David Be’eri’s Useful Idiots
Every archaeological discovery made in the City of David in the past twenty years can be measured in the dispossession and humiliation it has caused to the Palestinians of Silwan, in its contribution to the settlers’ aim of claiming the Temple Mount, and in its acquiescence in the contempt for scientific archaeology shown by David Be’eri and El’ad.
By Raphael Greenberg
Dept. of Archaeology and ANE
Tel Aviv University
The announcement that the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, the highest civil-society award conferred by the state, is to be bestowed on David Be’eri, the head of the settler organization El’ad, appears perfectly in line with the spirit of the times, a spirit personified by flag-waving fear-mongers who wish to impose on us all their vision of an eternal ‘clash of civilizations’, sanctioned from on high. It is, however, more than a little disturbing and significant that the chairman of the committee that recommended bestowing the prize on Be’eri is a distinguished academic, Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher of the Hebrew University, President of the Academy of Hebrew Language in Jerusalem.
El’ad might be known to the readers of this site as the moving force behind the massive earth clearance and construction operations conducted in ancient Jerusalem, in, around and beneath the Wadi Hilwah neighborhood in the Palestinian village of Silwan (a.k.a. the City of David). Archaeologists have been implicated in many of these operations, lending them an undeserved scientific credibility recently characterized by a high official of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) as ‘our original sin’. But the truth is that Israel has been awarding prizes to El’ad and Be’eri for well-nigh 30 years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Be’eri was awarded free access to ‘absentee’ properties in Silwan (houses confiscated by the state from landlords who left or fled the country before 1948 or 1967), his first foothold there. Then, in 1995, he was awarded the keys to the Gihon Spring, at the heart of both ancient Jerusalem and modern Silwan, where he launched – under the scientific auspices of the IAA – the first of several subterranean “horizontal” (tunnel) excavations led by Dr Ronny Reich and his successors. These excavations, and the tourist ‘theme park’ development that they enabled, were entirely motivated by an ideological commitment to the reduction of the history of Jerusalem to two pivotal moments: its foundation as capital by King David (for which no archaeological evidence exists), and the 70-year window during which the Herodian temple was the focus of Jewish pilgrimage. Any other history, and especially that of the village of Silwan, was reduced to a footnote, and the people living on the site to a limbo of half-existence and semi-transparency, in the worst colonial tradition.
Rewarded by prominent philanthropic supporters of the extreme religious right, Be’eri expanded his operations, drawing the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority and the IAA into his orbit. These two organizations awarded him, respectively, with the City of David National Park tourist concession and with 22 years of ‘salvage’ excavation permits, which have formed the basis for a constantly expanding footprint in the village: Ela’d settlers alone, among the 40,000 inhabitants of Silwan, receive permits to build their houses and institutions directly on top of Jerusalem’s antiquities, while excavating under the houses of others. In a recent publication, based on documents acquired by Emek Shaveh, I have described in detail the process through which public funds were channeled to El’ad and thence to their IAA collaborators to promote the massive Giv’ati parking lot excavations, whose archaeological layers are destined for burial in the basement of a seven-story monstrosity.
Most recently, Be’eri and El’ad have been awarded a fine coat of academic whitewash by Tel Aviv University, which entered into an agreement with the IAA in 2012: El’ad would fund, via the IAA, excavations and half the salary of a full-time researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, while other IofA researchers would study materials generated by El’ad-sponsored ‘salvage’ excavations. Indeed, academic legitimation, offered by all of Israel’s major archaeological institutions, has served El’ad well. As I write, a huge, subway-sized tunnel is being burrowed by IAA archaeologists through the stratified layers of ancient Jerusalem, so that thousands of tourists might be transported from Siloam to the Temple Mount. Barring a small handful, archaeologists have acquiesced even in this blatantly destructive activity.
Every archaeological discovery made in the City of David in the past twenty years can be measured in the dispossession and humiliation it has caused to the Palestinians of Silwan, in its contribution to the settlers’ aim of claiming the Temple Mount, and in its acquiescence in the contempt for scientific archaeology shown by David Be’eri and El’ad. Archaeologists – the proverbial Messiah’s ass – should be offered a seat on the dais at Be’eri’s Israel Prize ceremony, where they may add their voice to the hoarse chorus of applause.