Burial site digs divide Jews

September 11, 1998

Under the blistering midday sun there is not much work being done on the new motorway through the white hills of north Jerusalem. A handful of archaeologists lounge in the shade of a picnic umbrella, while a few Arab labourers chisel half-heartedly.

The silence is suddenly broken by a screech in Yiddish of "Robbery, robbery". In seconds the excavation site is swarming with a small army of black-clad orthodox Jews chanting prayers.

This is a daily scene in Israel. Ultra-orthodox Jews, rallied by their growing political power, are systematically disrupting archaeological excavations in protest at what they see as the desecration of ancient Jewish burial sites.

According to the teachings of the Yeshiva religious schools, graves are sacred and all disruption is forbidden. This effectively means that there can be no development or archaeological excavation in Israel because the whole country is littered with the human remains of Jews, Christians, Muslims and pagans.

It was more than a year ago that the first tombs were found on the motorway route, near the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev.

The Israel Antiquities Authority took control of the site and it was not long before the ultra-orthodox Jews begun their protests. What would normally be a straightforward dig has been delayed. Protests intensified earlier this summer when archaeologists were moving skeletons.

Yuval Barush, archaeological director of the Tel el Full excavation, said:

"We just have to live with it. It happens all over Israel. It means that the dig will take longer and cost more but what can we do?

"The bodies are not even Jewish. We found some small jugs in the tombs that had crosses on them. I am pretty sure that they are Byzantine."

Despite this, the ultra-orthodox have continued their protests. "When I tell them all, they say is, their grandmothers might have been Jewish."

Barush said there was more to it than religious dogma. "They are not interested in the bones. This is politics."

Mr Barush, like many Israelis, believes that the protests are part of the escalating war between secular and religious Jews. One local resident who saw the daily protest said: "Israel needs this motorway if we are going to develop into a modern country. They (the orthodox protesters) are living in the past, we have got to be able to move forward."

Before Benyamin Natanyahu was elected, archaeologists thought a rightwing government would support their work as a way of substantiating Israeli claims to the occupied West Bank.

The Natanyahu coalition is dependent on a handful of ultra-orthodox parties that oppose archaeology in principle. Archaeology is viewed with suspicion as many findings contradict religious teachings. The parties have used their balance of power to impose conditions and restrict money for digs.

Moshe Gafni, a member of the coalition and leader of the Judaism of the Torah party, recently tried to oust Ami Drori, director of the Antiquities Authority. Mr Gafni wants to halt all archaeological work.

Recent measures restrict the Antiquities Authority from excavating any site that may contain ancient graves without first discussing it with the burial services department of the religious affairs ministry.

If the two bodies cannot agree, no digging can be done without a mediator being present. Meir Ben-Dov, from the municipality, has been appointed the mediator on the Tel el Full dig. It is his job to monitor the work of the archaeologists, but he can do nothing about the protesters who arrive several times a day.

"There are already two men here sent by the rabbis to make sure everything is right," he said. "But there are so many rabbis in different Yeshiva, what is okay with one isn't with the other. Last week we thought we'd reached a compromise. We'd agreed to rebury the bones in plastic containers leaving ten centimetres above them. That was going to be the end of it. But the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) are still here."

It is not long until an army unit, on patrol near Pisgat Zeev, turns up to evict the protesters. The tanned muscular soldiers, more used to Hamas threats and West Bank check points, are mildly amused by the protesters.

On seeing the soldiers, a few protesters crawl under a digger, while others try to make a run for it, skipping down the hillside holding on to their hats. They are rounded up and bussed down to the police station. Within an hour they are released, brushed down and back at the dig going through the whole pantomime again.

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