10 reasons the “City of David” is not the wholesome tourist site you thought it was

The “City of David” is one of the most popular tourist sites in Jerusalem. It is a prominent destination for Birthright Trips, synagogue delegations, youth group visits and family vacations. And if you go on to its website you will find out:

Almost nothing.

That is to say: the City of David’s website if full of information. Information about opening hours, upcoming events, how to donate. Information about virtual tours, underground tours, Segway tours. Information about archeology. All of this information, presented on a backdrop of cool multimedia graphics, hip rock-infused videos, chintzy Judaica adverts, charming pastoral pictures, and testimonies from The Brown Family:

Screen shot 2014-02-01 at 6.48.08 PM

The fact that you learn almost nothing about the City of David from the City of David’s website is not accidental. If you were to stumble upon their website in, say, The Lonely Planet or the Israel Ministry of Tourism, you would have no idea that the “City of David” is anything other than a wholesome, family-oriented archeological tourist site.

Maybe you have heard of the “controversy” around the City of David. If you read to the very end of the 15-section Wikipedia page, and arrive at the three sentence-long “controversy” section, you will learn that ”The right to control both the archaeological and the residential aspects of the City of David is hotly contested by Israelis and Palestinians.” Oh, those Israelis and Palestinians, always hotly contesting everything! (Which is to say, please see: The Guardian, 18 August, 2010). If you’ve browsed the internet a bit more intensively, maybe you’ve even come upon some of the serious and important sources that seek to explain the “controversy” (like this and this and this and this and this (I’ll get back to all of these briefly)). The information is out there, if you know to look for it. And that is why I have compiled the aforepromised list: to highlight what for potential visitors what they will actually be seeing (and not seeing) if they choose to tour the City of David.

1. “The City of David” is located in Occupied Palestinian Territory. While the City of David’s website may lead to you believe that the City of David is located in, well, the City of David, in the reality of 2014, the City of David is located in middle of the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of the East Jerusalem village of Silwan. According to international law, to the foreign policies of virtually every country in the world, and to general reasonableness, Israel’s post-1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is illegal and unjust. A pleasure-oriented visit to occupied territories is a de facto stamp of approval, whether it is made in an armored vehicle or on a goofy-looking Segway.

Silwan, highlighted in Yellow, across the Green Line.
Silwan, highlighted in yellow, across the Green Line.

While this post is not dedicated to convincing someone who thinks that the Occupation is legal and just to change their mind, I would fully encourage those folks to read points 2-9 as well, as a specific case study of what your stance means on the ground.

2. Your City of David entrance fee goes into the pockets of an settlement-expansion dream-team: the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and a private settler organization called Elad. Despite its categorization as a “National Park,” the City of David is in fact run by a private settler organization called Elad (sometimes called “The Ir David Foundation”), thanks to an agreement between Elad and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). In a capitalist society, your dollar is your vote. Taking a pleasure-trip into occupied territory is a symbolic declaration of support; paying to take a pleasure-trip into occupied territory is a direct action of support; paying an organization whose express intent is to “Judaize” a Palestinian neighborhood to take a pleasure-trip into occupied territory is… I’ll let you fill in the blank. If you are troubled by the word “Judaize” (as you should be) and skeptical of the nice-but-quite-left-wing-and-only-24-years-old Jewish boy’s telling you that this is Elad’s express intent (as you are allowed to be, even though I do try very hard as a writer and human being not to make up horrible things), don’t take my word for it. Take Elad’s:

“‘Our aim is Judaize East Jerusalem,’ declared Yigal Kaufman, a spokesman for Elad.”

In the framework of the aforementioned agreement, while entrance fees to the City of David do belong to the INPA, the INPA has agreed to pay Elad an undisclosed, “mutually agreed upon” amount of money each year for its management of the park. If this amount exceeds the ticket-sales income, Elad will “fund the deficit via independent sources.” (Articles 9-11, Contract between Elad and INPA, 21 March, 2012 (Hebrew)). If the ticket sales are higher than Elad’s amount (and it is impossible to know from the contract if such a thing is possible, as the amount is not specified), then the “change” will be designated for “investment in the tourist site” of the City of David. All of which is to say: ticket sales are intrinsically linked to Elad’s pocket, albeit in a roundabout way.

Why would the INPA, a government body, grant such conditions to an ideologically-oriented, private NGO? Simple: the two groups share an ideology. Whether in the case of the INPA promoting expansionist land grabs elsewhere in East Jerusalem, or in the case of the INPA overseeing the demolition of a community center and play place right in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan (see item 6 for more details), it seems that the INPA and Elad (and some members of the Municipality) see eye to eye when it comes to their preferred place for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Enter the City of David. Hear harps playing "Mizmor L'David." Once you know what you are seeing, it is an awful experience.

3. The City of David’s managers’ “Judaization” is not just rhetoric. Elad doesn’t just speak of “Judaization.” Elad Judaizes. For more than two decades, Elad has been working to evict Palestinian families from their homes by taking advantage of an Israeli legal system which discriminates between Palestinians and Jews. Specifically, in the case of Silwan, one of the most prominent features of that legal system- and a feature commonly utilized by Elad- is the “Absentee Property Law.  (For more on this law and its unique properties, please see this piece I wrote in 2012). The essence of the issue is that this law, like others in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, is applied exclusively against Palestinians. Elad, whose organizational aims include ”Judaizing” East Jerusalem, has found in such laws the exact ethnic advantage necessary to being the process of taking over the neighbourhood of Silwan. And the fact that the Israeli State, which claims to be a democracy, can allow such laws to remain on the books, and can continue to support an organization whose aggressive, ethnocentric agenda is explicit is in part because of the lack of public outcry. After all, who is going to question Segway tours and archeological digs?

You should.

As I stated before, there is a wealth of information about the specific processes, legal systems, histories and politics of Elad, the City of David, Silwan, housing evictions and more. My aim is not to summarize all of it in this post, but rather to pique your interest and outrage, and encourage you to read more. Meron Rapoport and Ir Amim’s “Shady Dealings in Silwan” is a must, as is the Wadi Hilweh Alternative Information Center’s website and resources. For a case-study of a recent attempt at Judaization via eviction in Wadi Hilweh, see the re-cap I wrote of a 2011 campaign to stop the eviction of the Sumarin family from their house next door to the City of David. It is worth noting that this campaign was largely successful (the family is still in their house). It is worth noting this because it shows that it is always possible to do something in the face of injustice.

During that campaign, filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrovich (Director of The Law in These Parts, also a must) put together this short, informative video about some of the takeovers in Silwan:

4. City of David tours give the impression that archeology is the main issue. It is not. Archeology is a front. The main issue is ethno-national conflict. Archeology serves not only to obscure that fact: it serves to enlist support from many who would likely not otherwise support settlement growth and expansion. Like Tel Aviv University. Elie Weisel. NBC (Until they were called out by activists, organizations and the PLO’s Hanan Ashrwai– and then backed out. Another example as to why public pressure and media campaigns matter immensely). And other liberals. And students of history. And You?

My view is that Israeli State-led archeology should not be carried out in occupied territory at all until there is a political agreement. Not everyone would agree with me there. That’s OK: even if one is to argue that archeology should transcend politics (although I’d push that “politically neutral archeology” is an oxymoron. As is “politically neutral.” But that may be a discussion for another post), there is still plenty of room for scathing critique of the City of David’s archeological practices, all the way from destroying non-Israelite antiquities to destroying non-Israelite-houses and mosques and roads. For more on this (and more), check out the Israeli Alternative Archeological organization, Emek Shaveh.

Map by Peace Now's Hagit Ofran showing the site of a collapse, near a mosque and kindergarten.

And while we’re on the subject of the City of David’s impact on the village of Silwan:

5. The City of David’s newest project, the Kedem Center, will alter Jerusalem and further marginalize Palestinians. The planned “Kedem Center” will be a sleek, modern, 20,000 square-foot seven-story gargantuan lump (reaching up to the walls of the Old City) in the middle of Silwan. But! If you were worried that this enormous compound may enormously compound feelings of exclusion, takeover, separation, let your fears be allayed: according to its designers, the Kedem center will be a “cultural and gathering center.” That sounds nice. Oh, right, and it will enable visitors to walk from the Western Wall all the way down to the end of the “City of David’s” adventureland, all without having to see a single Palestinian house. Or maybe even a single Palestinian person.


And à propos Palestinians and the Kedem Center:

6. To “make way” for the City of David, Palestinian property is destroyed. In 2012, the Nature and Parks Authority carried out a demolition of a community center and play place in Wadi Hilweh, in conjunction with plans for the Kedem Center. This center, which was built by activists at the Wadi Hilweh Information Center (mentioned in Item 3), served as the only public space and playground for the children of Wadi Hilweh, who otherwise have to play on narrow streets filled with cars, Jewish settlers (supported by Elad) and State-funded private security guards. (For more on this subject see ACRI’s petition to the high court, in which they note that ”[in 1991] ELAD called upon the services of the security firm Modi’in Ezrachi, and to this day the same company provides all such security services in East Jerusalem. The State at the time, however expressed its opposition to the protection of settlers by private security companies.” Initial opposition notwithstanding, the State then began funding the Modi’in Ezrachi guards itself).

Here is a video from the aforementioned demolition in Silwan (note how slow and crunching and final-seeming the demolition is, a blend of awful and mundane):

And à propos Palestinian children in Silwan:

7. In order to maintain the orderly facade presented by the City of David, Palestinian children are arrested and abused with breathtaking regularity. That is to say: in order to maintain an occupation of an entire people who do not wish to be occupied, awful things have to be done. In the case of Silwan, one of the most awful of the many awful things done is the rampant phenomenon of child arrests. As I wondered in an article I wrote about the subject a few years ago:

”Are the arrests in Silwan aimed at remedying the violence present among many youth living in Israeli controlled territory, or are they part of a larger strategy to frighten the Palestinian population of Silwan in particular and East Jerusalem in general into submission? In other words, is the purpose of these arrests to reform violent youth, or is the arrest itself the purpose, to terrorize the village’s youth — whether violent or not — and to make an example out of a few [or many] so as to deter the collective?”

Activists from Wadi Hilweh and the Palestinian hip hop group DAM have recently launched a powerful, chilling project about child arrests in Silwan called Room No. 4, which includes photographs, video and writen testimonies, analyses from lawyers and social workers and more. This project is also a must for anyone interested in learning more about the impact of child arrests on children and on an entire society.

Israeli forces arrest a 10 year old child in Silwan. Photo:
Israeli forces arrest a 10 year old child in Silwan. (Photo: the Wadi Hilweh Information Center’s

8. The City of David acts in the name of the Jewish People and Jewish history. Palestinian families are being evicted from the homes their parents built, streets and houses in Silwan are collapsing, structures that did not collapse are being demolished to make way for a massive, glitzy visitors center: And all of this is being done in the name of the Jewish People and Jewish History. To me, though, the important parts of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish history are neither artifacts nor tribalism. The important parts of Jewish peoplehood and history, to me and to so many other Jews I know, are those that lead us to seek and speak out for justice even when it is unpopular to do so: even when that means speaking out against the very institutions that claim to represent us.

It is time to learn Yiddish.

9. The City of David endangers the future of Israel. The argument of Jewish values and human rights may not be compelling to some readers. Kopasetic. Let’s go at it from a different angle: The City of David is dangerous for the future of Israel. Here’s how: Israel’s future is inextricably linked with the future of the Palestinian people. This has been the case from the get-go, no matter how hard some may have wished it wasn’t so, or how actively so many Israeli leaders tried to ignore and deny it. This need not be a point of despair: This need not be a zero-sum game. Rhetoric of Judaization, though.  Placing emphasis on Jewish history not as part of but as the only relevant part of Jerusalem’s history, though. Evictions, demolitions, aggression and abuse, though. All of these things serve to turn the situation into a zero-sum game, not to mention the ways in which they undermine Israel’s chance at actually becoming a liberal and pluralistic democracy. Zero-sum games are dangerous and false: in real life, outside of the castles of political science and political power, there is no such thing as a winner. There are attempts at winning that bring cruelty, violence, paranoia, anger, fear and suffering.

This Cartoon is Both Cute and Right.
(Picture Source: GlobalEd)

10. There are ways to learn about the history, politics and archeology of Jerusalem that do not come at the expense of Palestinians residents and endanger Israel’s future. I assume, if you made it here, to point 10, that at least some of the aforementioned points spoke to you, on some level. But perhaps you still want to learn more about the history and archeology that the City of David touts? Or maybe you just want to hear more about life in Silwan? Or maybe you are almost convinced, but want to see everything for yourself? Good. It just so happens that there are a number of excellent organizations and individuals who will be willing to help with all of the above. Emek Shaveh, the Israeli Alternative Archeology organization, offers guided tours of the non-privatized sections of the City of David and parts of Silwan. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center is committed to sharing an alternative narrative with groups willing to listen. You can be in contact with either of these organizations directly. Or, if that sounds too complicated, or scary, or effort-filled, contact me and I will put you in touch with the right people and/or take you there myself. Just say the word.

The City of David is not the wholesome tourist site you thought it was. It is a political site, run by Elad, an incredibly well-funded ideological organization (according to a 2011 Haaretz article, Elad is the wealthiest right wing NGO, and had an operating budget in 2008 greater than that of the top seven left wing NGOs. Combined). Elad has the support of the government, Jewish institutions and cultural figures. They have extensive international connections and networks, a charming website, an innocuous brand of Archeology and Segway Tours. And what do we have? Our voices. Fairness. Anti-cruelty. Hope for better days to come. If any or all of the ten reasons above were compelling, surprising, convincing or new, spread them around. The issue at stake is much more extreme than artifacts and harp-music. The issue at stake is the future of this place.

About the Author
Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli writer, poet and activist. He was born at a very young age in Jerusalem, and was raised and educated in the US. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in Arabic and Political Science in 2011, Rothman moved back to Jerusalem where he has been involved with various activist and human rights projects and groups working against the Occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Rothman was recently sent to IDF Military Jail #6 for refusing to enlist, and was released in November of 2012. He blobs independently at
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