National Academy of Sciences Criticizes Politicization of Israeli Archaeology

State’s links with right-wing Elad NGO come under fire in report; Elad: Report is biased against us.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Jewish burial site at the Beit She’arim National Park - UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Jewish burial site at the Beit She’arim National Park - UNESCO World Heritage Site.Credit: AFP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In a comprehensive report on Israeli archaeology, the National Academy of Sciences criticizes the political use of archeology, the far-reaching cooperation between the right-wing Elad association and the Nature and Parks Authority, the prohibition on researching skeletons and the transformation of Israel into a center for illegal trade in antiquities.

Israel Prize winner David Be'eri, founder of the Ir David Foundation, commonly known as Elad.Credit: Tomer Apelbaum

The report, published last week and written by a committee headed by eminent archaeologist Prof. Yoram Tsafrir, is based on meetings with many office-holders who work in aspects of the field, including the curriculum in archeology departments, the state of research, Antiquities Authority digs, site preservation, looting, trade in antiquities and more. The reported lauded the high quality of Israeli archeological research and of teaching at the universities.

The only individual who refused to appear before the committee was the head of the right-wing Elad association, David Be’eri. Elad is involved in Jewish settlement in the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem and operates the City of David National Park there, under an agreement it has with the Nature and Parks Authority. Under that agreement, for several years now a number of the most important and extensive archeological digs in the country have been carried out. The organization is also funding most of the excavations in the area of the park.

According to Elad offcials, Prof. Tsafrir – a Hebrew University professor emeritus who in the past petitioned the court against Elad because of its intention to build a residential neighborhood on top of the antiquities, is tainted with politicization. In light of Be’eri’s refusal to appear before the committee, representatives from organizations on the left that are attacking Elad and its connections with the state were not invited to appear before the committee either.

However, the report notes that “the committee members” determined that “it is inappropriate to give an organization with a political character a senior position in financing the excavations, determining tourism routes, designing the site and exhibiting it to the public, while ignoring the Arab residents.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (C) with his Chief of Staff Michal Shalem (L) and David Be'eri, director of Elad, a right-wing NGO. Credit: Emil Salman

False arguments

The report criticizes the misleading use of archeological arguments for political purposes, for example the government’s conduct with regard to a national park on the slopes of Mount Scopus. To advance the national park between the neighborhoods of Issawiya and A-Tur in East Jerusalem, the state claimed that the site was essential to preservation of the antiquities there.

However, the report states that the area has been surveyed and that this claim is not true – the only site of value there is in an area that was not planned for development. The Palestinian inhabitants of the neighborhoods claim that the aim of the park is to limit their development and that in any case there are no antiquities in the area worthy of preservation. Last week Haaretz reported that in light of the difficulties faced by the Jerusalem municipality and the Nature and Parks Authority in approving the plan for the national park, the municipality has designated the whole area a mere “park.

In the report there is additional criticism of the government plan to develop heritage sites, noting that the plan focused on markedly Jewish sites and the Jewish aspects of multicultural sites.

The committee further criticized the serious damage to research because of the prohibition on researching human bones. Under the law, a bone that is excavated is not considered an antiquity and must be transferred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for burial. “Opposition, sometimes violent, by ultra-Orthodox organizations is damaging to a key area of research,” states the report.

Regarding antiquities trading, the report said that because Israel is the only country in the region where such trade is legal, it has ended up becoming an international center of illegal antiquities trade and money laundering.

The Elad association told Haaretz: “The organization would have been glad to have cooperated and to have appeared before the committee had it not appointed Prof. Tsafrir as the head. For about two decades now Prof. Tsafrir has been leading a political fight in academic guise against the archeological excavations throughout ancient Jerusalem, and he has now harnessed to his efforts this respectable institution that is supposed to deal with national issues and create a public discourse that is fair and unbiased. Right from an initial reading of the report, it is evident that the suspicion was justified. The City of David and the development there are mentioned negatively.”

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