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The politics of archaeology in Jerusalem

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

Excavation site near the City of David archaeological park. All photographs from Jerusalem, July 2019, by Tanya Habjouqa for Harper’s Magazine © Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR

Excavation site near the City of David archaeological park. All photographs from Jerusalem, July 2019, by Tanya Habjouqa for Harper’s Magazine © Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

I had decided to come in late January, when archaeologists would be on their midsemester teaching break, though everyone warned me it might rain. That morning the sky was hazy and bright, but signs of winter were visible elsewhere. In the courtyard of the visitors’ center, deflated pomegranates hung from the trees, and some of last summer’s grapes, dark and dry, still clung to the vines. While school groups gathered nearby, I sat down at a table with Ze’ev Orenstein, the international affairs director of the Ir David Foundation, which manages the site and is best known by a Hebrew acronym, Elad. Orenstein had the look and manner of a fraternity president—­alert, slick, practiced. He wore Ray-­Bans and an official City of David fleece, and he held a heavily tabbed black Bible, which he fingered as he spoke. “Archaeology is proving every day, beyond any reasonable doubt, that these things ­really happened,” he told me. “It’s not simply a matter of faith; it’s a matter of fact.”

At sites across Israel, archaeologists have unearthed some remarkable objects relating to biblical stories. In the Nineties, a team at Tel Dan, a green plain near the Golan Heights, found a ninth-­century inscription that likely references the House of David—­the first piece of archaeological evidence that King David was a historical person. Many Israelis base their claim to the land on their descent from David, who is often spoken of as Jerusalem’s founder, and Elad understands the spiritual and political significance of digging for remnants of his dynasty in the hills around the Temple Mount. The group has transformed the City of David into one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations by playing up its ties to the Bible. Six hundred thousand people come each year to see the place where David may have ruled sometime in the tenth century ­­b.c.

“This is a biblical Disney World that’s actually real,” an Elad spokesman said in 2008. “You can touch the stones. You can touch the texts. . . . David walks with you through this tour.” According to the Bible, David played his harp to cast an evil spirit out of Saul, and kept the instrument hanging on a peg above his bed. At the City of David, harp music plays through loudspeakers in the courtyard, and a large sculpture of a harp fills an archway at the entrance. Trash cans placed around the site feature the rampant lion of Judah. On certain nights, Elad projects a sound and light show onto the ruins. Tours begin with a 3-­D movie presented by a man in a beige safari vest and wide-brimmed hat, brandishing a Bible like a pious Indiana Jones. “Close your eyes,” a voice-over encourages visitors. “Try to imagine King David’s soldiers in the darkness, approaching the vast walls, crawling in the darkness for the tunnels in the rock.”

Orenstein led me down into the site, which vibrated from the ongoing construction. The remains themselves weren’t much to look at. Most of them date from the city’s early Canaanite days; they are big and rough and without decoration. Stairs and viewing platforms built into the hillside move tourists past a large, misshapen retaining wall known as the Stepped Stone Structure, along the foundations of four-­room Judaean houses, and down into an ancient tunnel system that brought water into the city. We paused on a metal grating suspended over an expanse of bedrock and the remnants of what could have been two walls, composed of rough-­hewn, semi-­regular blocks and clusters of smaller stones. One of them seemed to be about eight feet thick. A sign over our heads read: the remains of king david’s palace?

I noted the question mark. Despite the site’s name, the 3-­D video, and the harp music, archaeologists have found nothing that conclusively ties the area to King David. What the Bible describes as a golden age of expansion under the patronage of David and his descendants is oddly thin in the archaeological record. In 2005, an archaeologist named Eilat Mazar announced that she had found the “house of cedar”—­the palace supposedly built for David by stonemasons and carpenters from Tyre—right under Elad’s visitors’ center, but the archaeological community has been nearly unanimous in rejecting Mazar’s theory. Nevertheless, Elad continues to offer it as a possibility. “We’ve yet to find a sign saying ‘Welcome to King David’s palace,’ ” Orenstein said. “Maybe that will be discovered, maybe not.” He added that most tourists were not like me, by which he seemed to mean a person with a high tolerance for archaeological complexity, or uncertainty: “They’re looking to hear some nice stories. They don’t want to go to a lecture from some professor.”

Elad has other reasons for promoting David’s presence at the site. The City of David is located in East Jerusalem, across the Green Line—­the internationally recognized border that here separates the state of Israel from the Palestinian territories—­on what are perhaps the most contentious few miles of the Israeli–­Palestinian conflict. East Jerusalem was effectively annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War, in 1967, but the area is still considered occupied land by the United Nations. Elad knows that what is found at the City of David, and whose history is represented there, has the potential to shape the political fate of Jerusalem. Unbeknownst to most tourists, Elad is a right-­wing settler group that employs archaeology as part of a long-­term effort to strengthen Israeli control over Jerusalem. “You have many people who say that Israel exists because of the Holocaust,” Orenstein told me. “Israel doesn’t exist because of the Holocaust, but because this is the place—­and the antiquities that come out of the ground prove it every day—­where the Jewish people have been for thousands of years.”

View of the Al-Aqsa mosque from outside the Old City

View of the Al-Aqsa mosque from outside the Old City

From its earliest beginnings, as a form of glorified looting carried out by armies and aristocrats to shore up imperialist claims of civilizational progress, archaeology has been a handmaiden of nationalism. Even now the discipline sits uneasily between the sciences and the humanities; it has highly technical aspects but ultimately relies on human beings interpreting what they think they see in the dirt. I went on my first dig at age sixteen and for years thought I would become an archaeologist, but in 2015 I left a doctoral program in part because of this slipperiness. Biased or motivated reasoning can easily shade into pseudoscience. As Susan Pollock, an archaeologist at the Free University of Berlin, has written, “Control of the past and its interpretation is a source of power in the present.” That power has often been exploited, at times dangerously.

Modern states have always sought to derive legitimacy from their histories, whether real or imagined, but nowhere has archaeology been more central to the project of nation building than in Israel. At the time of the country’s founding, in 1948, around six hundred and fifty thousand pioneering Zionists inhabited the new state. Within a decade, the country had absorbed nearly three times as many immigrants. Many came from the camps of Europe, but most had been expelled from North Africa and the Middle East. The new arrivals had not been part of the original Zionist socialist project; they had little in common except Judaism and a feeling of being surrounded by hostility. Desperate to supply some point of national solidarity, Prime Minister David Ben-­Gurion encouraged archaeologists to scour the land for physical evidence of the historical narrative recounted in the Bible, which he called “the sacrosanct title-­deed to Palestine.” New excavations began at Masada, Hazor, and Megiddo—­sites that would be mythologized in the collective consciousness.

Map by Mike Reagan.

Map by Mike Reagan.

In the decades after Israel achieved statehood, archaeology became what historian Howard Sachar described as a “national vocation.” Following the Six-Day War, when Israel annexed the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli archaeologists took their trowels into the occupied territories. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently defends the Israeli presence there in historical terms. “I often hear them accuse Israel of Judaizing Jerusalem,” he told the U.N. General Assembly in 2011. “That’s like accusing America of Americanizing Washington, or the British of Anglicizing London. You know why we’re called ‘Jews’? Because we come from Judaea.”

Today, Israel is said to be the most thoroughly excavated country in the world. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is full of artifacts that testify to the ancient Jewish presence in the Holy Land, including silver amulets with a priestly benediction from the sixth century ­b.c., mosaics from a late Roman-era synagogue, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are among the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts. There are also a pair of clay seals, found together at the City of David, that belonged to Gedaliah, son of Pashhur, and Jucal, son of Shelemiah—­names that appear together in the Book of Jeremiah, not only in the same chapter but in the same verse, where they are described as advisers to Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, who threw Jeremiah in a cistern after he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Right-­wing groups in particular have recognized the political value of such discoveries, and in doing so have cast a shadow of suspicion over Israeli archaeology, even as practiced by its most scrupulous scholars. In a 2013 CNN interview, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-­settler Jewish Home party, pulled a two-thousand-­year-­old Judaean coin out of his pocket as an argument against calling Israel’s presence in the West Bank an “occupation.”

Elad’s founder, David Be’eri, was one of the earliest ultra­nationalists to embrace archaeology. Be’eri was a deputy commander of the Duvdevan Unit, an I.D.F. counter­terrorism group whose members were known for undercover operations in urban areas, during which they often disguised themselves in Arab clothing. Be’eri’s unit was active in Silwan, the Palestinian village that envelops the City of David, and he claimed to be dismayed by the state of disrepair into which the ­area had fallen. From the highest ridge in Silwan, you can see many of the holiest places in Jerusalem—­the golden Dome of the Rock, the lead-­plated dome of the Al-­Aqsa Mosque, and the graves on the Mount of Olives, whose occupants will be the first to be resurrected when the Messiah returns—but the area itself is one of the poorest in Israel, a village of twenty thousand people spread over the hillsides south of the Temple Mount, where residents live next to and on top of the ancient remains.

Be’eri left the army and founded Elad with the goal of revitalizing the area, which, in practice, meant developing creative ways to evict Palestinians from their homes and move Jewish families into the part of Silwan closest to the City of David. According to a 2009 report by Ir Amim, a Jerusalem-based non-­profit, Be’eri posed as a tour guide to move through the neighborhood without detection, and he soon met Ibrahim Abbasi, the Palestinian custodian of the nearby freshwater spring, who owned a large piece of land in the village. The report quotes testimony from Be’eri’s wife, Michal, who said that Be’eri “took a tour guide card and put in his picture, and for a long time he would take bogus tourists on a tour . . . and slowly he befriended Abbasi. . . . Of course it was all staged.”

Decades earlier, Israel had passed what was known as the Absentee Property Law, which allowed the state to seize the property of Palestinians who left their homes, willingly or not, during the war in 1948. In September 1987, the Israeli government declared the Abbasi house “absentee” without the family’s knowledge. Be’eri arranged for the property to be rented to Elad and, in October 1991, agents of the group executed a home takeover in the dead of night, descending by a rope through a skylight while the Abbasis slept in their beds. After throwing furniture out of the house, the intruders returned to the roof, where, according to Ir Amim, “they broke into song and dance and waved the Israeli flag in the light of the breaking day.” A court ­later ruled that the Abbasi home was improperly designated as absentee, but settlers still live there today. These operations became commonplace for Be’eri in the years to come. “When I enter a house,” he said in 2008, “I go in as if it were a military operation. . . . Always with a gun, with a radio, with someone with me, and with somebody outside that knows.”

After East Jerusalem was proposed as the capital of a new Palestinian nation as part of the Oslo Accords, in 1993, Elad started funding excavations at the City of David in order to strengthen the Jewish connection to the area. It later opened a visitors’ center and began giving tours with the explicit purpose of undermining Palestinian claims. An Elad pamphlet from 1997 explained that “the Visitors Center is meant to be the main public diplomacy body in the arena of the battle for Jerusalem.” Excavators often found themselves at odds with Elad over the interpretation of their work. “I found a Byzantine water pit,” one of them told Ir Amim. “They said it was Jeremiah’s pit. I told him that was nonsense. . . . Sometimes they make all kinds of things up.”

When Elad proposed taking over daily management of the City of David from the state, in 1997, the plan was met with near-­universal opposition. Elad was seen at the time as a radical, fringe organization. A legal adviser hired by the Israel Antiquities Authority (I.A.A.) to give an opinion on the proposal recommended against working with Elad, which he described as “a private foundation whose actions in the recent past have been more than questionable when it comes to obeying the law.” Nevertheless, the Israel Lands Authority under Netanyahu, who had just been elected prime minister, signed a contract with Elad, charging the group with the City of David’s “guardianship and maintenance.” The High Court of Justice asked that the agreement be reconsidered, but Elad has remained in full control of the site. “We are almost a branch of the government of Israel,” Elad’s development manager, Doron Spielman, said in 2008.

Construction at the Pilgrimage Road tunnel entrance, in Silwan

Construction at the Pilgrimage Road tunnel entrance, in Silwan

After my tour, I returned to the Dung Gate to meet Rafi Greenberg, an Israeli archaeologist and one of Elad’s most vocal critics. The winter sun had burned through the haze, so Greenberg had removed his woolen hat, which he held in his left hand—­a fleshy, silicone prosthetic that was the result of a faulty land mine during his mandatory service in the Israeli army. Greenberg’s faded jeans and gray sweatshirt, zipped over a middle-­aged torso, gave him a laid-­back appearance, but he was agitated. “I almost got myself arrested today,” he said. He had just come from a tour of Islamic monuments in the Old City, led by a Palestinian art historian, Tawfiq Da’adli. A policeman had stopped the group as they tried to approach the Temple Mount to visit a fourteenth-­century Mamluk madrassa. “As long as Tawfiq was quiet, nothing would have happened,” Greenberg said, “but because Tawfiq responded, he says, ‘What is this uppity Arab—­why is he even talking to me?’ That set him off. It just lit him up.”

As a young man, Greenberg told me, he’d been arrested “here and there” for his role in the peace movement, but back then he saw no tension between his activism and his work. He’d come of age in an era of positivism, when archaeology was viewed as a modern science in service of the secular state. He’d excavated at the City of David in the Seventies and Eighties, when the site was run by Hebrew University. The most fervent critics of archaeology at the time were ultra­orthodox haredim, who believed that the dig was disturbing Jewish graves. Crowds of yeshiva students forced their way onto the site and hung banners in the streets denouncing the “archaeologist robbers.” Archaeologists’ offices were burned, their tires were slashed, and the directory of the I.A.A. was designated a classified document to protect its employees. The clashes ended only when rabbis were appointed to the archaeological council and care of human remains was transferred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. “It was considered total capitulation,” Greenberg told me.

The political ground began to shift in the late Eighties. Radical settler groups, supported by right-­wing politicians such as Ariel Sharon, were moving the country away from the old religious position that Israelis should not force God’s hand in bringing land under their control and toward an ultranationalist theology that zealously pursued that aim. “The whole use of archaeology as a legitimizer of the state has become a hallmark of Netanyahu,” Greenberg told Ha’aretz, in 2006. “Archaeology has become part of the conflict.”

Now a professor at Tel Aviv University, Greenberg refuses to excavate across the Green Line and publicly chastises any archaeologist who agrees to work at sites run by Elad. He co­founded the non­profit Emek Shaveh, which monitors Elad’s work in Silwan. “They went to the poorest neighborhood in Jerusalem and evicted people,” he told me. “Bad luck for these people that they built their houses on an ancient site. They have nowhere to go.” (Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem are considered “permanent residents”; they can work in Israel but have no passports, and if they leave, they may not be allowed back.) Emek Shaveh also gives alternative tours of the City of David that challenge aspects of Elad’s narrative, including the identification of King David’s palace. “I don’t think even they ­really think it’s his palace,” Greenberg told me. “They don’t care about the archaeology. This is just a tool.”

The home of Abu Saleh Aweideh and his family, which they claim has been damaged by tunnel digging. Nine people—two adults and seven children—sleep in a single room. The family believes this room to be the safest in the event of a structural collapse.

The home of Abu Saleh Aweideh and his family, which they claim has been damaged by tunnel digging. Nine people—two adults and seven children—sleep in a single room. The family believes this room to be the safest in the event of a structural collapse.

“Archaeology is the way that the settlers have conquered Silwan,” said Yonathan Mizrachi, the current director of Emek Shaveh, two days after my visit to the City of David. We were standing by the entrance to Elad’s newest dig, which was concealed from passersby behind a high metal fence draped with dark plastic tarps and studded with surveillance cameras angled down at the street. From the outside, it looked more like a construction site than an excavation. Large bags of rocks and dirt sat on the sidewalk beside a dumpster crowded with buckets and loose debris. Mizrachi, whose grandparents came to Israel from Kurdistan, has long eyelashes and graying hair at his temples, and he has been documenting Elad’s activities in Silwan for more than a decade. Before co­founding Emek Shaveh in 2009, he worked as an archaeologist with the I.A.A., which sent him to supervise excavations along the route of the planned separation barrier that would divide Israel from the West Bank. “That was for me a kind of trigger,” he said.

Standing with his back to the surveillance cameras, Mizrachi explained that Elad was sponsoring the excavation of a first-­century road that it believed had been used by Jewish pilgrims, who would have cleansed themselves at a pool at the base of the hill before walking up along this route to the Herodian Temple. The remains of the road lay across the street from the City of David, directly underneath dozens of Palestinian homes, so Elad, in coordination with the I.A.A., had received approval for a tunnel excavation.

Tunneling is considered bad practice by most archaeologists, who ordinarily excavate from the topsoil down, removing each layer one by one to avoid conflating time periods. Often a trained field archaeologist detects a new layer simply by noting a slight change in the color, density, or texture of the soil; these subtle observations become much harder in the dark with limited space to maneuver. “Tunneling is not a method of scientific excavation,” Mizrachi told me. “Maybe if it’s a matter of life or death you can think about it, but archaeology is not a matter of life or death.” Deep underground, Elad is emptying out the dirt lying atop the pilgrimage road and inserting a concrete sleeve reinforced by steel arches that it hopes to develop into a subway-­size tunnel for tourists, who will be able, according to the group’s website, to “walk in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims.”

A 2016 survey commissioned by Emek Shaveh found that 44 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem considered archaeological excavations to be among their top concerns. More than half said they believed the purpose of archaeology was to strengthen the Israeli hold on Jerusalem and to erase any remnants of Muslim history from the city. “I don’t know what they’re doing with all that dirt,” said Sahar Abbasi, a Palestinian community organizer whose home is near the excavation. “They’re working more than ten hours a day and sometimes in the middle of the night,” she told me. “Have they reached hell?”

Palestinians who live above the pilgrimage road claim that displaced soil from the excavation has led to sub­sidence, causing structural damage and threatening the stability of their houses. “We can’t prove it’s because of the excavation,” Mizrachi said, explaining that to do so he would need to bring in engineers, at a cost too great for Emek Shaveh, a small organization that operates on an annual budget of around four hundred thousand dollars. Elad has conducted its own geological survey that traced the problems to shoddy and illegal building methods, which is certainly a contributing factor, considering that it is ­nearly impossible for Palestinian residents to obtain legal permits to renovate or expand their homes. (An Elad spokesman told me that the “excavation has been overseen by engineers that operate under the highest international standards.”) But residents say they began noticing cracks right around the time that the dig began, in 2013. Soon afterward, Greenberg emailed images of houses in the neighborhood to his colleagues at Tel Aviv University, hoping to build support for a joint statement against the tunneling. One of the most influential archaeologists in his department responded that the images could have come from anywhere: “How can I know that the photo is not of an earthquake-­damaged house in Japan?”

Mizrachi led me away from the main street into a network of alleys, scanning for fresh damage. “Even from here you can see the cracks,” he said, gesturing with two long fingers at the houses that sat behind graffiti-­covered concrete walls, with greenery from their gardens jutting into the street. Brightly painted metal doors marked many of the entrances, but the walls themselves showed signs of constant, hurried repairs. Cracks ran along doorjambs and threshold stones; they split the mortar between cinder blocks and radiated up toward the roofs. Mizrachi lost the thread of our conversation as he moved from house to house with his digital camera, taking pictures, tapping the stones, and ducking down to draw his hand along the fissures near the ground. “Sorry,” he kept repeating, “now I’m with you,” before lunging away again to examine a new spot. At the end of one alley, Mizrachi paused to take a picture of a fenced-­in basketball court with an Israeli flag at one end. “This belongs to the settlers,” he said.

As the City of David has expanded, public spaces once open to Palestinian Silwanis have been closed off and annexed to the park. One proposal, called the King’s Garden Project, which has been stalled in committee since 2010, would raze the illegally built houses on the valley floor and replace them with a green space and restaurants for tourists. “The wife of King Solomon went for a walk there,” one Palestinian activist told me incredulously. “That’s a reason to destroy the whole area? Because the wife of King Solomon went for a walk?” Four out of five Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. Though they pay taxes, they receive little in the way of municipal services, and there is only enough school capacity for 60 percent of children. The area has the highest dropout rate in the country. Sahar Abbasi told me that when she visited the City of David, what struck her most was the amount of money being spent on excavation and development, while she struggled to find a school for her children. “King David is a prophet,” she said. “We believe in King David. But you won’t find him in one of these tunnels. It will never be as important as the people who are alive and above­ground.”

A tunnel used by visitors in the City of David

A tunnel used by visitors in the City of David

Over the past three decades, Elad has worked with the government to take over roughly seventy-­five Palestinian homes in Silwan and to move in hundreds of Jews. One of the longest-­standing cases is against Jawad Siyam, a chain-smoking Palestinian activist with a long, sharp nose and manicured brows, whose house sits almost directly across from the entrance to the City of David. When I visited Siyam, he apologized that he hadn’t yet done his cleaning that week, but no amount of tidying would have changed the nature of the place, which had the colorful, chaotic look of an artists’ collective. Beyond the gate to the property, worn upholstered chairs, plastic stools, bookcases, and tools shared space on a wraparound porch.

Siyam led me through a green door and up a narrow flight of marble steps. He paused to press his right hand to the wall, where a doorway had been sealed with white plaster. “I was born in this room,” he said. “Now my brother lives there.” We ascended the stairs past the sunlit living room, where Siyam sleeps on a sagging white couch, and into the attic, which he had finished and turned into bedrooms for his young son and daughter, who had recently moved from Germany to be with him. His wife was still living in Munich; her Israeli visa was abruptly revoked six years ago—­retaliation, he told me, for his activism.

Earlier that day, Siyam had received a slim paper notice saying that he had lost his case and would have to pay 40,000 shekels—more than $11,000—to make an appeal. The decision was the latest development in a decades-­long campaign. In the Nineties, Elad went to court claiming that Jawad’s grandmother, Miriam Siyam, was the rightful owner of the property, that she had transferred it before her death to three of her sons now living in Chicago, and that those sons had in turn sold it to the settlers. At the trial, witnesses testified that, when Miriam died, a family member came in during the ritual washing of her body and took an impression of her fingerprint; the man assured his relatives that he was doing so to protect their property but ­later sold the piece of paper to the settlers. Elad lost that case, though the court did not make a judgment about whether the documents put forward had been forged. The court ultimately decided that Miriam’s property had been inherited by her eight children, four of whom have now sold their shares to Elad, and two of whom are considered absentee, enabling the Custodian for Absentee Property—­the government body that administers the Absentee Property Law—to sell their shares to Elad. In May, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that because Elad now owns six-­eighths of the property, it must be divided, with the settlers receiving the family’s apartment, shop, and yard. Siyam and his children will continue to live on another part of the plot, separated from the settlers by a wall. (Elad funds lawsuits and appeals against residents like Siyam through the tourist dollars it earns from its archaeological operations and its network of Israeli and international donors, many of whose identities are withheld from the public.)

I followed Siyam to his roof, which had a view over the entire Kidron Valley, but his eyes locked onto an empty lot across the street, where a team of men in dirty T-­shirts and yarmulkes were moving earth with a bulldozer. The Palestinian family there had been evicted, he told me, and now the settlers were building. “Look, now they block the street,” Siyam said, throwing up his hands. “If we did this, the Palestinians—­we would never get permission—­they would come and take the bulldozer.” Wadi Hilweh, the Arabic name for this part of Silwan, lies mostly within the City of David National Park, where building was prohibited for residential purposes until a recent law lifted the ban in order to allow new settlement construction. Siyam paced the roof like a general under siege, pointing to Israeli flags flying over settler homes on the horizon. “The excavation that they are doing,” he said, “it’s very clear to us it’s about removing us from this area.”

Working through archaeology and tourist development, Elad is more media-­savvy than some of its counterparts, such as Ateret Cohanim, another group installing a Jewish population in the Palestinian villages of East Jerusalem. Ateret Cohanim is threatening to evict eighty-­four families—more than six hundred people—from a part of Silwan known as Batan al-Hawa, a neighborhood on the hillside opposite the City of David, where aging concrete buildings are packed together so densely that from a distance the land seems geometric. The only color comes from clotheslines strung out over the valley.

Map by Mike Reagan.

Map by Mike Reagan.

I visited Zuheir Rajabi, a genteel community leader in Batan al-­Hawa, who described the increasingly combustible situation in the neighborhood as settlers have continued moving in. We stood outside his house—­a worn facade covered in wiring at the turn of a switchback—­as he explained that Ateret Cohanim had taken over a building a few doors down, which it was turning into a synagogue and mikvah. (I had passed the building earlier and noticed two white swastikas spray-painted on its walls.) As we talked, a young settler in glasses, with a blue-and-white tallit draped over his head and black leather bands of tefillin wrapped around his arm, wandered into view accompanied by his guard, who wore a bullet­proof vest and an earpiece. Each settler in Batan al-Hawa is assigned a personal guard, members of a private security force that is subsidized by the government.

Rajabi asked whether I wanted to come inside for tea. In his living room were lavender couches, two songbirds in a cage, and a photograph of his teenage son in a graduation cap, but the space was dominated by a large television screen on one wall, feeding CCTV footage from choke points around the neighborhood. Rajabi tried to film every interaction between the settlers and Palestinian youth so that he would have evidence to show the police when they came—­inevitably, he said, to arrest the Palestinians. He took out his phone and scrolled past photos of his smiling children to a black-and-white video of a ­woman, a settler, approaching Rajabi’s teenage son as he sits outside the house. He is filming her, and she slaps his phone away. As she continues walking, she kicks the air in his direction. Rajabi gestured plaintively up at the portrait of his son above his head. “This was my house and my father’s house and my grandfather’s house,” he said. “I want it to be here for my boy.”

By moving Jews into East Jerusalem, Elad, Ateret Cohanim, and other settler groups are making the city harder to divide in any future political agreement. Right-wing politicians are also working to rebalance the population by supporting legislation that would alter the boundaries of Jerusalem itself, absorbing three Jewish settlement blocs adjacent to the city—­Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, and Givat Ze’ev—­and detaching the Palestinian neighborhoods beyond the Separation Barrier. Yisrael Katz, a member of Likud, the center-right party led by Netanyahu, has said that the goal of the bill is “to strengthen Jerusalem by adding thousands of Jewish residents to the city and simultaneously weakening the Arab hold on the capital.” Netanyahu has announced his support for the measure.

A tourist area in the City of David

A tourist area in the City of David

Emek Shaveh is no longer the only group disputing Elad’s interpretation of the finds at the City of David. In 2017, Yuval Gadot, a colleague of Greenberg’s at Tel Aviv University, and Elisabetta Boaretto, a physicist at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, joined two I.A.A. archaeologists to carbon-­date monuments around Jerusalem for a project they called “Setting the Clock in the City of David.” At the time the team began its work, only ten reliable carbon dates existed from all of the city’s digs. As a result, the chronology of Jerusalem was “an assumption on an assumption on an assumption,” Gadot said. “There is not a single place where the dating is proven beyond doubt.” He and the team were hoping to change that, regardless of the implications of their work on the veracity of the biblical narrative.

The first monument the researchers chose to date was the Gihon Spring tower, a massive fortification on the eastern slope of the City of David, which was erected in antiquity around the city’s water source to protect it from capture. Two Israeli archaeologists had discovered the tower in 2004. On the basis of the style of architecture and the type of pottery they found around the foundation stones, they’d dated it to the Middle Bronze Age (twentieth–­sixteenth century ­b.c.). On its sign­age, Elad suggests that the Gihon Spring tower is the “fortress of Zion” mentioned in the Book of Samuel as being taken by King David when he attacked Jerusalem. “King David apparently stood opposite this tower when he came to conquer the Jebusite city 3,000 years ago,” the text reads. But in 2017, the team ran samples and came back with radiocarbon dates from the ninth century b.c., moving the tower’s provenance by more than a thousand years. If the new date is correct, the structure didn’t exist during David’s lifetime. “In science you are not driven by politics,” Boaretto told me. “That’s why the Bible is a problem.”

I went with Gadot to see the Gihon Spring tower, which is now buried far below the ground surface, accessible only via the network of ancient tunnels that had been cleared for tourists. We descended a metal staircase through a channel carved in the bedrock. Gadot was out of breath by the time an immense wall of boulders appeared on our left and the tunnel opened up into an underground chamber, with orange lights casting a soft glow over the stones. The fortification was so massive that it took me several seconds to realize I was looking at a single structure. Gadot pointed down at the sediment under the foundations below. “They went here and they took the samples thinking that they’ll be able to clarify whether it’s Early or Middle Bronze Age,” he said. “The date that came out was a complete shock.”

Gadot has led excavations at the City of David, which earned him sharp criticism from left-­wing groups, and particularly from Greenberg, his colleague at Tel Aviv University, who believes that any involvement with Elad amounts to an endorsement of a pro-settler agenda. Gadot was quick to clarify that he works with the I.A.A., not Elad, but given the close partnership between the government and the settlers, that distinction seems blurrier than he might like it to be. I had watched a promotional video for the City of David, in which Gadot shows off a gold earring from the Hellenistic period that had been found at the site. “Jerusalem archaeology is always under criticism,” Gadot told me. “We can’t solve the criticism, but one thing that we can be responsible for is doing the best archaeology that we can do. Okay, fine, you’re disputing whether we’re allowed to dig here or not, but you can’t dispute our methods. That’s why we turn to this world of the sciences.”

Gadot was disdainful of Greenberg’s position that archaeologists should refuse to work with Elad. “Be here and take part in the narrative creation,” he said. “Don’t run away and say it’s all so bad what’s happening.” Gadot believed that the involvement of respected archaeologists and academic institutions like Tel Aviv University pushed Elad to abide by the best practices of the discipline. “I think that’s the main thing that we’re trying to say: it’s not black and white. Life is gray.”

I noticed that the sign­age at the Gihon Spring tower had not been changed to reflect Boaretto’s findings, so I asked Gadot whether he had conversations with Elad about aspects of the site presentation that he felt were wrong or misleading. “Conversations, yes,” he replied. “Successful conversations, not yet.”

Qusay, a Palestinian child, by the Pool of Siloam, where tourists exit from the City of David. Despite living nearby, this is the rst time Qusay and his siblings have visited the spring because of the difficulty of accessing it, which includes the cost of entry

Qusay, a Palestinian child, by the Pool of Siloam, where tourists exit from the City of David. Despite living nearby, this is the first time Qusay and his siblings have visited the spring because of the difficulty of accessing it, which includes the cost of entry

Archaeologists reconstruct the past based on whatever material has happened to linger in the ground for thousands of years—­a tiny percentage of what existed at the time. Turning that partial record into a narrative about people and events takes a deep knowledge of history and some degree of imagination. Because archaeology ties identity to territory, the questions asked of it are often animated by contemporary geopolitical concerns. Armed with potsherds and inscriptions, ethnic groups or states can tell stories about the past that enable them to make claims about who they are and where they belong in the present.

But that logic relies on our ability to define group identity through time, which has become even more fraught as the character of the nation-­state adapts to flows of migration. What makes the French of today the same as the French of the seventeenth century or the Gauls of antiquity? Genetic makeup? Shared language, practices, and traditions? Or the accident of living within shifting French borders? The very notion of primacy—­the claim that “we were here first”—­depends on being able to define who “we” are. At the time when David’s sons and grandsons were ruling in Jerusalem, for example, the Judaeans were polytheistic; Judaism as we understand it today did not coalesce until the third or second century b.c.

In July, Netanyahu’s Twitter account shared an article from Science Advances about a study that claimed to have traced the genetic origins of the Philistines, the biblical enemy of the Israelites from whose name the word “Palestine” derives, to Southern Europe. “There’s no connection between the ancient Philistines & the modern Palestinians, whose ancestors came from the Arabian Peninsula to the Land of Israel thousands of years later,” he wrote. “The Palestinians’ connection to the Land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000 year connection that the Jewish people have with the land.” Archaeologists have long believed that people from the Greek islands migrated east to this area at the beginning of the Iron Age, but many took issue with the media’s characterization of the new findings. David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, wrote that Netan­yahu’s tweet was “no doubt painful reading to scholars who produced the study.” “In antiquity the Eastern Mediterranean was a place of constant mixture, not bounded groups of ‘Europeans’ and ‘Levantines,’ ” Wengrow tweeted. “That is just what we made of it.”

But arguments based on primacy have retained power and prominence for Palestinians and Israelis alike. Pro-Israel nonprofit groups such as StandWithUs and CAMERA have tried to appeal to left-leaning students on U.S. campuses by using the language of indigenous rights. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, recently compared Jews in Israel to Native Americans. “A member of the Sioux Nation has a right to live on Sioux Nation territory,” Oren said. “These are our tribal lands.”

Such comparisons not only oversimplify Native identity but also contradict the biblical narrative itself, which recounts bloody wars fought by the Israelites against groups who preceded them in the land of milk and honey. The Levant has been a corridor between Central Asia and the Mediterranean for thousands of years, with soldiers and caravans moving back and forth across its deserts and plains. Indigeneity is meaningless here, Greenberg told me. “There was never a time when this area was pristine,” he said, “when there were no immigrants, nobody going in and out. Everything here is constantly in flux.”

Some leaders in the Arab world have gone much further in dismissing Jewish claims of primacy, denying that a Jewish temple ever stood on the Temple Mount. In 2001, the chief Muslim cleric of the Palestinian Authority claimed that “in the whole city, there is not even a single stone indicating Jewish history. Our right, on the other hand, is very clear. This place belongs to us for fifteen hundred years.” Elad is extremely suspicious of the United Nations and its cultural body, UNESCO, which Orenstein described to me as biased against Israel. Even some members of Emek Shaveh were critical of a 2016 ­UNESCO draft decision on “Occupied Palestine,” which they felt implicitly undermined the Jewish attachment to the Temple Mount. “At the moment, we’re in a frenzy of mutual derision,” Daniel Seidemann, an expert on the geopolitics of Jerusalem, told me. “It’s socially unacceptable for Muslims to recognize the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. And extreme Jews and evangelical Christians claim there’s no Muslim attachment—­it’s a modern conceit, an invention.” During our walk through the City of David, Orenstein often brought up the Arab denials of an ancient Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Part of what Elad wants to do is protect and champion Jewish heritage, but entrusting one of the country’s most important archaeological sites to an ultranationalist settler group may have only undermined that goal.

“People want to connect with the past,” Orenstein told me on our tour. “People want to feel like they’re a part of a bigger story.” Elad recognizes that there is a natural human impulse to find meaning in one’s own life by relating to grand narratives, of which the Bible is perhaps the most prominent, but the City of David is un­likely ever to become the biblical Disney World that Elad envisions. Archaeology resists grand narratives; it operates on a different plane. Excavations uncover the daily lives of ordinary people who are invisible in biblical stories, people who may never have sacrificed in the temple or led an army in wartime. The stuff of archaeology is cooking pots and spear tips, fish bones and clay figurines, as much as it is palaces and monuments. When practiced with rigor, archaeology is ­likely to reveal more about people like the Palestinians who now live above the City of David than about David himself.

View from the walkway above the Large Stone Structure, at the City of David, with Batan al-Hawa in the distance

View from the walkway above the Large Stone Structure, at the City of David, with Batan al-Hawa in the distance

Late one afternoon, I drove with Greenberg to see one of his old dig sites in West Jerusalem. We were heading due west toward the setting sun, over a ridge beyond the Valley of the Cross, and the rays hitting Greenberg’s weathered face seemed to make his green irises flicker. He slumped in the driver’s seat, stewing over Elad’s incursion into Silwan. “There’s this relentless pressure to excavate,” he said. “Of course, it’s being used or abused or exploited all the time by politicians.” Emek Shaveh has been working to spark public condemnation of the tunneling project, but so far the campaign has had little success. Greenberg seems increasingly isolated, an aging gadfly whose moral rigidity and cynicism have alienated his colleagues. “I have a hard time funding students,” he confessed. “Yuval Gadot can fund students because he digs in Givati [another Elad-managed site] and there’s a lot of money in that. Everybody has their stable with all their prized horses.”

Greenberg believes that in the past several years the Israeli academy has totally capitulated to Elad. He is unimpressed with Boaretto’s project to redate Jerusalem through radiocarbon, because working in a lab does not remove the ethical and methodological problems at the heart of the issue: before any sampling is done, the choice of where to dig and what questions to ask already depends on the researchers’ motives and perspective. Greenberg believes that as long as archaeologists are talking about the Bible, they’re playing the settlers’ game, even if they’re confirming some stories and contesting others. “What excavations in Jerusalem have consistently shown is that you can’t find the Bible in the lives of everyday people,” he told me. “You had breakfast this morning. Was that in the news? Was it in the daily paper? Imagine if there was one paper that came out every thousand years. Would your breakfast be in it? The chance that what we find would be described in the Bible is a zillion to one.” Greenberg recalled visiting an exhibit at the archaeology museum in Philadelphia about daily life during the Revolutionary War and looking at a display of toothbrushes. “What does that have to do with the Liberty Bell?” he asked. “Nothing. They are two different takes on the same time.”

He pulled the visor down to shield his eyes and laid his prosthetic hand on the armrest. “It’s actually happening, everything we thought would happen,” he said, “but apart from being proved right you’re also proved powerless.” Since Greenberg co­founded Emek Shaveh, Israeli politics have continued their rightward drift. In 2017, the government awarded David Be’eri the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, the highest honor the state can confer on a civilian. Netanyahu has fully embraced an agenda of expansionism, further emboldened by President Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. “From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli,” Netanyahu said in April. “I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”

On July 1, Elad held an underground celebration to mark the opening of the Pilgrimage Road. Among the guests were the Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, and U.S. ambassador David Friedman, who somewhat impo­tently swung a sledgehammer at a ceremonial brick wall that had been erected in the tunnel, ultimately breaking through to TV cameras and lights on the other side. Friedman’s participation in the event was a stark departure from the behavior of previous ambassadors, who have been careful to avoid associating with settler groups or even appearing publicly in East Jerusalem. Since the 1967 war, the official position of the United States has been that the status of Jerusalem should be determined through direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. But Friedman, a former bankruptcy lawyer and adviser to the Trump campaign, said that the dig showed why Israel would never relinquish East Jerusalem. “The City of David is an essential component of the national heritage of the State of Israel,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “It would be akin to America returning the Statue of Liberty.” According to Amy Cohen of Ir Amim, “The U.S. presence at the event is truly the closest the U.S. has gotten to recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Old City Basin.”

By the time Greenberg and I turned onto the dirt road that led to the site, the light was dying, and the hills in the distance were fading into a purple band on the horizon. We walked around the back of a drab community center until a clearing came into view with a large, grassy mound at its center. At the base was an overturned tricycle and, at the top, a few empty Corona bottles, but otherwise the area was free of refuse. This neighborhood, Ir Ganim, was one of the poorest in West Jerusalem, with large housing projects inhabited by recent immigrants from North Africa and the former Soviet Union. What now looked like a pleasant local park, Greenberg said, used to be a dumping ground for residents. It was where they would toss their old radios, broken refrigerators, and unwanted junk, and it was known as a spot for buying and taking drugs. In the early Aughts, the adjacent community center decided to clear the site of garbage and invited Greenberg to lead an excavation of whatever was found underneath. From the beginning, he thought it critical to involve the community in the decision-­making process. “I’m sort of wrestling with what a de­colonized archaeology would look like,” he told me, “an archaeology that’s free from these preordained narratives about what is important.”

Over the next several years, Greenberg led excavations aimed at teaching families from the neighborhood the basics of archaeology. Often there would be forty kids running around the area—­washing pottery, sifting buckets, and pounding the earth with hoes and pickaxes. The stone mound, Greenberg proposed, was one of several placed at various points along the ridgeline in the eighth and seventh centuries b.c. to mark the border of settled land, the boundary of Jerusalem’s agricultural hinterland and the king’s authority. His volunteers also found cisterns and rock-­cut wine presses from the Persian period.

Greenberg walked around the base of the mound inspecting the ground. Since the excavations ended, in 2008, the area had remained free of trash, and Greenberg thought that this must be because the residents had been involved in determining when and how the digs occurred. They felt a sense of ownership over the project, a sense that their participation was valued. “That’s what protected it,” he said. “I have no other explanation.”

 is a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine.

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