Sunday, September 26, 2010

Blowing the Shofar at the Kotel During the Mandate

Toldot Yisrael (for donors and producers see the credits at the end of the clip) and History Channel offer a glimpse of shofar blowing as an act of defiance under the British Mandate. Following the Western Wall riots of 1929  it was forbidden for Jews to blow the shofar, carry Torah scrolls, or engage in other demonstrative ritual acts. The sequence, mostly based on interviews with the surviving shofar blowers, embeds the story in the narrative of liberation and return (1930s, 1948, 1967).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Leave Jerusalem for last, but take seriously the plurality of attachments to the city

There are multiple attachments to Jerusalem, as of course there are multiple ways of being attached to Jerusalem. But not all attachments are equal. What I mean concerns any attempt to treat Jewish, Christian, and Islamic attitudes toward this city. Since boundaries and conceptions of Jerusalem are fluid (even the name by which the city is referred to is not the same for everyone), it is important also to distinguish between what aspect of the city the attachment relates to. If attachment and city are correlatives, what one means or refers or relates to as Jerusalem differs from attachment to attachment.

Moreover, not every attachment is of the same kind. Some are exclusivist, claiming that their attachment (and, implicitly, their right to presence and sovereignty) is unique and must be realized at the cost of excluding the attachment of others (though this may be mitigated by appropriate compromise on non-essentials); others are “tolerant” (though not necessarily in the modern relativistic sense) of other attachments, recognize their relative right, though not to the point that they concede their own superior justification to rule and to serve as the arbiter between their own and the claims of others.

Even secular forms of attachment differ from one another. There is the local patriotic or particular attachment of individuals and families to their neighboorhoods. There is the focus on a particular quarter that renders the city as a whole an abstract entity or where one (erroneously) extends to the city as a whole the affection one harbors toward one’s neighborhood. There is the attachment various publics have to what they consider their city. These may compete for things like the most pleasant garden-neighborhood or take political dimensions during municipal elections, especially where neighborhoods or populations are sharply divided by class, race, ethnicity, religion, and other similarly strongly distinctive social qualifiers. There is the city as conceived by city planners, engineers, and administrations, and the city that is subject to different ideological visions about its past, present, and future (secularist v. religious, demographically Jewish v. open to everyone, cosmopolitan v. national, green/conservationist v. industrially or commercially developed, etc.).

It is important to acknowledge that the neutralist or objectivist perspective on such a city is also a position, one that cannot claim any greater justification than any other perspective. Someone like Folke Bernadotte, who tried to arbitrate between different attachments, was shot because he tried to impose a neutralistic vision or whatever he saw as a just solution onto Jerusalem that was unacceptable not least because Bernadotte lacked the intellectual modesty (a virtue then perhaps more rarely found than today) to acknowledge that the international view had no more authority or legitimacy than the view of those on the ground who lived their attachment to the city every day and were driven by millennial commitments rather than any more mundane or topical concerns. They were ready to die, or at the extreme, to kill for what they saw as their city.

Likewise, little is gained if one treats every religious or national attachment to the city as equal. They may be equally justified but they are not the same. They differ. They are not identical. That is what makes the sitution of a city like Jerusalem so difficult. When it comes to Zionism, for example, Herzl was wrong to think that the Jewish problem he hoped to solve and that he had diagnosed in a particular way could be solved anywhere other than in the Land of Israel. More precisely, Jewish attachment to the land was a  force he neither fully understood nor could was he in control of the national-religious forces he helped to unleash and funnel in the direction of a political solution. The Uganda proposal erupted in his face. Likewise, all references to the disdain left-wing Zionist leaders are said to have harbored toward the Old City of Jerusalem and possibly toward Jerusalem as a whole and what it stood for must not fool us into believing that Zionism could have advanced or succeeded without Zion.

On the other hand, it is quite likely that Zion, namely, the conquest of East Jerusalem, killed Zionism as we knew it before June 1967. This is imprecise, of course. What died in June 1967, though its death was not evident for a while, was the superiority of left-wing idealism over right-wing idealism. The conquest or “return” to Jerusalem’s “abandoned” streets and markets marked the beginning of a new powerful coalition between neo-Zionist realism (rooted in Revisionism) and the religious settler movement working toward the redemption of Zion (a vague notion whose overall impetus is, however, clear in that it points toward maximalist goals such as settlement and rule over the “complete Land of Israel” and Jerusalem as the “eternally undivided capital” of Israel alone; not to speak of the building of the third temple).

The elephant in the room of political pragmatism and negotiated settlement today is the special attachment of “the Jews” to “Jerusalem.” All three major Abrahamic or monotheistic formations lay claim to the Holy City. But when it comes to Jerusalem, Jews are extraordinarily exclusivist or maximalist. This is not an insult but a statement of fact. Religious attitudes cannot be measured by the standards of the French Revolution. When it comes to Jerusalem, Jews feel no brotherhood with the rest of humanity or the equality and freedom appropriate for any peaceful competition. The Jewish feeling is: Jerusalem is ours, and we are Jerusalem’s! Perhaps it is even the latter more than the former that characterizes the Jewish attitude toward the city. No possession of any land is unconditional in the Jewish tradition. Everything is the LORD’s, the earth and those who are on it are all God’s creatures. But we, if I may include myself for the moment, are existentially, ontologically bound to Jerusalem. As Jews, we are exiles from the city of Judah, the Jerusalem of David and Solomon. This is an attachment of mythological proportions. It exceeds mere history. It is our cosmic place. This is why one finds Jews relate with derision to the Palestinian claim of tsumud, or “attachment.” “Clinging” to Jerusalem is second nature to Jews, and it is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our sense of self that we cannot but belittle the way in which others feel attached to the city. This is neither nice, nor is it politically correct, but it must be recognized in order for all of us who care about Jerusalem to be engaging what is real before we can get to some agreement on what is desirable.

It is an entirely different question whether a Jewish state, a Jewish nation, or a Jewish municipality can work its way around the Jewish existential attachment to “Jerusalem” (upper/lower, this-worldly/other-worldly, the whole nine yards) and allow for others to be attached to the city as well, in whatever way they may feel attached.

The extraordinary recent media onslaught launched by all sorts of friends of Israel (including the heaviest of all heavy hitters, Eli Wiesel) on the Obama administration at a moment when it seemed to pressure the Netanyahu government to compromise on Jerusalem or when it seemed that the US government took it for granted that Jerusalem should be on the agenda for renewed peace negotiations before these negotiations even started, this onslaught is not really surprising when we consider the depth of the anxiety caused by the prospect of relinquishing any sovereignty over those parts of Jerusalem that are both most intimately connected with the Jewish past, which are the same parts that are essential to any future Palestinian Al Quds. It may be sage advice, offered by Prof. Wiesel, to leave Jerusalem for last. But at some point the question will need to be confronted. When that time comes, it will need to be confronted in a manner that avoids any semblance of a liberal diktat that ignores Jewish attachment to Jerusalem. We don’t need more political assassinations; we also don’t need another Massada. On the other hand, the Jewish state, the Jewish nation, and the Jerusalem municipality (currently still boycotted by the city’s Arab residents who could easily influence municipal policies were they to accept Israeli sovereignty and participate in its political processes) needs to figure out how to build confidence among its Christian and Muslim citizens and neighbors that, even if Jewish attachment and the Jewish right to rule Jerusalem were fully respected, Jewish state, nation, and the municipality can leave mental space and make sufficient room for the equally genuine attachment of others to the same city and land.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Emblematic, not exceptional

Jews and Christians tend to think of Jerusalem—and of the Jews—as exceptional. The Jews are a Middle Eastern people with a specific history that propelled them beyond their origins and into specific roles within particular societies. Their history is unique to the degree that every history is unique, while its particulars are never beyond analogy and comparison. Let us set aside the uniqueness of the Jews, which is ultimately a theological concept derived from the belief, shared by Jews and Christians and grounded in Scripture, that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Jerusalem, I think, should not be regarded as exceptional but as emblematic. It is emblematic of the complex religious, social, and political reality of the Middle East. I say this in view of three respects. One is the multi-religious and multi-ethnic character of the Holy City. The city is not unique in its plurality but eminently represents this plurality which is broadly characteristic of Middle Eastern societies. (See Bernard Lewis, Middle East Mosaic) The second respect in which Jerusalem is emblematic is the desire, driven—in this case—by Jewish religious nationalism, to overcome the pluralistic character of the city and to impose on it the will of a single people at the expense of the self-determination and equality of others. This trend is not unique to the Jews or the Jewish state. It is emblematic of many Middle Eastern societies where majorities or minorities rule autocratically and attempt to keep the rest of society under their control. Examples of this abound. The third respect is the force of radical religion in shaping the radical desire for dominance within the ruling majority or minority. In Jerusalem, ultra-orthodoxy has been pushing out the erstwhile secular majority among the Jews; religious Jews are exerting demographic and political pressure in determining the character of Jerusalem by forcing the secular segment of Jewish society to comply with the demands of the Jewish religion as they and they alone understand it. (See e.g. the affair of the Women of the Wall) This, too, has its parallels in other Middle Eastern (and other) societies and not only in Iran. One can overlook the fact that this is emblematic of a wider phenomenon only if one regards the Jews as a priori exceptional and their social and political behavior as unique and grounded in divine choice. The fact is that other communities see themselves in light of the same or an analogous assumption. Jerusalem, and Jewish politics in regard to Jerusalem, are therefore emblematic rather than exceptional.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The City (a poem)

A city is not just built, inhabited and ruled;
A city is visited and seen.
A city is not just its walls, buildings, and places;
A city is the contrast:
Between itself and its surroundings;
Between itself and other cities.
A city is not just the property of its owners;
It belongs as much to its visitors and guests.
A city is not just seen;
A city is remembered, related, made present from afar.
A city is one, and many in one.
A city is many villages and yet more than the sum of its parts.
A city has character and personality. Each city is unique.
A city offers protection. It excludes dangers, enemies.
A city withstands onslaughts and it surrenders. Sometimes it is conquered and destroyed.
A city has allure, it conjures happiness and it disappoints, abandons.
The city is dangerous. Sometimes it is in danger.

There is a king in the city. Or at least a mayor.
The people of the city are known by the city’s name: Athenians, Spartans, Romans, Jerusalemites.
There is a god in the city. YHWH is the god who dwells in Jerusalem.

A city needs water.
A city produces waste.
A city has markets where wares are bought and sold and people exchange news.
A city has a center and margins. It has different quarters for rich and poor.

Cities are visited and abandoned.
Cities thrive and fall into ruin.
Cities dominate regions.

Cities are sometimes known by different names.
Cities have mottos and monikers.
Cities attract artists and offer opportunities to planners and architects.
Cities have engineers.
Cities require ingenuity.
Cities compete.

Cities have temples and churches.
Old cities have antiquities and ruins, illuminated at night,
favorably displayed as the city’s past.
New cities are clean. If they are no longer clean, they are no longer new.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Documentary on Housing Inequality in Jerusalem

I found this documentary on a blog maintained by Rabbi Brant Rosen. The narration and interviews are simple but striking in showing how administrative tools can be used for political aims.

Green Zone from Nimrod Zin on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

(Un)Happy Jerusalem Day

Jerusalem entered a new phase in its millennial history in June 1967 when the city was reunified after nineteen years of division. During these years, like Berlin and Nikosia, Jerusalem had been a divided city. The western parts served as Israel's capital, a capital connected with the main areas of the Jewish state through a narrow corridor. The rest of the city and its northern, eastern, and southern environs were past of the West Bank annexed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israel conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the Six Day War. Since then, Israelis have been celebrating Jerusalem Day.

Israeli sentiments surrounding the Six Day War have been vividly described in Tom Segev's book 1967, namely, the anxiety and claustrophobia and the fear of a second Holocaust that preceded the war and the national exuberance and messianic mood that followed it. Along with the intoxicating sense of a miraculous victory and catastrophe averted, regaining access to the Jewish sacred and historical places, including the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the Old City, all that played a major role in shaping the sense of national religious euphoria that prevailed at the time.

Nothing captures the national religious sentiments prevailing among many Israelis at the time better than the unofficial anthem "Jerusalem of Gold," a song written and composed by Naomi Shemer for a song contest held in West Jerusalem before the war in 1967.  Today Tablet Magazine published a splendid piece on the history of this song researched and narrated by Liel Leibovitz. (A shorter version of this piece was broadcast by As Leibovitz points out, some of the more odious aspects of the song, especially its depiction of Jerusalem (in the version preceding the conquest) as an empty void and as an abandoned city, were immediately evident at the time to the few sober Israeli observers who publicly took a stand against it, among them Amos Oz and the alternative folksinger Meir Ariel who rewrote the lyrics, calling Jerusalem a "city of iron."

Also today, Haaretz  sardonically noted that PM Netanyahu used the opportunity of a Jerusalem Day speech to the Knesseth (the Israeli parlament) to educate "a lawmaker from Israel's Arab minority" on matters of "comparative religion."
Netanyahu (...) said, "There are those among us who lament the very day Jerusalem was liberated and the capital of Israel was freed from its stranglehold."
Netanyahu told the special Knesset session that "Jerusalem" and its alternative Hebrew name "Zion" appear 850 times in the Old Testament, Judaism's core canon.
"As to how many times Jerusalem is mentioned in the holy scriptures of other faiths, I recommend you check," he said.

Heckled by a lawmaker from Israel's Arab minority, Netanyahu offered a lesson in comparative religion from the lectern. "Because you asked: Jerusalem is mentioned 142 times in the New Testament, and none of the 16 various Arabic names for Jerusalem is mentioned in the Koran. But in an expanded interpretation of the Koran from the 12th century, one passage is said to refer to Jerusalem," he said.
"There is no undercutting, nor do I intend to undercut, the connection of others to Jerusalem," Netanyahu said.
"But I do confront the attempt to undercut and warp or obfuscate the unique connection that we, the people of Israel, have to the capital of Israel."
We might add that it is difficult to imagine how a comparison of the number of occurrences of the name Jerusalem in the Bible with the number of occurrences of the name in the Qur'an is not to undermine the connection of "others" to Jerusalem. Nor is this particular comparison all that useful, though it is often heard. It can dazzle only those who conveniently forget that what is true for the Qur'an is also true of the Torah, which is equally fundamental to Judaism as the Qur'an is to Islam. In neither book is the city directly mentioned. Now here's room for a new, more interesting conversation!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Just Jerusalem: A Response to Elie Wiesel

Prof. Elie Wiesel recently published a very moving one-page ad titled "For Jerusalem" in several major newspapers. In it he states that for him Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, is above politics and so it should remain.

Many people were upset by the tone and the content of the letter. Debra DeLee, the President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now wrote that she was "saddened" by Prof. Wiesel's intervention. In her words, "to follow your advice - to indefinitely postpone Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over Jerusalem - amounts to a future of blood and tears for Israelis and Palestinians alike. It is not a prescription for trust and hope, but for perpetual strife." (For the full wording of the letter see HERE)

Member of Knesseth Yossi Sarid wrote in Haaretz that he read Prof. Wiesel's letter "with interest" but he found it more informed on the heavenly Jerusalem than on the earthly one. (See HERE.)

Myself and other colleagues and graduate students at Boston University, where Prof. Wiesel holds several prestigious academic appointments, have been worried that our colleague may be squandering his considerable moral capital by investing it in a doubtful cause.

One of my colleagues forwarded to me the following open letter from friends in Jerusalem. It speaks for itself. The open letter was authored by a group of Jews who have been demonstrating in solidarity with Arabs evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.

From Jerusalem, an open letter to Elie Wiesel

Dear Mr. Wiesel,

We write to you from Jerusalem to convey our frustration, even outrage, at your recently published letter on Jerusalem. We are Jewish Jerusalemites – residents by choice of a battered city, a city used and abused, ransacked time and again first by foreign conquerors and now by its own politicians. We could not recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name.

Our Jerusalem is concrete, its hills covered with limestone houses and pine trees; its streets are lined with synagogues, mosques, and churches. Your Jerusalem is an ideal, an object of prayers and a bearer of the collective memory of a people whose members actually bear many individual memories. Our Jerusalem is populated with people, young and old, women aand men, who prefer to see their city as a symbol of dignity, not of hubris, inequality and discrimination. You speak of the Celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one.

For more than a generation now the earthly city we call home is decaying and disintegrating under the oppression of its own idealization. Your letter troubles us, not simply because it is replete with factual errors and false representations, but because it upholds an attachment to some other-worldly city which purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one. For every Jew, you say, a visit to Jerusalem is a homecoming, yet your homecoming is made possible by our commitment. We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.

Indeed, your claim that Jerusalem is above politics is doubly outrageous. First, because contemporary Jerusalem was created by a political decision and politics alone keeps it formally unified. The tortuous municipal boundaries of today’s Jerusalem were drawn by Israeli generals and politicians shortly after the 1967 war. Feigning to unify an ancient cit, they created an unwieldy behemoth, encircling dozens of Palestinian villages which were never part of Jerusalem. Extending from the outskirts of Ramallah in the north, to the edge of Bethlehem in the south, the Jerusalem the Israeli government foolishly concocted is larger than Paris. Its historical core, the nexus of memories and religious significance often called “the Holy Basin”, comprises a mere on percent of its area. Now they call this artificial fabrication ‘Jerusalem’ so as to obviate any approaching chance for peace.

Moreover, your attempt to keep Jerusalem above politics amounts to divesting us of a future. For being above politics is being devoid of the power to shape the reality of one’s life. As true Jerusalemites, we are dismayed when our beloved city, parts of which are utterly neglected, is used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists who claim Jerusalem is above politics and negotiation. All the while, they franticly “Judaize” Eastern Jerusalem in order to transform its geopolitics beyond recognition.

We invite you to our city to view with your own eyes the catastrophic effects of the frenzy of construction. You will see that, contrary to some media reports, Arabs are not allowed to build their homes anywhere in Jerusalem. You will see the grosss inequality in appropriation of municipal resources and services between east and west. We will take you to Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families are being evicted from their houses to make room for a  new Jewish neighborhood, and to Silwan, where dozens of houses face demolition because of the Jerusalem Municipality’s refusal to issue building permits to Palestinians.

We, the true residents of Jerusalem, can no longer endure the fantasies of those who love our city from afar. This-worldly Jerusalem must be shared by the people of the two nations residing in it. Only a shared city will live up to the prophet’s vision: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice.” As we chant weekly in our vigils in Sheikh Jarrah: “Nothing can be sacred in a city of occupation!”

                  Just Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah) Activists
(A request for a conversation with Prof. Wiesel on this matter is pending.) 

Monday, April 5, 2010

The key question

In Jerusalem, the key question to reconciliation and mutual tolerance of the religious and national communities is the question of Leviticus 19:18 and of the gospels, namely, whether I can regard the other as I regard myself. More specifically, can I regard the other's attachment to the holy city as equally valid as my own? Can I respect the other's love for the holy city not just as genuine and legitimate but as equally genuine and legitimate as my own?

The New York born and Israeli educated sociologist Adam Seligman tirelessly points out that toleration is useless and bloodless unless it is grounded in the deepest roots of our religious particularity. Translated into the situation of Jerusalem this means: never mind liberal Jews and Arabs and their ability to get along because they are liberals; can those deeply committed to the truth of a particular revelation also forge a path toward recognizing those grounded in an equally deep commitment to a different revelation as equally attached to the holy city?

To be sure, this leaves those of us not committed to any revelation out in the cold. Will those deeply committed to one revelation or another be able to tolerate us?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nir Barkat's Tunnel Vision

In an interview with the BBC's George Alaghia (broadcast today, March 23, 2010), Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat asserted that Jerusalem is not a settlement. The interviewer probed further (I quote from memory): "How many countries have their embassies in Jerusalem?" The mayor feigned ignorance, though he was forced to admit that no major nation keeps embassies in the Holy City. (In fact, the last rather minor states that had refused to remove their embassies from West Jerusalem after June 1967 did so in 1982, after Israel's parliament passed a law declaring Jerusalem the eternally undivided capital of Israel.) When asked why Israel insisted on contested Jerusalem rather than uncontested Tel Aviv as Israel's capital, Barkat rejected the question as "insulting." "Just read the Bible" he said in exasperation, assuming that this was going to dissipate any vestige of incomprehension when it comes to modern Israeli or Jewish sentiments toward this city.

What if we took Barkat by his word and read the Bible for Jerusalem and its place in the Jewish past? Would it give us a clue to the place Jerusalem holds in the collective imagination Barkat and others are invoking when they speak of the city and its centrality in Jewish historical memory and aspiration? Does the Bible confer a political right of ownership to Jerusalem, or does it mandate that Jerusalem serve as the capital of a Jewish state?  Just as Barkat does not seem to know whether or not any state maintains an embassy in the city of which he is the mayor, he ignores the fact that Jerusalem is not even mentioned in the Torah. The great code of Jewish law and the foundation of Judaism says nothing about the city, at least not directly, and what it says has nothing to do with the modern state. I would like to sit down with the mayor of Jerusalem and read Ezekiel chapter 16, a passage that does mention Jerusalem and its authorities, though not kindly or fondly.

What Mr. Barkat invokes rests on the modern national-religious narrative, not on the Bible. Why does he invoke it now? Why does he think it is politically useful or acceptable to idolize Jerusalem, i.e., to make it the object of a veneration that would be unworthy of being called Jewish were it not for the fact that it is shared by a great many Jews and not a few Christians? True, his constituents may idolize Jerusalem to the point of thinking that it is exclusively and eternally theirs by divine right, but this will not blind them (one hopes) to the point that they will ignore that Mr. Barkat's myopic vision does nothing to solve the city's acute problems. These problems are not exclusively political. What the ratcheting up of the national-religious rhetoric is meant to obscure are the perennial problems of a city whose problems are far more mundane and elementary. Barkat had won the recent mayoral election because voters (i.e., the majority of those who voted) hoped that he was able to attract investment to the city's fledgling high-tech industries and increase the dismal numbers of pilgrims and tourists on whom the city's service industry has always depended. It appears that he has been less successful than those expected who gave this political newcomer the benefit of the doubt. Now the exposed position of this ancient and contested though in fact rather provincial city has afforded this rather provincial man a platform from which to shape his public profile as the champion of a narrow vision of a Judaized and Israelitized Jerusalem. This should not make us forget that any and all nationalist rhetoric and the recent settlement shenanigans emanating from Jerusalem are mere ploys to distract the voters from the fact that the economic situation in Jerusalem continues to deteriorate. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Bible is true after all (again): Apropos Eilat Mazar’s latest archeological finds

Oy, there she goes again, is the first thought that came to my mind when I read about the recent “world historic find in Jerusalem” (Jonathan Tobin in 

Eilat Mazar, granddaughter of prominent Israeli archeologist Benjamin Mazar (see HERE), who previously claimed to have discovered King David’s palace (see HERE), has now discovered evidence that 10th century BCE Jerusalem was the strongly fortified seat of a “central government,” exactly as described in the early chapters of the First Book of Kings in the Bible. The release of these news through the Associated Press (see HERE) was immediately all over the internet, where it was enthusiastically received by two types of recipients: biblicist Christians (see, e.g., HERE) and right-wing Zionists (see, e.g., HERE). Nothing surprising here. What is remarkable is the blatant circularity of all of this.

According to Catholic Online Eilat Mazar’s dig was “privately funded by a couple in New York with an interest in Biblical Archeology” and conducted with the help of college students from Oklahoma, “hired workers,” and archeology students from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Considering the fact that Jerusalem is one of the best excavated cities in the world; considering that a vast amount of material from previous digs has not been published; considering also that most serious scholars have seen no evidence of monumental fortifications or other evidence of a “strong central government” from the 10th century, Mazar’s find—if it could be independently verified—might indeed require us to revise our understanding of the age of David and Solomon.

Briefly put: The books of Samuel and Kings describe the origins of the Israelite monarchy in the great deeds of conquest and construction of the legendary founders of the House of David, the dynasty that ruled Judah until its destruction in 586 BCE at the hands of the neo-Babylonians under Nebuchadrezzar. Archeologists distinguish methodologically between literary accounts (which are of uncertain provenance and most likely of a much later date than the events described) and evidence in the ground, which must be free to tell its own story. All the archeological evidence (remnants of buildings and signs of habitation, such as shards of pottery with distinctive design) and epigraphic evidence (seals, inscriptions) of the period archeologists call Iron Age I (ending around the time when an Egyptian Pharaoh by the name of Sheshonq campaigned in Canaan or the biblical land of Israel, an event the biblical historians associate with the reign of Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam) put together does not confirm the presence of an Israelite empire of the sort described in the Bible for the time in question. Rather, the Jerusalem that existed at the time was at best a mountain fortress that was most likely beholden to a more significant and expansive Israelite state centered in the northern hill country of Palestine, the area around modern day Nablus (the ancient city of Shekhem). No serious historian doubts this today.

More importantly, no serious historian would go about digging for evidence of the historical truth of the Bible. The Bible is literature even where it recounts the ancient history of Israel, whereas archeology retrieves and describes the remnants of material culture. To dig for confirmation of literary conceits (whose meanings and provenance are contested) is not just bad archeology but it is also bad biblical scholarship. All of this is evident to specialists, but this does not mean that popular sentiments can not be appealed to with the aid of sensationalist “finds” of the sort trumpeted by Eilat Mazar.

What is Mazar’s interest? According to wikipedia, Eilat Mazar is the head of the archeology department at the Shalem Center, a neo-conservative think tank, of which the current ambassador of Israel, his Excellency Michael Oren, is also a senior fellow. The Shalem Center and its sponsors also support the acquisition of Arab property in and around the Arab village of Silwan (where Eilat Mazar previously “found” the palace of King David) and its settlement with Jewish families. In light of this concerted ideological commitment it is clear why Mazar keeps finding evidence of the truth of the Bible. The goal is to strengthen fundamental Christian support for Israel’s claim (official government policy since 1967) to East Jerusalem as the erstwhile seat of the ancient government of David and Solomon. By superimposing biblical history on the map of modern Jerusalem, the quasi-religious claim to Jewish ownership gains plausibility and legitimacy, at least in the eyes of those who are unable or unwilling to distinguish between biblical literature, methodical archeology, and modern politics.

Expect more “sensational finds” from Mazar!
(Thanks to my former student Shana Richards for alerting me to the AP news item.)