Diggers accused of grave robbery

February 23, 1996

Attempts by Israel's religious political parties to increase their influence over archaeological digs have been checked following pressure from Shimon Peres's leftwing coalition partners. Moves had been under way to involve the ministry of religious affairs more closely in authorising new sites and to change the law to allow sites to be shut down if human remains were found. A compromise agreement places responsibility for authorising new sites with the government's legal adviser.

Israel has provided both its own and visiting scholars with many exiting and significant archaeological sites over the years, for example at Bet Shean, Cesarea and Jerusalem. However, excavations have always taken place under the watchful eyes of representatives of the orthodox community, concerned to stop the desecration of Jewish burial sites and ensure the proper re-internment of bones. Relations between the two communities, never harmonious, have deteriorated into open acrimony.

Archaeologists have been known to work at night and to send diversionary teams to "dummy digs" to distract attention from the real site. Meanwhile, orthodox protesters attempt to stop digging by placing themselves inside burial caves and have been accused of harassing archaeologists at home by phone and mail. The excavators scored a victory last year when a senior archaeologist rerouted his calls to the home number of a leading protester who suffered two days of verbal abuse from colleagues.

The proposal to give more influence to senior rabbis has caused consternation among archaeologists, prompting them to call a one-hour protest strike and threaten a complete stoppage if the proposals were accepted. The strike attracted widespread support from the government's antiquities authority and teams from Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities.

At a meeting at the Shoham site in central Israel, several speakers criticised increasing interference by the orthodox community and called on the police to provide greater protection for workers. A spokesman for the archaeologists pointed out that they had already agreed to the immediate reburial of any human remains found during a dig, "even though this practice actually prevents any anthropological investigation".

The orthodox political parties have been trying to gain influence over archaeological activities for some time. However, the leftwing Meretz party, a key partner in the coalition government, saw the latest orthodox move as the thin end of the wedge, and exerted pressure on Peres to axe the proposals. Yosi Sarid, a Meretz Knesset member, said: "After this they would have presented the rabbis with responsibilities in other important areas, thereby obstructing progress in science and research in Israel."

Although the agreement is seen as a victory for the archaeologists, it does little more than maintain the status quo. The orthodox parties have vowed to continue their protests over the "defiling of our fathers' graves". With elections in October, any change in the balance of power in the Knesset could put the archaeologists back on the defensive.

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