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Story Publication logo August 5, 2013

The Fight for Jerusalem’s Past, and Future


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Jerusalem, the meeting point of three major religions, is always set aside as the final item to be...

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The Mount of Olives, Silwan Kfar Ha-shilo-akh, Jerusalem, West Bank. Image by Ben Adam via flickr Creative Commons. Israel, 2008.

This week, with subdued, if earnest, cheer, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the restart of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in Washington. The reaction was about as cynical as coverage of Liz Taylor's seventh wedding—we've been invited to this affair before.

There are valid reasons for that attitude. The question of dividing or even sharing Jerusalem was one of the tripwires that took down peace negotiations in the past. It has never been resolved, and is now more complicated than ever. The history of the city—and its holiness—has always been the sticking point, but in recent years that history has evolved. Parcels of Jerusalem slated for return to Palestinians have become essential to the historical mythology of the city. Archeology is another weapon in the fight over territory.

That phenomenon is seen most clearly in East Jerusalem's contested neighborhood of Silwan and a slightly smaller section of it known as Ir David, or City of David, which sits in the shadow of the Old City, across the road from the Dung Gate, the entrance to the Old City closest to the Temple Mount. This was the Biblical core of Jerusalem, a Canaanite town later ruled by Judean kings. But the modern neighbors, above ground, are Palestinian. "Silwan is where Jerusalem was established," says Yonathan Mizrachi, an archeologist with an organization called Emek Shaveh that protests the politicization of archeology. "What is Jerusalem without the beginning of Jerusalem?" That's true enough, but in the intervening thousands of years the area has seen settlement by a half-dozen other peoples as well. And though Israelis point to a small group of Yemenite Jews who settled there at the end of the nineteenth century—and were protected by their Arab neighbors during riots in 1929—Silwan remained on the Jordanian side of the Green Line that divided Jerusalem in 1949.

That border meant Silwan was to be returned to the Palestinians under the peace plan negotiated by Bill Clinton at the end of his Presidency. The problem is that below and abutting the Palestinian residences is a massive archeological dig, also called the City of David. The site is topped by a shaded tourism center that greets some four hundred thousand annual visitors, who fantasize that David looked over and picked out Bathsheba from where they are now standing; small plaques indicate that Jews have walked there for three thousand years. Among the visitors are thousands of Israeli soldiers, who go to the area as part of their mandatory culture tours.

From 2005 to 2013, the Israeli government allocated more than six hundred and thirty million shekels (about a hundred and seventy-two million dollars) to tourism and archeological development in the historic basin—some of which is occurring in areas that, under the Clinton parameters, would not remain Israeli. Emek Shaveh's archeologists argue that the effect is to reinforce the connection between Silwan and the Old City, and to "fortify the Israeli hold on the Old City itself."

"Archeology is disconnecting Silwan from the rest of Jerusalem," Mizrachi explains. "Walking from one archeological area to another, it can be above or below ground, but you don't feel you are in Silwan"—the modern, Palestinian village—"you feel you are in the actual city of David." The erasing of the modern village makes its inhabitants seem less important, he says—less visible, less of a problem.

The archeological site has actually existed, in stages, since the nineteenth century. But in the past ten years, the thrust and emphasis has shifted. The visitor center opened and the number of tours increased dramatically. Though there is no hard evidence of David's presence, the context today fully assumes him. "The remains of King David's palace?" asks one plaque that stands next to the ruins of a large stone structure, with a quote from the book of Samuel about the building of David's house from cedar. The plaque indicates the stone building dates to the tenth century B.C., during David's reign, but also tells visitors, "Secrets remain hidden in the ground"—which could either mean we have yet to discover David's mark on the building, or that we never will.

Mizrachi's rhetorical question—what is Jerusalem without the beginning of Jerusalem—is what has fuelled the transformation of the City of David. The dig site, open to tourists, strips away whole layers of history, drawing a neat line from the first Jewish conquest of Jerusalem to the present, eliding all those who came in between as well as those who live there now. In front of the City of David tourist center, in a former parking lot, is another massive dig, also slated for a similarly themed tourist site, also, technically, over the Green Line, and also pulling visitors to see most clearly the farthest point in the past rather than the stops along the way or the complications of the present.

Today, archeologists at the City of David work under the auspices of Elad, a right-wing nonprofit group linked to settlers (the name is a Hebrew acronym for To the City of David), even though the area is a government-owned national park. Two years ago, a left-wing organization called Ir Amim sued in Israel's High Court, challenging Elad's control over the area. That petition failed in 2012.

"The urge to find Kings David and Solomon has obscured our vision," Mizrachi told me, as we stood listening to the Biblical-sounding lute music that is piped into the City of David dig site. "The narrative is very powerful. It is emotional to the Israelis. King David and the Biblical Jerusalem is the story; it doesn't really matter what they see." But there are, he points out, many other parts of the area's history: "the Persians, the Hellenistic period, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Muslims—and this is Jerusalem … but many Israelis are not able to handle this diversity of Jerusalem. We want Jerusalem to be ours."

Activists point out that Elad has also encouraged Jews to set up house in East Jerusalem—the over-all effect being a claim on both the past and the present of a piece of land that wasn't slated to be Israeli at all. It is something Kerry and his team will stumble on as they try to draw lines through the contentious town: the three-thousand-year-long view.


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