Opinion

Jerusalem's 'Landlords' Are Digging Away Again

An Israel Antiquities Authority project involves an effort to increase the Jewish presence in a Palestinian neighborhood lying just below the Al-Aqsa mosque and to assert religious influence over archaeological finds.

The Roman-era Herodian street that runs from the Siloam pool in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan toward the Temple Mount.
Emil Salman

In May 2010, Haaretz published an extensive investigative report that I wrote about the excavation of Muslim graves at the construction site of the Museum of Tolerance, west of the Old City of Jerusalem, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. In an expedited operation carried out at night and during rainstorms, tens of thousands of bones and skulls of Muslims buried there over the course of about 1,000 years were extracted.

The Israel Antiquities Authority issued a statement, by way of explanation, saying that “the work evacuating the skeletons was performed professionally, with extreme care and while maintaining respect for the dead.” The professional prestige of the IAA had been a key factor in the decision handed down by the Supreme Court authorizing the removal of the bones and the construction of the museum at the site.

It later turned out that the criticism the excavation sparked among Islamic groups, Arab lawmakers and others had been on the mark, and perhaps even mild under the circumstances. The director general of the IAI at the time, Shuka Dorfman, confirmed that conclusion in his book “Under the Surface” (in Hebrew), which was published after his death in 2014.

Dorfman wrote that those involved in planning and building the museum had applied “heavy” and “sometimes intolerable pressure” on IAI staff “to speed up the excavations and to complete them quickly.”

He also acknowledged that the operation had been carried out using unconventional methods: “It’s clear to me that, as director of the IAI, I should have stopped the excavations at their initial stages I do not exclude [the possibility] that the heavy pressure that was exerted on us somewhat disrupted our judgment.”

The site of the Museum of Tolerance in the Mamilla quarter of Jerusalem, in 2010 before tens of thousands of bones and skulls of Muslims buried there over the course of about 1,000 years were extracted.
Emil Salman

Over the past three years, the IAI has been involved in other controversial excavation projects, and again complaints have arisen to the effect that the authority’s scientific ethics and professional prestige have been sacrificed on the altar of determined wealthy developers with connections. This time, however, the complaints did not come from the Islamic Movement or left-wing organizations, but rather from within the IAI itself.

This time the subject of controversy is the excavation of a Roman-era Herodian street that runs from the Siloam pool in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan toward the Temple Mount. The work is being carried out in a tunnel reinforced by giant iron and concrete supports under the Palestinian neighborhood.

The well-connected project developers are from the non-profit organization Elad. Those criticizing the dig are two senior IAI staffers, Gideon Avni, who heads the organization's archaeological division, and Jon Seligman, head of excavations and surveys at the authority. In internal correspondence revealed by Haaretz, they wrote that the work being done in the tunnels, contrary to accepted practice, was “bad archaeology,” and added that “the authority could not be proud of this excavation.”

In Silwan, as with the Museum of Tolerance in the Mamilla neighborhood, the director of the IAI, Israel Hasson, has come down on the side of the project's developers and has permitted the work to go ahead. Hasson has boasted of the IAA’s professionalism and this time too, politicians – from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to Culture Minister Miri Regev and Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin – have backed the planners and have been assisting in advancing the excavation.

But this time the project doesn’t involve construction of some American museum in the heart of Jerusalem, but rather an effort to increase the Jewish presence in a Palestinian neighborhood lying just below the Al-Aqsa mosque, and to assert religious influence over archaeological finds.

The ancient street will not be touted as a Roman road, but as a pilgrim’s path from the site of ritual purification in a pool in Siloam to the Temple Mount. “The experience of someone who does it knows exactly who owns this city,” explained Mayor Barkat.

The excavation pit in Mamilla has long been covered over. The Museum of Tolerance building is almost finished, and is expected to open this year. The Silwan excavation is years away from completion, but to the extent that it depends on the Elad organization, which is apparently the real owner of the city – it will be advanced very quickly.

The question concerning whether the IAI's Hasson will also admit to the pressures exerted on him and the mistakes that have been made will be left open for the time being.