The Biblical blueprint is being dragged up around our feet, seeking to use what is under the ground as evidence of divine right and the political and territorial sovereignty it supposedly affords us.
The past makes for prime real estate when you’re developing a national mythology. It’s also a fine way to exert control over an area, both under — and overground. Just ask the residents of Silwan, East Jerusalem, whose homes have variously been placed under demolition orders, dug under, or had access restricted in the name of archaeological exploration.
The use of archaeology as a political tool is in Israel is not new, despite its recent sharp descent into an explicit weapon of occupation. In the 1950s and ’60s, as immigrants arrived in Israel from across the globe, the exploration of the physical connection of Jews to the land contributed to a unifying mythology that sought to provide each new arrival with a profound sense of belonging, no matter their country of origin.
This is also not a tactic unique to Israel: nation-building around the world has often resorted to archaeology as a means of emphasizing the legitimacy of that people’s presence in that place, no matter how new or thrown-together they appear to be. Just as in the wake of the unification of Italy the politician Massimo D’Azeglio stated, “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians.” So too was the creation of Israelis a crucial pursuit in the early decades of the state.
Yet this is not, of course, the full story. As anthropologist Nadia El-Haj has stated, the romantic ‘coming home’ message behind digging for Jewish roots in Israel serves to utterly “sideline a constitutive piece of the Zionist project: that is, it effaces the colonial question and, with it, the conflict over territory that Jewish settlement entailed.” The archaeological findings presented as evidence of Jewish settlement here millennia ago are deployed as the ultimate unreturnable serve — “we were here before you,” so the argument goes, with the implied follow-up of “and by proving it, we’ll be here after you too.”
To this end, the abuse of archaeology here has produced moments of structural violence for Palestinians that are ordinarily associated with security imperatives — the aforementioned demolitions and restrictions on freedom of movement, takeovers of areas declared as ‘archaeological zones’ (as opposed to the more frequently-encountered firing zones), increased surveillance. Yet the perpetuation of these abuses in the name of archaeology has a far more insidious nature than their deployment in security, as they are conducted under the supposedly benign auspices of historical exploration. The connection to academic and cultural interests immediately deflects wider questions about the need for these disruptions and the depth of their harm to the local population. In this regard, archaeology is the new security.
The key player in this situation — aside from the government — is the settler group Elad, also behind such activities as taking over Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, and hiring ‘caretakers’ (job requirements: gun ownership) to ‘look after’ empty Palestinian homes earmarked for settlers. The connections between Elad — an organization with a clearly-stated objective of “Judaizing” East Jerusalem — and the government are well-known; specifically, the cooperation of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) with the group has led to the increasing relinquishment of archaeology as an academic pursuit to the organization’s ideological goals. The modus operandi of Elad perfectly encompasses the modern outcomes of archaeology in Israel.
The establishment of the City of David national park and visitors’ center in Silwan is a salient example: the attractive entrance, dulcet music, portentous signs pointing out the area’s Biblical heritage, and the always-reassuring presence of a well-appointed gift shop have an anaesthetizing effect on visitors, and put up a highly-effective smokescreen in front of the reality of the Palestinian connection to (and presence in) the area.
Furthermore, the running of an appealing tourist destination squarely in the middle of occupied territory has the additional effect of normalizing the occupation and whitewashing its impact on Palestinians.The majority of visitors to the City of David park have no idea that the ground they are walking on is contested, that the area they are in is not recognized under international law as belonging to Israel, or that the money they spend on a coffee at the park’s cafe will be funneled straight back into the already overflowing coffers of a racist, and at times violent, right-wing organization. Few, too, will know that a local Palestinian community center featuring a playground and cafe was demolished to make way for the City of David visitors’ center.
The importance and success of the City of David park (from the perspective of its founders and supporters) is indicative of the fact that the resurgence in archaeology’s popularity in Israel has gone hand-in-hand with the rise and increasing political power of religious Zionism. That the gap between the worldview of groups such as Elad and the government is continuously shrinking is as dangerous in its impact on archaeology as it is in all areas that religious Zionism has muscled in on — the Biblical blueprint is being dragged up around our feet, seeking to use what is under the ground as evidence of divine right and the political and territorial sovereignty it supposedly affords us.
Those who are not in step with the settler agenda would do well to remember George Orwell’s assessment in ‘1984’ that “[w]ho controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” As the ground in Israel-Palestine is dug up in the name of God and government, and as history is subjugated to the apparatus of power, there is precious little left standing in the way of control.