King's Evangelical Divinity School

27 May 2010

Jews and Arabs on the Original Zion

Today's online Guardian has a lengthy article criticising the Jewish settler presence in a district of East Jerusalem by the Egyptian novelist and sometime champion of the Palestinians Ahdaf Soueif. It concerns archaeological excavations on the Ophel Ridge (the Silwan district of Wadi Hilweh), which is the location of the original Jebusite city which David made his capital in approximately 1000 BC.

Reading her article, one is struck by how one side (Soueif echoes the position taken on this issue by various pro-Palestinian solidarity groups) has so woven events to create a narrative which is in direct contradistinction to that of the other side, the Jews for whom the Ophel Ridge (the original Zion) is representative of ancient Israel's nationhood. Soueif's piece presents as fact several points which, for those who know something of the district's recent history and situation, do not quite bear up to scrutinty. For example, her article details how Elad  (the Israeli City of David organisation which is developing the area) turfed out an Arab family from their home in 1991 and today continues "to acquire more Palestinian property: to date Elad has gained control of a quarter of Wadi Helweh". The distinct impression is a total land grab, with destitute Arabs cast out on to the street while settlers take over their homes. Now it is true that as one walks through the neighbourhood, down the ridge along the Kidron Valley towards Siloam, various houses formerly owned by Arabs are now inhabited by religious Jews and fly the Israeli flag. But what Soueif fails to tell her readers is that some of these houses were bought up from their Arab owners with the help of Jewish religious organisations and foundations for very large sums of money. For example, two brothers sold their home to Jewish settlers for nearly a million dollars. Meanwhile, her article does not detail how militants  allegedly target fellow Arabs who sell their homes to Jews. One of the two brothers detailed above was eventually murdered in Jordan, while those who sell their homes usually find it impossible to remain in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, one might be forgiven for assuming from Soueif's article that settler activity and excavations are a cynical political ploy to take over an area where there is actually no historical evidence of a longstanding ancient Jewish presence. She writes:
Most scholars agree that, to this day, no evidence of the presence of Kings David or Solomon has been found at the site. But our group of elderly American tourists are spellbound by the stories they are hearing from Elad's guides, stories which are conjecture, projection and myth.
Actually, this is somewhat disingenuous. It is quite one thing to point out how controversial minimalist archaeologists are not even convinced David existed as a real historical person, but whether by accident or design, quite another to give the impression to readers that the ridge has no Jewish historical or religious significance whatsoever. This is, of course, nonsense. Whether Warren's Shaft, Hezekiah's Tunnel, Siloam, the Gihon Spring, the unearthed Jebusite city walls, or other excavated remains, the Ophel Ridge's connection with Jewish ancient history is undeniable. Though not quite echoing the lie which is Temple denial, Soueif arguably comes close to employing a similar strategy when she states at the end of her article; "The Jewish story in Jerusalem is indivisible from the Roman, the Byzantine, the Arab, the Muslim, the Christian". Actually, as the Old Testament makes abundantly clear, the Jewish history of Jerusalem precedes all these later civilisations, and attempts to quell the unearthing of a distinct Jewish history is nothing less than an ideologically-driven ploy. 

Religious Jews have every right to excavate, protect and promote their religious history. After all, the Ophel Ridge is the ascent leading to the Temple after which the famous Psalms are named. Ophel is also the original Zion. To be sure, it is quite one thing to buy up Arab properties, quite another - indeed a travesty - to rid people of their homes and land using obscure and ancient property laws to do so. There have been such incidents, and Christians who support such actions are, I believe, on dangerous theological ground. Taking over the home of an innocent family, especially in peace time, surely cannot be justified. By the same token, Christians who put themselves on the side which denies a Jewish historical presence in the area, allying themselves with minimalist archaeologists who deny Scripture or militant temple deniers, are on equally theologically dangerous ground.

For her part, I think Soueif's and others' calls of foul concerning excavations would be taken far more seriously if they would have been equally vociferous in their denunciation of the archaeological vandalism carried out on the Temple Mount some years ago to make way for an underground mosque.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Great post, well fisked and balanced as usual, especially the timely warning to all of us Christians not to occupy the extremist poles, which are all too easy for us to slip into.

Learnt from this, thanks.