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Silwan: Conflicting Narratives in East Jerusalem
By: Brian Britt
6 August 2012

Jerusalem’s ancient past is changing quickly. Since 1967 when Israel captured the eastern part of the city from Jordan, building and demolition in the name of archaeology have accelerated, and the level of conflict around these projects has intensified. These disputes derive from the unresolved territorial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but they also reflect dynamics of symbolism and tradition that have defined Jerusalem since biblical times. Perhaps no site in Jerusalem defines the overlapping interests of territory, archaeology, and political and theological ideology more than the neighborhood of Silwan.

Silwan stretches down the Kidron valley from the Old City, not far from the Western Wall and the Temple Mount housing the Al Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. With a population of around 40,000 Palestinian residents and a handful of Israeli settlers, Silwan is less commercial than the Arab neighborhoods on the other, northern side of the Old City, and far less affluent than Israeli neighborhoods. When I first visited Silwan in 1997, I felt as if I had left a wealthy country to the Third World in the short distance between the walls and the village: unpaved roads, dilapidated buildings, and donkeys filled the landscape of this neighborhood in the shadow of the surprisingly-modern Old City. Neither picturesque village nor throbbing urban center, Silwan challenges the image of Jerusalem as a politically-unified and culturally-captivating destination.

But Silwan sits on an archeological gold mine. By what may have been a simple mistake, the city walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century left out this ancient zone where settlement may go back three millennia to the time of King David. An ancient water tunnel linked to eighth-century (BCE) King Hezekiah and other sites excavated by nineteenth-century archaeologists began a process that has accelerated in the past few years. Until recently, small numbers of visitors walked through the neighborhood to the sites, but now an elaborate park, the City of David, encloses and showcases them. In other words, one need never encounter the Palestinian village in order to visit these ancient biblical sites. Since the City of David opened in 2005, thousands of foreign tourists, youth groups, and soldiers breeze through each week. The highlight of their tour is the chance to wade through the ancient water tunnel, which abuts a mosque and kindergarten and takes on the atmosphere of theme park when groups go splashing and shouting by. The Palestinian owner of a shop near the exit of the tunnel told me his building had been damaged by recent construction, and that Israeli tour guides instruct their clients not to buy even water or ice cream from him. They can now buy refreshments at the City of David Visitors’ Center.

The conflict over Silwan is a conflict between two stories. One is the story of a Palestinian-majority neighborhood and its multi-layered history, a story that incorporates many cultures and groups, including the Palestinian residents’ protection of Yemenite Jews during the riots of 1929 and the present struggles over land and governance. This story asks its audience to link biblical history with contemporary politics, to think against the grain of dominant images in popular media and sympathize with Palestinians. In order to succeed, this story must invert a powerful narrative that grants political and cultural legitimacy to Israeli policy. These competing stories have become increasingly global. The City of David story is also a Christian story of the Bible, while the story of Silwan has been framed in broader, international terms of human rights and the diversity of traditions.

The City of David story is a story of scientific discovery, building, recovery, and global outreach. It features archaeologists whose goal is to uncover and share the wonders of biblical history with the whole world. Although they are funded and organized by Elad, these scientists have the support and cooperation of the Israeli Antiquities Authority and the Israeli government behind them. These projects increase tourist access to such biblical sites as Hezekiah’s tunnel and make them more user-friendly. They have replaced ordinary-looking and ambigious sites embedded in a low-income neighborhood with an attractive national park a short walk and easily visible from the Old City. They have, in short, transformed a murky ancient past into present-day biblical experience.

And the pace of change in Silwan continues to accelerate. The Givati parking lot near the Old City and across the street from the City of David Center, until recently the site of a tent protest against Israeli excavations, has now been converted by the settlers’ organization Elad into an archaeological dig, and there are new plans to build a fanciful, transparent temple-like tourist center directly over the archaeological dig. A high wall decorated with colorful advertisements aimed at visitors, including an illustration of the “Ancient Jerusalem Safari” tour bus, surrounds the site. Plans are underway to demolish a large area of houses in the al-Bustan neighborhood next to the City of David to make way for a park that would not only increase tourism but also further isolate Palestinian residents and link Silwan closer to other Israeli settlements. These plans, along with a series of tunnel excavations and demolitions in the area, have led to an increase in in tensions. Last February government forces demolished a tent near the City of David that served as an information center for Wadi Hilweh, a Palestinian group representing residents’ interests.

Most Jewish and Christian visitors see Silwan as the City of David, a window onto a familiar ancient biblical past, one with which Israelis and Christians especially identify. Jonathan Mizrachi, director of Emek Shaveh, an organization of archaeologists and activists critical of Israeli policies in Silwan, says the power of the City of David lies not in what visitors see but in “what they believe they see.” International and Israeli tourists expect confirmation of their biblical and national stories tied to their own sense of identity. For residents and a handful of visitors, Silwan remains a neighborhood of East Jerusalem, the site of cultural and political conflict in which archaeology and territorial claims have become unhappily comingled.

The story of recovery and restoration follows a familiar pattern that blends modern politics with biblical history. Elad’s City of David Foundation, which raises tax-deductible contributions at its New York office, glorifies its founder, David Be’eri, for rescuing the site from neglect and garbage heaps: “Inspired by the incredible archaeological significance of the site, and the longing of the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem after 2,000 years, David`le left his army career to establish the Ir David Foundation.”

It is easy to see why this narrative appeals to the outside world: it offers a hopeful and exciting future based on exciting discoveries of the biblical past. It echoes other narratives about heroic soldiers like Moshe Dayan seen as reclaiming the land and its story from neglect. Thanks to the new national park, tour groups now come in large numbers to the site to fulfill their hopes and expectations of adventure. This kind of adventure appeals widely to American Jewish students on “Birthright” tours, Israeli soldiers, and Christian tourists. The City of David has already taken on an air of inevitability in travel literature. Travelujah, a travel company aimed at Christian Zionist tourists, recommends a visit to Hezekiah’s Tunnel as a “must” and offers a 15% members’ discount on admission to the City of David, which it describes as “where King David established the capital of his kingdom . . . and this central part of Jerusalem has ever since been the focus of world history.”

Where once it had resisted cooperation with Elad, today the Israeli Antiquities Authority now fully coordinates the archeological projects underway in Silwan. The website of the IAA makes no mention of the debate over Silwan, but it does tell the story of biblical discovery with Orientalist fervor: “The Akeldama area is situated in one of the most impressive locations in Jerusalem. The rocky cliffs and steep slopes of Mt. Zion, the Valleys of Hinnom and Kidron, and the village of Silwan spreading towards the Mt. of Olives, all lend to the historic and biblical atmosphere of the scene.” What thousands of residents consider home under a restrictive government becomes “biblical atmosphere” for the government’s office of archaeology, the IAA, one of a tangled web of government and non-government agencies including the courts, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Lands Administration on the government side; and the Jewish National Fund, Elad Foundation, and the City of David Foundation on the private side.

The alternative story of Silwan demands more: it requires deep suspicion of a government that projects a sense of legitimacy not only through military control but also through political and cultural institutions. The justice it seeks is recognition of the neighborhood of Silwan as a place to live free from threat of destruction and confiscation. The website of Silwanic, an organization of Palestinian residents, frames its goals in terms of diversity and hospitality: “We welcome everyone in the village of Silwan and honor the guests as we honor the successive civilizations. The ruins and the story remains, and we are still in our homes and did not leave and will not leave.” But even if the specific challenges of Silwan concerning biblical archaeology and tourism are met, there is no assurance that the neighborhood can withstand broader pressures toward annexation that apply to the entire metropolitan area. Emek Shaveh challenges direct links between ancient past and political present, describing the past as a “foreign country”: “It is not our business to establish links between modern ethnic identities (e.g., Palestinians, Israelis, or Europeans) and ancient ones (e.g., Judeans, Canaanites, or Crusaders). We do not use archaeology to prove precedence.” For Emek Shaveh, archaeology is “inherently critical of all historical narratives.”

Such an academically responsible approach attracts less mass appeal than the City of David story. Despite measurable international and local support for Emek Shaveh and Silwan’s residents, the combination of a compelling story and overwhelming force currently favor the expansion of projects like City of David. Scholarly skepticism may yield better archaeology, but as Elad and the Israeli Antiquities Authority have found, the general public usually prefers a good story. The attractive facilities and planned developments in Silwan combine a triumphant biblical history with a water attraction, all without subjecting visitors to direct encounters with low-income residents.

Yet the City of David story rests on shaky ground. When Emek Shaveh’s Mizrachi leads tours that raise questions about biblical archaeology, some respond defensively, as if he has threatened their identity. Others are receptive to the idea that many layers of culture and history have shaped the area and the possibility that this diverse past may represent a model for the future. Meanwhile, excavation and local population continue to compete. In the struggle between the stories of Silwan and the City of David, Palestinian homeowners are losing. Legitimacy and law are mostly on the Israelis’ side, though some home demolitions have been slowed down in the courts. Whether the story of Silwan poses a significant challenge to the City of David will depend not only on how widely and well it is told, but also on how thoughtfully it is heard.


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