Museum of Tolerance Special Report Part II: Secrets From the Grave

Round-the-clock work, long shifts and unprecedented security characterized the five-month excavation of the cemetery on the museum site, where sources say more than 1,000 skeletons were unearthed.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The earthworks

The first one to excavate the site and come upon human remains was archaeologist Gideon Sulimani. Sulimani, a senior archaeologist with the Antiquities Authority, would come to play a key role in the affair. In December 2005 he began a rescue excavation financed, as mandated by Israeli law, by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, intended to remove antiquities, or in this case, human bones, before the area was cleared for construction.

Diggers uncovering skeletons in Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance dig.
Aftermath of an excavation: one of many boxes of bones, a skull and a grave in which several bodies were buried. Now all that is left is a large lot with a huge open pit.
 Aftermath of an excavation: one of many boxes of bones, a skull and a grave in which several bodies were buried. Now all that is left is a large lot with a huge open pit.
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Diggers uncovering skeletons in Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance dig.Credit: TED
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Aftermath of an excavation: one of many boxes of bones, a skull and a grave in which several bodies were buried. Now all that is left is a large lot with a huge open pit. Credit: TED
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Aftermath of an excavation: one of many boxes of bones, a skull and a grave in which several bodies were buried. Now all that is left is a large lot with a huge open pit.Credit: TED
Museum of Tolerance Special Report

The act of excavation thrills Sulimani, from a scientific point of view. A serious excavation, says Sulimani, could open a window into the lives of Jerusalems Muslim residents over the past millennium. In this case, however, he says that there was pressure on him to hurry up and remove the graves without adhering carefully to professional standards.
They constantly wanted to lengthen the work days and I was always fighting to shorten them. They told me: Switch teams, work in shifts. But I cant bring someone into someone elses excavation. Thats something that is not done, he says.

The pressures Sulimani faced during the excavation were also typical, apparently, of the next part of the works. After the High Court ultimately rejected the Islamic Movements petition, in October 2008, and thus permitted work at the site to continue, the digging was resumed with greater urgency. Testimony obtained by Haaretz indicates that the guiding principle of the work was not a careful and scientific archaeological excavation, one that was respectful of the remains found at the site, but rather an excavation that proceeded as quickly as possible so as to leave the whole skeleton affair behind, so that full attention could be turned to building the Museum of Tolerance.

We were like a small army, made up of workers, and area managers above them, and the archaeologists above them, is how one worker summed up what life was like for him and his co-workers at the time. From 40 to 70 workers per shift. You have to arrive 15 minutes before your shift and wait by the gate. The guy in charge comes with a list of names and lets people in one by one. You have to show ID at the entrance. Then they take your phone and you have to wait at the side until the previous shift collects its things .... The skeletons themselves were disintegrating, whatever comes out comes out, if you can put it in a box you do, and if its crumbling you leave it.

Unlike the vast majority of archaeological excavations in Israel, in this excavation the work was carried out around the clock, in three eight-hour shifts. The workers were recruited by word of mouth, and the attractive wages that were being offered drew in numerous willing laborers. Pay ranged from NIS 35 to 40 per hour, and was even higher during the night shift. The standard wage in archaeological excavations is about NIS 25 per hour. The cost of the excavations is not known, but figures provided by the Moriah company and published on the companys Web site indicate that Sulimanis initial excavation, which was of shorter duration and less intensive, cost NIS 3.5 million. The excavation last year presumably cost more than that.

Also present at the site were supervising archaeologists from the Antiquities Authority, contractors, and the senior archaeologist in the field, Dr. Alon Shavit, who was also the owner of a private company that employed the laborers on the site.

According to testimony obtained by Haaretz, Shavit and those in charge at the work site urged the excavators to speed up the work as much as possible.

In the first weeks, the work was done with great meticulousness: Each skeleton that was unearthed was carefully cleaned, documented with photographs and a sketch, and then excavated as gingerly as possible and transferred to cardboard boxes for eventual reburial elsewhere on the site. But the workers attest that as time went on, and more and more graves and bones were uncovered, the pressure from management increased and the work became steadily sloppier. After a month and a half to two months, the priority was speed, said A., one of the workers. Moving the skeletons as fast as possible in order to reach the bedrock the rock beneath which there are no more graves they were always telling us to move it, move it. So we didnt have time to do a sketch thats okay; soon its going to rain, soon the tractors will be coming, we have to hurry.

N., another worker, said: [We were expected to] work quickly, those were the managers orders. Twenty-four hours. Three shifts of eight hours. From 7 A.M. to 3 P.M., 3 P.M. to 11 P.M., and 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. It wasnt archaeology, it was contract work. At first they would draw and photograph everything, but by the end it was just, quickly take out the skeletons and put them in boxes. The poles of the tent where we doing the excavating fell down, it was full of mud. They would pressure us: You have 15 minutes to take the skeleton out, they wanted us to work as fast as possible.

The workers say that some of the skeletons were damaged as a result of the work. The new breaks are identifiable by a light-colored fracture line, as opposed to the old breaks, which are darker. In pictures obtained by Haaretz, it is possible to see skulls and bones that have new fractures in them. It should be noted that the workers themselves say that sometimes the skeletons were in terrible condition and crumbled upon being touched, but frequently the skeletons were damaged as a result of work with unsuitable tools.

A. added that according to the procedure the skeletons were put in cardboard boxes, and sometimes, several skeletons were removed at once, and if they couldnt take each one out separately, they were put into the same box all together. Bones that fell were put into scattered boxes. The boxes full of bones were then transferred to a container situated at the edge of the field.

Added N.: People walked on them [the skeletons]. I talked about it with the workers, but they said to me, Did they already pay you? I didnt feel good about it, but I told myself better it was me and not someone else.

It must be remembered that some of the skeletons at the site were hundreds of years old, and most were in a process of decay before the excavation workers ever got to them. The workers say the trickiest part was removal of the skulls, which, said one, would disintegrate at the slightest touch.

On the other hand, it seems, no special efforts were made to minimize the damage to the graves, as the projects heads had proposed doing in response to the High Court ruling. In two out of the three methods the developers had suggested, the skeletons were to be moved to an alternative burial site while still encased in the the earth surrounding them.

Most of the work was done in the winter months under difficult weather conditions. Despite the use of hothouses large tent-like structures under whose cover the excavation work was carried out, the workers describe difficult conditions: It was freezing cold, there was rain, tons of hail. Every once in a while they stopped the work to bring in water pumps, says A. Overseeing the workers doing the excavating there were shift managers, or area managers, on site. These were mostly bachelors or masters degree students in history or similar departments, and it wasnt what they thought they were going to be doing. They expressed a lot of resentment, but not to the people in charge. There were people who left. Those who stayed did it for the money, said A. The fact that, unlike most archaeological excavations in Israel, no Palestinian workers took part in this excavation, can be seen as an indication of the sensitivity of the project.

At the time of Sulimanis first excavation season, in 2005, Haaretz published workers accounts of the nature of the work. This time, the developers had clearly decided that this wouldnt happen again: Security procedures at the site were unprecedented for either an archaeological excavation or civilian construction site.

According to testimony obtained by Haaretz, two or three guards were always posted at the entrance to the site. It was like a checkpoint, not just a doorway, said N. On arrival, workers had to hand over their cell phones to the security personnel. They were also searched, upon both entering and departing.

They would take anything that looked like an electronic device, even a music player, added A. During the shift, the excavation workers were not allowed to leave the site, not even to buy food. The archaeologists were permitted to leave and they would buy for us. The security cameras at the site pointed not only outward, but also inward, in order to keep an eye on the workers. In one corner of the site was a security trailer where an operations sergeant watched the camera images on screen.

The message to the workers was clear: It was like being in the army. You need to keep quiet, said N. To drive home this message, the workers were also asked to sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting them from talking to anyone about what they saw on the job.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center supplied the explanation for the security measures, by citing the threats that had been made to cause harm to the site and the workers. In tandem with the security measures, the workers say there was an effort to boost morale. They were always telling us that we were doing important work, says A.

Sulimani and other archaeologists are highly critical of the work methods at the Museum of Tolerance site. One thing that seriously disturbs them is the fact that work was carried out in shifts, and continued through the night. Shift work does not allow for a processing of the material. You cant bring someone else into an excavation. Its something thats not done. They call this an archaeological excavation but its really a clearing-out, an erasure of the Muslim past. It is actually Jews against Arabs, says Sulimani, who himself is Jewish.

This method of working in shifts is something that came from the world of industry, and is not suitable for an archaeological excavation, adds Rafi Greenberg, an archaeology lecturer from Tel Aviv University, who submitted an expert opinion to the High Court critical of the Antiquities Authoritys conduct in the affair. Basically, in Israel today, because bones are not defined as antiquities, there is no way of ordering the excavation of a cemetery in a thoroughly scientific fashion. In another country, they would devote years to such an excavation, and also build a special lab to analyze the results. Theres a circle here that cant be squared. Its impossible to scientifically excavate a cemetery that holds thousands of skeletons. You have to make compromises. If you give up on preserving the bones, then what you get are dust and skeleton fragments.

A senior archaeologist who also visited the excavation had the following to say about the way it was being run: Its very unusual. They wanted to finish the whole story as fast as possible. Its a known method. They wanted to create a done deed, after which people could yell all they wanted to, but there wouldnt be any graves left anymore.

The rain and mud, say the archaeologists, also did not make for a serious scientific excavation that would lead to the skeletons being removed delicately and intact. Nor did the secrecy surrounding the excavation add to its professionalism, they say.

Archaeology that is done behind walls cannot be scientific, asserts Sulimani, adding: You have to forget about the romance of the profession. Archaeology is land and land is real estate and real estate is worth a lot of money.

The Israel Antiquities Authority would not say how many skeletons have been removed from the Museum of Tolerance site, and passed the query to Alon Shavit, who did not respond to the question. The Wiesenthal Center responded to questions from Haaretz on that issue by saying that the developers did not and could not interfere with the excavation rescue works, and that the archaeological project was licensed to Tel Aviv University, and the work on the site was conducted by Dr. Alon Shavit.

Among the workers and the archaeologists, the numbers vary. But all those interviewed by Haaretz agree that no fewer than 1,000 skeletons were excavated at the site. One worker, who was familiar with the numbers as part of his job, puts the figure at more than 1,500. The only serious scientific examination done at the site, by Sulimani, indicated there were 1,000 skeletons, a number that concurs with the workers accounts.

The skeletons that were removed were transferred for reburial in a common grave inside the fence of the work site, in a long and narrow strip along the sites eastern boundary, which falls in the area of of the Muslim cemetery. Therefore, the museum will not be built on the reburial site of the skeletons.

The toughest questions have to do with the propriety of the excavation management. Essentially, on the basis of the affidavit of the Antiquities Authority and the High Court ruling, in most of the museum area the developers were permitted to go ahead with the work even without a need for archaeologists.

They could have come with bulldozers and cleared the area, says Sulimani. The ruling required archaeological supervision only in one part of the site, the so-called purple area. In this area the developers were also obliged to exercise utmost caution in regard to the skeletons. In actual fact, say the workers, there was no difference between the purple area and the other areas of the site. Despite the declarations to the High Court, skeletons were excavated from different areas with a level of care that was dependent on time pressure and the excavators level of professionalism.

Shavit served in a dual capacity. He carried out actual archaeological work as director-general of the Israel Institute of Archaeology, an organization affiliated with Tel Aviv University that received the excavation license from the Antiquities Authority. On the part of the site where an excavation license was not needed, he was a private contractor who was hired by the Wiesenthal Center to remove the skeletons. He was also the expert who recommended to the High Court that the skeletons be excavated by hand.

Diggers uncovering skeletons in Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance dig.Credit: TED



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