Great Excavations: Israel's Antiquities Authority Head Won't Cave in Just Yet

Yehoshua Dorfman is certain that the fact that everyone criticizes him is a sign he is doing his job well.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

During the excavations for the construction of an underground parking lot for a new residential project in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, an ancient quarry was revealed. In the middle was a massive, five-meter-long pillar that had apparently been hewed in the Byzantine period - that is, some 1,500 years ago. For some reason, the pillar was left at the site, still attached to the rock from which it was cut, perhaps because of cracks that had been discovered in the pillar during the hewing, and the subsequent fear that it would break when being transported. It is thought that it was intended for one of the large churches that were being built in Jerusalem at the time.

The excavation work was immediately halted so that a decision could be made as to what to do with the giant stone object. It was not long before Yehoshua "Shuka" Dorfman, director general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, appeared on the scene, to make the call. The law grants Dorfman extensive authority in all matters where a choice must be made between developing a given property or preserving a site with antiquities. In any case, the cost must always be shouldered by the real estate developers.

Thus, this visit by Dorfman turned into a bargaining session: The entrepreneurs' representatives sought to minimize the importance of this archaeological find, and to persuade the IAA head to agree to the cheapest and fastest way of removing the pillar from the site. Cutting it into sections would significantly reduce costs, as compared with removing the pillar intact.

"We're not talking about the Temple, so why is that pillar so important?" asked one of the property's developers. His partner pointed out how difficult it would be to bring a crane into the narrow street, and urged sawing the pillar so it could be transported easily.

Dorfman's response was terse: "Your problems are not my concern. We will remove the pillar intact."

"But that will cost hundreds of thousands of shekels," protested one of the entrepreneurs. "The work has already been held up for nine weeks because of this pillar."

"Your problems are not my concern," reiterated Dorfman, but added, "We will see to it that your expenses are kept to a minimum."

For the past 12 years, Dorfman has served as the IAA's director general. Probably, the decision about the ancient column was one of the less important ones he made that week - perhaps even that day.

The IAA was created by Dorfman's predecessor, Amir Drori; prior to 1990, the authority was called the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums and was part of the Ministry of Education. Under Dorfman, the IAA has become a powerful agency with many noteworthy achievements to its credit, and its workers excavate in hundreds of sites annually. Because it is active in so many different places, the IAA and its director general have become embroiled in a number of political disagreements and in confrontations with extremist ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Dorfman, 61, has gained many enemies, but doesn't seem fazed. The former chief artillery officer of the Israel Defense Forces responds to the various sources of "ground fire": "When the leftists think you are a rightist and when the rightists think you are a leftist, when the Haredi Jews think that you are not even Jewish, and when everyone attacks you - then you know that you're doing a good job," he says with a smile.

In 2000, Dorfman was discharged from the IDF with the rank of brigadier general. He can be credited with the integration of advanced weapons systems, such as the multiple launch rocket system, into the Artillery Corps.

He is sparing with his words, especially when asked about his childhood: "My parents belonged to the most difficult category of Holocaust survivors you could imagine. Generally speaking, I feel as if I myself were a Holocaust survivor, although I am a second-generation survivor."

He relates that, when he reached his 40th birthday, he went to the archives of the hospital where he was born in order to verify that he was not a Yemenite child who had been kidnapped and placed with an Ashkenazi family. "There were so many secrets and lies," he says, and immediately asks that we return to the subject of the IAA.

Dorfman's conversation with Haaretz, the first he has agreed to, takes place on occasion of the granting of the "Guardian of Zion" award to the IAA and its head. The prize is given annually by Bar-Ilan University's Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies to persons and institutions that are considered to have made a significant contribution to Jerusalem's development. The text of the decision of the award committee reads: "The excavations being carried out in Jerusalem today are among the most extensive since the beginning of archaeological research in that city more than 150 years ago ... Special mention should be made of the extensive excavations around the Temple Mount's southwestern corner as well as in the City of David, the Western Wall plaza and the Western Wall tunnels."

These same excavations have also placed the IAA in the center of ongoing political controversy. The left-wing camp's chief argument against the activities of Dorfman and the IAA is that the antiquities authority is eagerly collaborating with the Elad organization (the Hebrew acronym stands for "El Ir David," literally "to the City of David" ), which manages the City of David national park and funds the excavations there and in the surrounding area. In this way, claim opponents to that relationship, the IAA is enabling Elad to "Judaize" both the predominantly Arab village of Silwan, where the park is situated, and Jerusalem's historical narrative.

"I didn't invent the system," says Dorfman. "Elad manages the national park in the wake of a political decision made by the Israeli government. At the IAA we don't deal with politics. Our work is purely professional. I have said to our opponents, 'Evaluate us, but use only professional tools in doing so.' When they couldn't come up with a professional argument against us, the critics have turned our professional work into a political issue.

"In point of fact," he continues, "no one in Elad has ever interfered with any of the IAA's decisions; nor has anyone in that organization ever turned to us with a request for jobs or asked us to include non-professional considerations in our decision-making. No one in Elad has ever come up to me and said, 'Look, I am providing the money and therefore I want you to do this or that.' Quite the contrary: Every time we have asked to undertake more extensive excavations, they have seen to the funding. I am happy that we are digging and that there is something to dig for. We never move any finds from any given period without consultations and without showing sufficient respect for every period, whether in the City of David, in the Western Wall plaza or in Tiberias. Furthermore, we conduct digs related to other cultural heritages and not just those related to the Jewish cultural heritage."

For his part, Dorfman is critical of left-wing organizations that are, in his view, aggravating the situation in Silwan: "From the moment they appeared on the scene, they only hurt the local residents. The workers who used to be employed in our excavations have stopped showing up for work. They have no gainful income and they are frustrated."

Roman road

Dorfman is the first head of the IAA (including its previous phase as a department in the Education Ministry ) who is not an archaeologist. The decision to appoint him, in light of the achievements he attained during his military career, aroused, he claims, considerable dissatisfaction in the academic archaeological community in Israel. In recent years, his conflict with that community has principally revolved around the policy of property development atop archaeological sites. The controversy became particularly vociferous over the excavation on the Western margins of the Western Wall plaza, where one of the IAA's researchers, Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah, discovered an impressive Roman road, a find that is of major importance for scholars interested in Jerusalem's development during the Roman period.

Above this excavation, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which was established by the government in 1988 and is involved in the physical maintenance of the Western Wall area, wants to build a visitors' center, offices and service facilities for visitors to the Western Wall. Not only did Dorfman register no objections to the plan, he actively supports it - which is what has aroused the ire of a number of archaeologists who argue that an important historical site should not be "buried" under facilities for visitors.

Dorfman's chief critic on this matter is Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor emeritus of archaeology Yoram Tsafrir, one of the country's most respected scholars in the field. In a conversation with Haaretz a couple of years ago, Tsafrir called on the IAA "not to forget its principal function, which is to preserve the country's cultural assets, not just to dig them up. This place does not belong to the IAA nor does it belong to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation or even to the residents of Jerusalem. It belongs to the entire cultural world, both in this generation and in generations to come."

Dorfman has declared that it is in the best interests of the archaeological site to have a building constructed above it and to have the antiquities found there preserved on its lower floor.

"I insisted that use be made of the antiquities," he says. "That people should walk above them. You can't leave a gaping pit in the middle of the Western Wall plaza. An open archaeological site cannot be kept clean and orderly, and it is impossible to protect it from damage. People can repeat the mantra that everything should be kept as is, but that would mean that we would all have to close up shop and go home. We must act with proportionality."

As an expression of his determination to maintain a balance between real estate development and preservation of archaeological sites, Dorfman reminds me of his struggle, which was only partially successful, to prevent the entry of vehicles into the walled Old City of Jerusalem.

Twenty meters from the excavated Roman road is the Mughrabi Bridge which, for the past seven years, has been the center of a protracted dispute between Israel, the Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. In this complex controversy, Dorfman has been a key figure. The old bridge that used to allow visitors to ascend from the Western Wall plaza to the Temple Mount, via Mughrabi Gate, rested on an ancient embankment that threatened to collapse in the winter of 2004. The government drew up plans for the construction of a new bridge; in the meantime, the old one was dismantled and a temporary wooden bridge, called the Mughrabi Bridge, was constructed in its stead.

Dorfman and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are now promoting the idea of a new bridge to be built on this location. However, the past three prime ministers have been unwilling to take such a dramatic step, for fear of both a violent Palestinian reaction and an undermining of the relationship with Jordan. Instead, it was decided that the temporary wooden bridge would be renovated and thereby reinforced.

Although he is highly critical of the government's performance in this matter, Dorfman chooses his words carefully: "This is no way to handle such an issue. What do we have here? A Bailey bridge [a temporary, prefab structure]. It's a mistake that people are making serious efforts to maintain, and that is something that will be regretted by future generations. A sovereign state is not supposed to behave in such a manner. To make matters worse, this is not how the holiest site in the Jewish world should look."

At the upper end of the bridge is another diplomatic land mine - the biggest - with which the IAA must deal: the Temple Mount which, although probably the most important archaeological site in Israel, cannot be constantly monitored by the IAA. The trauma authority workers suffered is related to the work that the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust, carried out in November 1999 in the so-called Solomon's Stables in the southern part of the Mount: What the Waqf did was simply to excavate hundreds of tons of earth without any archaeological supervision.

Since that time, argues Dorfman, the situation on the Temple Mount has improved, although the monitoring and enforcement is still carried out by police officers, not IAA inspectors.

"The decision not to monitor the work carried out on the Temple Mount was a political, not a professional, decision," he notes. "I cannot really say that I know what it is happening there to the same extent that I know what is happening on the sites that my inspectors can visit whenever they choose."

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has reportedly joined the critics of the IAA's post-1999 performance on the Temple Mount. However, the report compiled by the comptroller a year and a half ago is, for the most part, confidential, because of government pressure. Dorfman defends the decision: "We should not hang out all our dirty laundry; we don't have to tell the other side all of our problems. Democracy does have its limits."

Broken mosaic

Late last month, a new low was reached in the already troubled relationship that Dorfman has with extremist Haredi Jews. On May 29, personnel of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the IAA discovered that vandals had inflicted serious damage on the fourth-century C.E. Hamat Tiberias Synagogue. A magnificent mosaic was broken and graffiti spray-painted on it.

The graffiti, which mentioned Dorfman by name, adds up to just one more incident in a long series of personal and violent attacks on Dorfman and his family for what some Haredi Jews regard as the desecration of Jewish graves in archaeological sites. On four occasions, young Haredi Jews have shown up in front of Dorfman's home. On one of those occasions, his wife was hospitalized after dozens of Haredi Jews attacked her in the presence of her granddaughters. On other occasions, vandals applied glue to the home's locks, threw stink bombs, and spilled tar in the garden.

When Dorfman took up the reins as director general of the IAA, in 2000, things were different. "When I assumed this post," he recalls, "there were street brawls between Haredi Jews and the members of the IAA. I changed our policy. The problem should not be between the ultra-Orthodox and the antiquities authority but rather between the real estate developers, who want to exploit properties, and the Haredim." He began an ongoing dialogue with Rabbi David Shmidel, who heads the Atra Kadisha, a Haredi organization that considers itself the guardian of ancient Jewish graves.

"There were confrontations, but we kept up the dialogue," Dorfman relates. "I was criticized by archaeologists and secular Jews, but we managed to maintain a reasonable level of cooperation."

Until the Ashkelon affair, that is, when Haredim opposed the construction of a new emergency room at Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center over ancient graves. Dorfman says that the ultra-Orthodox behaved in a matter that was "aggressive - the graves were not the real issue. I had a meeting with Shmidel and I proved to him that this was a pagan site that had nothing Jewish about it. But these people began to engage in acts of vandalism against my workers and against me personally. My wife was hospitalized. That is when I gave up trying to get them to cooperate with us. The real issue is not the graves; what is going on in fact is a power struggle within the Haredi community. Today, I am not in dialogue with them. I work with the religious establishment, with the Chief Rabbinate."

In recent weeks, the conflict over the excavations the IAA is conducting along the route of the railway line near Yavneh is escalating: Archaeologists have been attacked, damage has been inflicted on the site, and threats are continually being made.

Dorfman is proud of the technological advances he has introduced into the authority. In the laboratory at the Israel Museum, a unique photographic studio has been built, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are being documented for future generations. Meanwhile, in a rescue dig in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, a system for managing excavations and recording finds that makes use of a satellite-based navigation system has been tested, and the IAA will soon show the public its new photographic system for documenting and identifying ceramic finds.

In Jerusalem work will soon be completed on the excavation of the foundations for the IAA's new headquarters, which is to be built adjacent to the Israel Museum from a design by Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie (this will be the largest public building to be erected in the capital in the last decade ). When construction is finished , Dorfman will leave his historical office at East Jerusalem's Rockefeller Museum, which also housed the office of the head of the Department of Antiquities during the British Mandatory period in Palestine, before 1948. The office still has the chairs and desks that the British supplied.

"The IAA is my tikkun [correction or making amends]," sums up Dorfman. "After my military service, I entered this cultural world. There is a lot of chaos and there are a lot of mishaps, but it's all worth it."

Credit: Emil Salman



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