, and more important, who would go to Ramallah to view it?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Excellent and penetrating analysis by Emek Shaveh’s expert on archaeology revealing the use of archaeology and architecture to reinforce the occupation. After 1967, the entire Old City of Jerusalem was declared a site of Antiquity, and all the archives and collections of the Rockefeller Museum (including the Dead Sea Scrolls), and other institutions particularly of Jewish and Israelite relevance, were declared to be the state’s ‘national and cultural’ property, contravening UNESCO’s Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954). This ‘ownership’ is still emphasised today by Israel’s ‘new’ PM Netanyahu who has declared: “United Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours”. The use of Herodium’s artifacts to mount an exhibition, without reference to its true owners, the Palestinians of the West Bank, is also an illegal act, contravening the UNESCO Convention. This should be highlighted by the academic world.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        You see, the problem is that Arabs can’t really be trusted to handle Jewish antiques.

        http://bit.ly/13VnarW

        Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            I’m kind of shocked that a fox news article wasn’t completely fear mongering and racist.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            One outdated article won’t change a fact that Arabs are by and large denying any connection that Jews might be having to Eretz Israel and are notorious for destroying Jewish antiques.

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Arabs revere Abraham, not so Jewish Kings.

            Reply to Comment
    4. The Israeli State has, in its post 2000 actions, assumed an implicit stance that the Bank will belong to Israel, perhaps with some rump being allowed as Palestinian resident enclave. This stance will tend to generalize–as to archaeology. One State is an incremental outcome. As some gain under this advance, so too others will ask for their gain, again driving One State as outcome. Archaeology professionals are overall no different than anyone else in this. As the PA atrophies, there is even less reason to prevent such incremental advance. Who else can now perform archaeology save Israeli professionals, perhaps teamed with others? A practical solution becomes incremental One State.

      Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      Mizrachi’s plea for
      ” activities (that) can promote shared heritage and dialogue between cultures.”
      is a bad joke. The Palestinians deny ANY Jewish historical connection with the country. We all recall how the Muslim Waqf dug out tons of dirt containing priceless remnants of the two Jewish Batei Mikdash (Holy Temples which they deny ever existed) and threw it in the garbage dump. A couple of years ago I visited Sebastiya, which is the site of the ancient biblical capital of the Northern (Israelite) Kingdom called Shomron, and numerous signs posted there, paid for by the Norweigian gov’t said “Sebastiya is an important archaeological site from the Greek and Roman periods”. NO MENTION OF THE MORE IMPORTANT BIBLICAL REMAINS (which, of course, the Palestinians deny ever existed-note how the Norweigians even deny their own Christian biblical heritage in order to grovel to Palestinian “political correctness”). Who is Mizrachi kidding about “cooperation”?

      Reply to Comment
      • Oriol2

        Such manipulations are usual in political conflicts. I felt baffled in Bethlehem when the Palestinian guide told us about Christian New Testament being written originally in Greek (correct) and the Ancient Testament in Aramaic (without any mention of Hebrew).
        But are Israelis much better? I still remember when I saw a map of the Holocaust in Yad Vashem where the British Mandate of Palestine received the name “Eretz Israel”. Actually there is an easily noticeable effort in Israel to deny the Arabic past of the land that European Jews colonized and ethnically cleansed.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Oriol, the British Mandate of Palestine officially had the Hebrew name of Eretz Israel. If you look at the currency or any other official documents you will this: (פָּלֶשְׂתִּינָה (א”י – Palestine (EY) – Palestine (Eretz Yisrael). So… Your shock is really just a result of lack of knowledge.

          There is a manipulation on both sides to focus attention on their own narrative. There is no rejection of the Arab past here by the Israeli side. There is an explicit rejection of the Jewish past here by many if not most on the Arab side. There is no equivalence possible here.

          Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            At the Camp David negotiations in 2000 between Barak and Arafat, Barak offered to hand over control of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, to Arafat, on condition that he sign a clause saying that the Jews also view it as a holy site. Arafat adamantly refused, even after being harangued to do so by Clinton for something like an hour.
            Reliigous Jews have no problem acknowledging that Muslims also view it as a holy site, but the Arabs can not even bring themselves to admit that the Jewish people exist and have any sort of connection with the country. As K9 says, there is now equivalence, no matter what nonsense Mizrachi is saying.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            I meant to say “NO equivalence”. Sorry.

            Reply to Comment
          • Oriol2

            Joel, Kolumn9, I have checked it and you are right. I thank you for your clarifications.

            Reply to Comment
      • Gearoid

        Why exactly are the Iron Age remains “More important”? (I reject the term Biblical. The Bible is not a historical document)

        That is a judgement call you have made, and ironically you want to do exactly the same sort of politicizing that you accuse them of.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          First of all, if by “politicization” you mean a particular people emphasizing certain archaeological finds over others, I have no problem with that, but that is not the same as DENYING other people’s connections to the country entirely.

          Regarding my statement that the Biblical importance of Shomron outweighs the Greco-Roman presence at Shomron, by this I mean that (1) the Biblical remains are older, (2) Greco-Roman remains are plentiful throughout the Middle East so in that there is nothing particularly special about Sebastiya (the Greco-Roman name for the location), and (3) Biblical history is particularly important as one of the main sources of Western Civilization of which I thought Norway considered itself part of. If the Arabs had written the sign, it wouldn’t have surprised me, but I am appalled that the Norweigians, who supplied the signs went along with the outrageous denial of history.

          Reply to Comment
          • Haifawi

            Maybe if “something having Jewish significance” didn’t mean “ok, now it belongs to Israel” then we could cooperate more.
            Case in point, Hebron.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            What do you think was the whole basis and ultimate justification for the whole Zionist movement, the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition Resolution 181?

            Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          The Bible is most certainly a historical document. Even archaeological minimalists accept it as being historical from the First Temple period, even if they deny its historicity before that, but there are reputable archaeologists and historians who accept it as being historical much further back.

          Reply to Comment
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