Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Journalism, Archaeology, and Legitimacy

Way to generate a four way voting tie, people. You're so helpful.

The Sunday New York Times ran a front page article this week titled "Parks Fortify Israel's Claim to Jerusalem." I'd learned about this issue last semester. Essentially, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem which was annexed by Israel in 1967 (Silwan) is now being transformed into an archaeological park which emphasizes the centrality of the area to Jewish history, thereby enforcing a mindset of Jewish/Israeli hegemony there. The excavation and parks construction are being conducted by a shadow group which appears to be funded by American and Russian Zionists, called Elad. Elad is fundamentally a settlers group. An Elad spokesman reputedly told a reporter in 2006 that the organizations' goal is "to get a [Jewish] foothold in East Jerusalem and to create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City." (quoted in an article in The Nation, July 2008). This is accomplished in part by forcing Palestinians living in Silwan to sell their houses cheaply and conducting archaeological excavation on the City of David (translation: Iron Age remains) to demonstrate that Jewish people were there first. These "excavations", if clearing anything less than 2500 years old with bulldozers is to be called that, are tacitly approved by the government.

If you're curious about further ethical, political, and archaeological issues involved in Elad's City of David excavations, read The Nation article linked above, or watch this video. It "stars" Rafi Greenburg, a respected Israeli archaeologist. I've met him a few times; he's a legitimate scholar.

But does the NY Times article really discuss any of this? No. The online version loads in two pages. The first page includes such gems of objective journalism as: "As part of the effort, archaeologists are finding indisputable evidence of ancient Jewish life here. Yet Palestinian officials and institutions tend to dismiss the finds as part of an effort to build a Zionist history here. In other words, while the Israeli narrative that guides the government plan focuses largely — although not exclusively — on Jewish history and links to the land, the Palestinian narrative heightens tensions, pushing the Israelis into a greater confrontational stance."

The second page acknowledges some controversy in the archaeological community about the legitimacy of the scholarship. There is a quotation from a February article by Professor Greenberg, who was clearly not interviewed for this piece. The NY Times writers then undermine all legitimacy of opposition by writing "At the same time, the Web site of Al Quds University, one of the most important Palestinian institutions, states that the Western Wall, the remnant of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, was probably built by the Romans because the temple could not have stood there. There is no scholarly dispute about whether the temple stood beneath what is today the Aksa Mosque compound." What Al Quds and the Western Wall have to do with Elad and Silwan, I have no idea, other than to show that all interested parties have "scholarship" at their disposal and are not above using it for political purposes. But Al Quds University is of course flat wrong...

This post is less about the blatant uses and abuses of archaeology at Silwan - I think it's fairly clear how I and hundreds of other archaeologists feel about this - and more about the dangers of journalism, even from such a legitimate source as the New York Times. This bias and poor journalism of this article completely angered me, and if I had more credibility (say, three letters after my name) I would write such a scathing letter to the editor.

What it really comes down to, again, is lack of scientific and academic literacy in the US. How do you distinguish good scholarship from bad? Real bias from attempted objectivity? The "theory" of evolution versus creationism?

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