Silwan and Tel Aviv University

I began writing about the injustices in Silwan four years ago and returned to the subject in 2010 when it became a focus for protest by Solidarity, a movement now pretty much exhausted, alas.

Silwan is the heart of East Jerusalem's Arab population, which the ultra-nationalist settler organization, Elad, has been trying to push back from the Old City's main entryway to the Jewish quarter, the Dung Gate. Elad is succeeding--with the help of a sympathetic rightist mayor, and the state's Antiquities Authority--by developing "The City of David," a kind of Jewish archaeological theme park, though any evidence that the excavations have anything to do with King David will persuade only the Bar-Mitzvah boys who flock to the place to earn their manhood.

Elad has also been putting up apartments for its cadres; its declared aim is to encircle the old city with Jews, and link up to Jewish neighborhoods to the north and east, preempting any redivision of sovereignty in the city.  (You can watch this "60 Minutes" report on Silwan, to get a more vivid picture.) Some of the excavations in question have been started over a hundred years ago, but there would be no "City of David," and no mistreatment of the local Arab neighborhood, without Elad, no Elad, without rightist money from abroad, and no Elad power over the place without the collusion of the Antiquities Authority.

It is disgraceful, then, that some of Tel Aviv University's archaeologists are using the political umbrella created by this collusion to start a dig of their own, presumably independent of Elad, and organized purely for scientific research, but unimaginable apart from what Elad is doing there. I said earlier that the Solidarity movement is pretty much exhausted. That's because peace groups around the city have been simply overwhelmed by the momentum toward annexation engendered by the Netanyahu government and its allies. Institutions outside of Jerusalem--even those built on liberal standards--are simply accommodating to, "normalizing," the facts on the ground.

The one hope we have to counter Tel Aviv University's surrender to this momentum is pressure, including international pressure, from scholars who refuse to let the university administration off the hook. Thus, the following letter, and its signatories.  You can join the petition by linking to this website.  You can also read about the whole affair in this Haaretz report.

Here is the letter:

We, members of the academic community in Israel and abroad, representing a wide range of disciplines, wish to protest recent developments that are taking place at Tel Aviv University with the full knowledge of the university administration. We understand that an agreement has been signed between representatives of TAU and the Israel Antiquities Authority, according to which the Institute of Archaeology will conduct excavations in the village of Silwan in Palestinian East Jerusalem. These excavations are funded at least in part by the Elad Foundation, which has legal control over the area called “City of David National Park.” 

The express intention of this Foundation is to “Judaize” the area known as the “Holy Basin,” including Silwan. It pursues this aim by gaining control, through purchase or other means, of houses in Silwan and by planting colonies of Israeli settlers, under armed guard, in the neighborhood. Elad also funds and oversees archaeological excavations and development of the National Park in Silwan as part of its ultra-nationalist program. 

The public nature of archaeological activity at this site, which is carried out in the open with direct impact on the lives of the Palestinian residents of the area, has spurred international bodies-- among them ICOMOS, the body that advises UNESCO on the subject of preservation and heritage, and which includes an Israeli representative-- to re-affirm that any professional intervention in a densely inhabited heritage site requires the cooperation of the local residents. In the absence of such cooperation, archaeological excavation in a built-up area becomes a one-sided, arbitrary governmental act and fails to meet the basic requirements of academic research. 

The planned excavation in Silwan will ostensibly take place in an area designated as a “National Park,” but it is adjacent to—only a few dozen meters away from—the homes of local residents and forms part of the general ideological project of the Elad Foundation. Excavations in this area are conducted under heavy protection by the Border Police and privately contracted security forces. 

Apart from the direct, deleterious impact of these excavations on the lives of the local residents, Tel Aviv University is about to enter indirectly into partnership with an extremist political organization—thereby establishing a de facto position on an issue that is at the center of crucial debate within Israel, with serious political and moral implications. In entering into such a partnership, Tel Aviv University will be granting the Elad Foundation the professional recognition it seeks, recognition that academic institutions in Israel and abroad have thus far refused to grant. 

We appeal to the administration of Tel Aviv University out of deep concern over its unseemly participation in such a project, involving one of its academic units in political activity camouflaged as an academic enterprise. This action will have an inevitable impact on the international reputation of scientific research in Israel—within and beyond the field of archaeology. 

At this time of increasing threats to the freedom of research in Israel, it is imperative that academic research remain untainted by overt political agendas. We therefore ask that the administration of Tel Aviv University direct the members of the Institute of Archaeology to desist immediately from their connection, direct or indirect, with the Elad Foundation and from any project that is funded, partly or in whole, by that foundation.

The list of signatories can be viewed here.