Monday, March 28, 2016

Whose Holy Land?: Archaeology Meets Geopolitics in Today’s Middle East

Biblical Archaeology today is more than just an obscure field for academic eggheads. It’s a mine field, with implications that may well determine the course of events, geopolitically, for the Middle East and the entire world. It’s exciting enough that there are always “Indiana Jones” adventures lurking in the background, including fantastic new discoveries, as well as age-old discussions about the fate of the Ark of the Covenant, among other things. But more than that, there’s the modern struggle to flesh out a “narrative” – a story about the origins of the “Holy Land” and to whom it belongs. The artifacts of archaeology are more than just museum pieces; they’re the storytellers, witnesses in stone, relating, in unbiased fashion, what the unvarnished truth is behind who lived in this land and when. It’s not surprising then, that modern parties to the Middle East conflict would be locked in dispute about the ownership of the artifacts as well as the land. The bottom line is: Whoever controls the artifacts controls the narrative. And the narrative is what it’s all about.

This is no small issue, and Israelis are keenly aware of what’s at stake, for archaeology is ultimately about history, and history is the raison d’être for Jews living in this land. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Ph.D. program in Biblical Archaeology is full, with a waiting list to get in. Never mind that the course of study is more grueling than imaginable, requiring proficiency in multiple languages and a good decade of rigorous study. Israelis want to know: Did we just drift through space and time, finally landing here? Or have we been in this land from almost the dawn of civilization? What about Palestinian claims on the land, and attempts to minimize Jewish claims by minimizing the archaeological record?

For my part, I want to “level” with “the folks” about what the Bible and its legacy has to do with what’s really at stake in the modern Middle East. While I happen to teach biblical archaeology at the second largest university in the United States, what I write isn’t designed as a college text for my students. It’s a lot more “edgy” than that, weaving the fabric of the ancient world into the most explosive issues in modern geopolitics. Having lived several years in Jerusalem and northern Galilee, and having worked for a television news-gathering organization in war-torn Lebanon, I ought to know a few things about the region, both ancient and modern. Bottom line: I’ve got a true story to tell, with real-world consequences; and I mean to tell it. 

A good place to begin is with the creation of the modern state of Israel, which exists because of a single book: the Bible. Even though the majority of modern Israelis call themselves "secular," and though a good number of those are proud atheists, there's no denying that the Jewish state is located in the Middle East because that's where the Bible located it. Back in the nineteenth century, the father of the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, proposed alternatives to the land of Israel, which the Ottoman Turks (who owned the region back then) refused to sell. How about Argentina? How about Uganda, which the British generously offered to sell? The international Zionist Congress nixed them both. There had to be a connection with the ancient biblical homeland, or there wouldn't be enough motivation for the Jewish "pioneers" to come in large numbers. 

That's the connection that continues to this day, for religious and secular Jews alike. Today's Israelis would like to believe that the land they love and covet – that they're willing to fight, bleed, and die for – really is part of their biblical heritage. The question for us is, can we rely on the biblical account at all? Are the locations referenced in holy writ "genuine," and the stories about them "accurate." Or is the Good Book just "whistling Dixie"? Would discrediting the Bible actually change the “narrative” of the Middle East Conflict, playing out today? The Palestinians, among others, think that it would, and they’re more than willing to indulge in some “Bible Wars” as one more weapon in their anti-Israel arsenal. Oddly enough, they’re joined in this dubious cause by a small army of “minimalist” biblical scholars, as referenced by the editor-in-chief of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks. Mr. Shanks points out that a serious prejudice exists against the Bible and its record among the most respected scholars in the whole field of biblical archaeology. 

Remarkably, this prejudice is found even among Israeli scholars, who we might think would be in the first line of defense of the sacred text. Shanks points to his good friend, Ronny Reich of Haifa University, excavator-in-chief of the City of David, who excoriated another Israeli archaeologist, Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University, for using the Bible as a guide for where to dig. Now, let’s get this straight. If you put a spade to the ground on the basis of, say, a Canaanite inscription or an Egyptian hieroglyph, you’re a genius. But dare to excavate on a hunch from the Bible and you’re completely irresponsible, perhaps even a crazed “fundamentalist.” To be sure, the Middle East has no shortage of fundamentalists, Jewish and Muslim alike. But good archaeology doesn’t have to be fundamentalist-driven to establish who lived in this land millennia ago. And mightn’t that knowledge have serious implications on whom the land belongs to today? 

Back at my own university, I like to tell my students that what archaeology really amounts to is “the study of pots.” But the implications of such “trivia” are often astounding, for how you interpret the pots creates the story you tell. What happens, however, when you can’t even get your hands on the pots? What happens when there’s no freedom of access to important archaeological sites, because they have effectively been laid claim to by Islam? While it’s fashionable today to speak in support of the Palestinians and criticize Israel for expropriating “Arab land,” history tells us quite the reverse. Whether at the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem, where a Muslim shrine sits atop the ancient Holy of Holies, or in Hebron, where a mosque dominates the site of Abraham’s ancient tomb, the truth is that down through history, the Arabs never batted an eye about expropriating Jewish land and building their own monuments and holy sites atop Jewish ones. The site of the Jewish Temple is now the Islamic site of the isra and miraj – the “nocturnal journey” of Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and his subsequent ascent to heaven. Abraham, whose burial place is revered among Jews, is now Ibrahim, the father of the “true” child of promise, Ismail (Ishmael). The father-son duo would subsequently build the “Sacred House,” the Ka’bah, in Mecca.

It’s a bit like going on vacation, only to find, on your return, that somebody has broken into your house, taken it over, and now claims to be you. Moreover, you aren’t even allowed access to your house, to prove that it was originally yours. But what if there are photographs, documents, books, mementos and the like, that indisputably demonstrate your ownership of the premises? “I’m sorry,” says the new “owner.” “You are not even allowed to search for them, as the property is mine and has always been mine.” 

The larger, political narrative that the Arab world wants to tell – and has effectively convinced most of the world to believe – is that the Jews amount to modern colonialists, infiltrators from Europe and elsewhere, who have seized Arab land by force. Jewish archaeology must be countered, even suppressed, so that the Arab narrative will prevail. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls, the two-thousand-year-old library of manuscript finds from the Judean Desert, clear evidence of ancient Jewish presence in this land, must be returned to the Palestinians, as they were originally discovered on “Arab land.”

None of this, however, has been able to deter the half-million Jewish settlers, who moved into the area known as the West Bank of the Jordan River, in the decades following its conquest by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. To them this territory is “Judea and Samaria,” the heartland of biblical Israel. Their ramshackle trailers and concrete homes are, they believe, sitting directly above multiple layers of Jewish civilization, dating all the way back to King Solomon, King David, and “Avraham Avinu” – “our father Abraham.” There is no place on earth where archaeology is more relevant to modern geopolitics and the incendiary issues that might culminate in the next regional war. 

Near ancient Hebron, in the heart of what is planned to become the new Palestinian state, they have built the modern settlement of Kiryat Arba. Though considered illegal under international law, the settlers appeal to a higher authority, the Bible: “Now the name of Hebron before was Kirjath-Arba” (Joshua 14:15). These settlers are not about to be dislodged by anyone or for any reason, even if it means war, or, should Israel decide to evacuate them, civil war. Given such fanatical devotion, isn’t it time we ask archaeology to weigh in on the likes of Hebron and Kiryat Arba?

Other West Bank settlements have also been given biblical names, such as Ophrah, a town in the ancient territory of Benjamin, also mentioned in the book of Joshua (18:23). In another settlement, called Amona, founded in 1995, an Israeli woman explains, “I walk around here with my children and tell them, ‘This is the hill that Abraham climbed; this is where Jacob had his dream. It’s not something that was ‘once upon a time; it’s alive, and now.’” But we might ask: Can the science of archaeology substantiate any of this? Can we prove that any of the heroes of the Bible ever lived at all? Are the people around whom the whole Arab-Israeli conflict swirls living on top of history, or fairy tales? Whether or not it even matters to most people today, it certainly matters to them; and they’re the ones who are on the front lines of the battle for the Holy Land. 

The heart of the struggle comes together in Jerusalem. When and if the battle of Armageddon is ever fought, it may well center on this eternal city. Jerusalem after all is the City of David… Or is it? Was there indeed a King David? Can we find remains of his city? What about the Temple and the great palace of Solomon? The plan before the international community is to make East Jerusalem the capital of the new state of Palestine. That would of necessity mean dividing the city, turning it into the Berlin of the twenty-first century. And it would most likely result in placing an international border exactly above the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. For those Israelis convinced that this is the spot closest to the ancient Holy of Holies, the result would likely be nothing short of categorical rejection of such a division, perhaps even civil war. The fight on both sides is over an ancient heritage, that may or may not be confirmed by the archaeological record. My hope is that what follows is well more than an entertaining read. It is needed. It is necessary. It is essential. It will present solid evidence to support claims to the land. It will have impact politically far beyond its immediate value as a work of scholarship.

So, perhaps it’s time to dig beneath the surface – quite literally – and discover the truth that the stones have been trying to tell us for so long. Hang on to your fedoras; it’s likely to be a wild ride…

A Personal Note
I first arrived in Israel decades ago, in 1978, a history major at the University of Illinois, spending my senior year studying abroad. I was deeply interested in the idea of a modern nation sitting on top of an ancient land, and my goal was to gain a level of expertise in the biblical antiquities of the region. I had enrolled in a small private school for Holy Land research catering to graduate students, and I couldn’t wait to get out in the field. The school’s approach was to combine intense classroom study and library research with regular excursions across the length and breadth of the land of Israel, and I was soon “hooked.” I was, however, more than a little surprised at how much time we spent in the “occupied” Israeli territories – the West Bank of the Jordan River. My initial expectation was that we’d be spending most of our time visiting sites in Hebrew-speaking areas of modern Israel. Instead, our guides had us walking the back roads of the Muslim-Arab territories. We did of course see our share of sites within “Israel proper,” from ancient Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, to the great plateau of Masada, in the Judean Desert. But so many of the truly important biblical sites were smack in the heart of areas conquered by Israel in the June 1967 Six Day War, that I couldn’t help but wonder how this thoroughly Jewish ancient land ended up being claimed by Arabs as their own, as it were “from time immemorial.” 

When headed off to the biblical city of Shekhem, that dates all the way back to Abraham, whom the Bible tells us built an altar there, we found ourselves in the Palestinian Arab city of Nablus. A hub of anti-Israeli militancy, it was apparent from even a cursory glance that the city was under constant military surveillance. Israeli soldiers were stationed on rooftops, making sure that calm pervaded in the streets below. We had come to see the antiquities, and the biblically picturesque Mount Gerizim in the distance, which we were able to do without disturbance. The peace may have been uneasy, but at least there was quiet. Down to the south, we stopped in ancient Jericho, the city famously conquered by the Israelite hero Joshua. The archaeology was stunningly impressive. The modern city, like Nablus, was under Israeli military rule, insuring, on a practical level, peace and quiet. Jericho was open for tourism, and open for business.

Further south into Judea we saw biblical Hebron, home to the Tombs of the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. The massive structure occupying the site was built by none other than King Herod the Great – the most architecturally complete ancient edifice in all the land of Israel. In the 1970s, it was possible to visit both the mosque the sits atop Herod’s great limestone ashlars and the more ancient remains beneath. Again, under Israeli military occupation, there was, at the very least, peace and quiet. Hebron, like Nablus and Jericho, was open for tourism, and open for business.
Jerusalem itself was, of course, the “crown jewel” of archaeological treasures. We strolled freely around the huge plateau known as the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif in Arabic. There was nary a concern for security, only sheer excitement at the prospect of entering into the Dome of the Rock itself and taking in, with wide-eyed amazement, the splendor of this site, the third holiest in the Islamic world. 

In the decades that followed, however, everything would change on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the dawn of the “peace process” would bring only turmoil. Nowadays, when I escort American groups on tour to Israel, there are many places we simply don’t visit. Our Israeli guides won’t take us there. Shechem/ Nablus is off-limits to American tourists. Violence in Nablus spiked during the first decade of the twenty-first century, becoming a focal point of the “Second Intifada” against Israel, and a center for the production and firing of rockets. Jericho is a possibility for those who want to venture there privately, but the days of Israeli tour groups filling the shops, en-route to the archaeological site, are long gone. Hebron is a no-go these days as well, and tourists can forget about visiting the Dome of the Rock. 

I’m left musing, “Now that we have a ‘peace process,’ what happened to the peace?” In any case, it was clear to me from the beginning that if we look, not at modern border lines, but beneath the surface of this “holy land,” biblical Israel was substantially larger than the sliver of a country called “Israel” today. It was equally clear that the multitude of Jewish settlers, who today live in these “occupied Israeli territories,” are driven, not only by the biblical stories, but by the physical remains of a great Jewish civilization that lies buried beneath these same West Bank hills and valleys. It is the interplay between those remains and the contemporary geopolitical struggle that will be the focus of the pages that follow. Whose land is it? The proof lies under the ground. We will have to do the digging.

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