Stopping the Nationalist Stink Rising From the City of David

Israel's courts have the chance in a couple of days to wrest control of the City of David from Elad, an NGO with a narrow and destructive settlement agenda, and to re-affirm Jerusalem's role not only in the Jewish national saga but also Arab history and world culture.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

For almost 15 years, one of our most important national parks and archaeological sites, the City of David, has been managed by a right-wing NGO. The City of David, an archaeological site immediately south of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, is one of Israel's only national parks to be run by a private entity, and considering that it is located smack in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, there could not be a worse choice than Elad. Elad is a 27 year-old private organization that works to strengthen exclusively Jewish ties to Jerusalem. Now that the District Court of Jerusalem has canceled Elad’s management contract with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Authority has an historic opportunity to fully return the City of David to its own control.

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Ir Amim, an NGO devoting to meeting the needs of both peoples sharing Jerusalem, the court limited Elad’s role to operating rather than managing the site, but it’s not clear that this has made or will make a noticeable difference to the visitor experience. The court has given the Parks Authority until March 1st to determine whether it should put Elad through a proper tender process to operate the City of David, apply for an exemption from the tender process, or terminate the relationship between the national parks and the pro-settlement Elad.

But the court would be mistaken to allow the discussion to focus on the narrow technical point of operational capacity or tender processes. There is no reason for an archaeological park with local and regional resonance and meaning for both Jews and Palestinian Arabs to become the propaganda instrument of an NGO with a partisan political position.

As a Jew, I’m fascinated by the central place Jerusalem commands in our own national saga, but I have no interest in ignoring Jerusalem’s role in Arab history or world culture; such chauvinism hardly strengthens my claim to our capital. It is clear to me that a site with so much historical and cultural weight must be managed by a state agency and operated with the utmost cultural sensitivity.

Backroom deals are common in Israel, but this one has always had a particularly nationalist stink. Elad is a settler organization with an agenda of Judaizing East Jerusalem by encouraging Jewish settlers to settle among Palestinian residents who clearly do not want them there. I doubt that most Israelis today, let alone those who like myself who voluntarily pay membership dues to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, support either the dubious legal manipulations involved in getting Palestinians families expelled from their homes in the Silwan neighborhood in which the City of David is located, or the inappropriate partnership with Elad.

The strategy of using nationalparks as a tool for disenfranchising Palestinians does all kinds of damage; Palestinians suffer most directly, but the vision of Jerusalem as a city of peace is sullied, Israel’s international image takes yet another blow, and the conservation vision of the national parks movement is corrupted in the name of an extremist agenda. Privatization is not the main issue here, but even privatization advocates should see their agenda is being distorted in the name of political extremism.

The decision to grant Elad responsibility for running the City of David in the first place was most likely intended to promote Elad’s Judaizing agenda, and our outgoing national government and the Jerusalem municipality didn’t object to ramming Jewish settlers down the throats of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population, whether actively collaborating or signaling approval with a wink and a nod. Every time a Palestinian family was pushed out, they believed they had redeemed another few meters of Jerusalem for the Jewish People.

Too many Jews unthinkingly condone such maneuvers, their critical faculties clouded by an overly simplistic notion of what a united Jerusalem would look like. Anyone who walks the streets of the city already knows that there is a Jewish Jerusalem and an Arab Jerusalem. Giving power to an organization like Elad in an area as sensitive as Silwan, can only promote suspicion and conflict between Jews and Palestinians.

The District Court of Jerusalem and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority have a chance to sever the ties between an NGO with a narrow and destructive nationalist agenda and a site of broad biblical and post-biblical significance for Jews which also has historic meaning for Arabs and world culture. Dues-paying members of the Nature and Parks Authority should join me in protesting that our dues support contracting with an organization such as Elad. And the Jewish people should see this for what it is: The betrayal of Jerusalem as the City of Peace and yet another obstacle to coexisting with the Palestinians.

Don Futterman is the Israel program director of the Moriah Fund, a private foundation working in Israel to strengthen civil society and to promote peace. He can be heard on the biweekly Promised Podcast.

The City of David dig.Credit: Emil Salman

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