There is a point where the manipulation of heritage becomes so blatant, that even some of the most fervent flag-wavers and Bible-belters have to take pause.
In the last weeks we have witnessed a series of attention-getting public demonstrations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration of the establishment of a “heritage list” of sites connected with Jewish and Zionist history in both pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank not only offered no specifics that could actually help the Israel Antiquities Authority keep up with the enormous volume of development-related archaeological salvage projects throughout the country, but was rather unspecific about exactly how the installation of informational signboards and the establishment of hiking trails could really instill a ‘proper’ appreciation of history among the younger generations of Israelis who had apparently become uninterested in the traditional events. characters, and symbols of the past.
Worse yet, the announcement– for all its questionable value and educational content– succeeded in providing an occasion for violence both in the tinderbox of Hebron (ironically on the eve of the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attack by settler icon Baruch Goldstein that killed 29 and wounded more than a hundred Muslim worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, one of the sites added to the new Israeli “Heritage List”) and throughout the West Bank.
When will the advocates of a miltant heritage-as-nationalism recognize that it just doesn’t work?
Does Netanyahu not remember the fact that during his last term as Prime Minister, when in September 1996 he ordered the opening of an exit stairway from the unscientifically excavated Western Wall Tunnels, dozens of Israelis and Palestinians were killed in the outbreak of violence that ensued?
Or does he not remember how the visit of Ariel Sharon (surrounded by bodyguards) to the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif Complex in the autumn of 2000, lit the fuse for the Second Intifada?
What is the fruit of this confrontational test of heritage strength? Does it succeed in persuading anyone who does not already believe? Do the present leaders of the State of Israel think that they can muster the energy and the force to continue this strategy indefinitely?
There is of course another side of the story– the earth moving operations of the Waqf within the Haram esh-Sharif compound– and these too have only served to fan the flames further and foment fanaticism on both sides.
And then we come to the pseudo-science, a disgrace to all Israeli educational and scientific organizations who lend their support to the ‘City of David’ digs. Those who lavish praise and funding on the ‘discovery’ of biblical relics care nothing whatsoever for archaeological science or for a deepening understanding of the past. They are simply exploiting the superficial “scientism” of this brand of archaeology to serve contemporary aims.
Shame on the archaeologists who do not have the courage to condemn how the technical jargon of strata and ceramics is being used so cynically and uncritically to bolster contemporary political claims.
Shame on the journalists all over the world who have covered this story with dim-witted, slack-jawed credulity about ‘the Bible being proved true’ by this archaeological find.
And now the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, announced yesterday with great fanfare his plans for “The King’s Garden” in the embattled village of Silwan, where archaeological excavations and conclusions have been for years the a conspicuous bone of contention between the Israeli settler movement and the Arab Palestinian residents of the neighborhood.
There is no time or space to go into the whole history of the dispute here, except to say that even the name “King’s Garden” (Gan Hamelech in Hebrew) is the fruit of a romantic nationalist tourist developer’s feverish imagination for a project that will include:
1. Restoration of the garden: “The western part of the Gan Hamelech area will be restored to its historical condition as a site of international as well as national prominence. The Gihon Spring will once again flow along the Kidron Valley, the orchards will be replanted, and a blooming garden will be grown, which would be open to both visitors and the neighborhood residents.”
It is claimed by one sympathetic news report, that “according to researchers, “Gan Hamelech” is the traditional site of the gardens of the Kings of Israel, where King Solomon’s Song of Songs and many of King David’s Psalms were written.” [Who are these researchers and what is their source?]
2. Development of commerce, restaurants and tourism: In the eastern part of the neighborhood, about 3000 sq.m of land will be approved for the construction of commercial areas, restaurants, artists’ workshops, souvenir and local art shops, all on the ground level. [How will the franchises be distributed and to whom?]
3. Housing units for the welfare of the district residents: On the eastern side, above the commercial level, housing units will be built to satisfy the needs of the local residents. [Which ones?]
4. Infrastructure: The area, having been designated in the past to be an open recreational space, has not been planned or developed. The Jerusalem Municipality intends to design urban infrastructure, including the upgrade of the road and sewage infrastructure and other local facilities. [Certainly more opportunities to dig. But will they emphasize biblical and Byzantine relics while de-emphasizing the material culture of the last 1500 years?]
5. A public facility building: According to the plan, large building for the welfare of the neighborhood residents will be constructed on a 2000 sq.m site designated to include public areas, schoolrooms, day care centers, kindergartens, workout gyms, infant welfare centers, etc. The center, in addition to other establishments promoted by the municipality for the welfare of the residents of the eastern part of the city, will provide suitable solutions for the neighborhood residents. Underground a parking lot will be built for about 140 vehicles. [Again, for whom?]
The mayor’s plan also asserts that “This plan constitutes a precedent inasmuch as apart from enforcing the law upon illegally built houses, it also enables and helps residents to build new homes in accordance with the law.” [In fact, what it means is that at least 22 Palestinian houses would be demolished in the King’s Garden area.]
In a word, the trajectory of the Israeli officials in regard to heritage and archaeology in at least this very sensitive part of Jerusalem is not conducive to peace in the city, to the possibility of future compromise, to the archaeological and heritage remains.
No wonder that even Prime Minister Netanyahu recognized that things had gone a bit too far. Yesterday he requested that the plans for the “King’s Garden” Project be put on hold…