As I reported in the same journal earlier this month, a group of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists recently unveiled a draft agreement about how archaeological sites and artifacts would be treated under a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
As Gershom notes, every historical or archaeological site can provide the basis for a variety of different stories. True, archaeological artifacts and sites provide hard facts that limit the kinds of stories you can tell. A Palestinian scholar who proclaimed that City of David structures dating from the eighth or ninth century BCE were actually from the early Islamic period would have a hard time getting anyone to take his case seriously because we know from other sites that buildings built in those periods have distinct styles and methods of construction. An Israeli who tried to argue that Arabs never ruled Jerusalem would run up against all those layers of Muslim and Arab remains that excavators have found all around the city.
But the facts are ambiguous enough to allow competing interpretations. An archaeological site open to the public should present vistors with the interpetations that are under serious academic debate. So if there are official tours of the City of David, they should summarize for visitors the current debate over the dating of key finds from the early Iron Age (the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, in biblical terms). They should also make note of the full range of the site’s history–Israelite, Islamic, Crusader, modern.
This does not mean that Israelis and Jews need be embarrassed to stress that the City of David and other such sites are of unique importance to our national history and culture. It’s only natural for Israeli visitors to the site to be interested primarily in what the site has to say about their own nation and identity. It’s right and proper for Jews to feel an intense bond to places and historical events recorded in their people’s literature and to be excited when archaeologists unearth finds that jive with and enrich the biblical account. But this pride need not and should not be exclusive. It is strongest when it does not seek to affirm our own identities by denying those of others.
If we and the Palestinians sign a peace agreement and then proceed to denigrate, or worse destroy, each other’s archaeological heritage, the peace will not last long. Neither will it last long if one or both nation feels it must give up its own stories. The strongest, most durable peace will be between two nations that are proud of their heritage, intent on maintaining it, yet open to listening to and acknowledging the stories from the other side.