W. Bank site draws con­tro­versy

Crit­ics say nar­ra­tive tai­lored for set­tlers, Chris­tians too nar­row

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Ilan Ben Zion

SHILOH, WEST BANK — Deep in the West Bank, Israeli set­tlers have trans­formed an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site into a bi­b­li­cal tourist attraction that at­tracts tens of thou­sands of evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians each year.

Tel Shiloh is be­lieved to have been the site of the bi­b­li­cal taber­na­cle, but not ev­ery­one is pleased at how the ru­ins are pre­sented to vis­i­tors.

Like many Holy Land sites, Tel Shiloh sits at the con­flu­ence of competing nar­ra­tives of ar­chae­ol­ogy, re­li­gion and na­tion­al­ism. Crit­ics say the site pro­motes a nar­row in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory pop­u­lar with Israeli set­tlers and their Chris­tian sup­port­ers.

The hill­top mound, 20 miles north of Jerusalem in the Israeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank, has been ex­ca­vated by sev­eral ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mis­sions, start­ing in 1922, and has yielded re­mains span­ning over 3,700 years.

For cen­turies, Jews, Mus­lims, and Chris­tians have as­so­ci­ated the site with the home of the bi­b­li­cal taber­na­cle, the por­ta­ble shrine where Is­raelites housed the Ark of the Covenant.

Be­cause of its bi­b­li­cal sig­nif­i­cance, the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ru­ins have be­come a pil­grim­age site for evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians.

In March, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu vis­ited Tel Shiloh with for­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee and set­tler lead­ers, calling it Is­rael’s “first cap­i­tal.”

Huck­abee, a tele­vi­sion host with a strong evan­gel­i­cal fol­low­ing, tweeted that “Shiloh is proof from 3000 yrs ago this land was home to @Is­rael site of ancient Taber­na­cle.”

In 2009, Tel Shiloh hosted

30,000 vis­i­tors, 60 per­cent of whom iden­ti­fied as evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, ac­cord­ing to the Israeli gov­ern­ment. In

2012, the gov­ern­ment al­lo­cated $4.2 mil­lion for a plan to pre­serve and up­grade the site, in­au­gu­rat­ing a new vis­i­tors’ cen­ter the fol­low­ing year.

Since its com­ple­tion, Tel Shiloh — re­branded as Ancient Shiloh: City of the Taber­na­cle — has seen tourism sky­rocket to around

120,000 vis­i­tors in 2018, said site direc­tor Lilyan Zait­man. Over half were evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians.

Un­like other ma­jor sites in the West Bank, Tel Shiloh is man­aged by the lo­cal set­tler coun­cil and Mishkan Shiloh, a pri­vate non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, rather than Is­rael’s Na­ture and Parks Au­thor­ity.

The site is in­side the Jewish set­tle­ment of Shiloh, founded af­ter Is­rael cap­tured the West Bank in the 1967 war. The tourist attraction is built on pri­vate Pales­tinian land but Pales­tini­ans are barred from en­ter­ing, ac­cord­ing to Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

The Pales­tini­ans have de­manded the West Bank as part of their fu­ture state, and most of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity views the set­tle­ments as il­le­gal.

The Se­cond Protocol of the Hague Con­ven­tion for the pro­tec­tion of cul­tural prop­erty pro­hibits ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions in oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory “save where this is strictly re­quired to safe­guard, record or pre­serve cul­tural prop­erty.” Is­rael is not one of the protocol’s 82 sig­na­to­ries.

Zait­man said vis­i­tors should un­der­stand that “the roots of the Jewish peo­ple be­gan here,” calling it “the first cap­i­tal city of the Jewish peo­ple be­fore Jerusalem.”

De­spite Tel Shiloh’s long and var­ied his­tory, the site drives home its Jewish rel­e­vance, with lit­tle at­ten­tion paid to other pe­ri­ods or peo­ples, whether Canaan­ite, Byzan­tine or Mus­lim. This has drawn crit­i­cism from ar­chae­ol­o­gists and ac­tivists.

Emek Shaveh and Yesh Din, Israeli NGOs, charged in a 2017 re­port on Israeli ar­chae­ol­ogy in the West Bank that Ancient Shiloh aims to “re­in­force the con­nec­tion be­tween the bi­b­li­cal Shiloh and the mod­ern set­tle­ment, in a man­ner not nec­es­sar­ily based on the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies at the site.”

The goal, they ar­gue, is to “cre­ate a broad con­sen­sus about its im­por­tance as an in­di­vis­i­ble part of the state of Is­rael.”

Among the ru­ins are three Byzan­tine-era churches and two mosques. One of the two his­tor­i­cal mosques is lo­cated out­side the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal park, while the se­cond is un­marked and un­de­vel­oped for vis­i­tors. A Byzan­tine church has been re­con­structed and serves as a venue for events.

A new three-di­men­sional “holo­gram” pre­sen­ta­tion of­fers view­ers with a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the taber­na­cle and a de­scrip­tion of the rit­u­als per­formed there, based on the Bi­ble.

A small mu­seum in­side the vis­i­tors’ cen­ter makes scant men­tion of nearly 1,400 years of Mus­lim rule, and a film de­pict­ing the site’s his­tory deals ex­clu­sively with the bi­b­li­cal ac­count.

The ar­chae­o­log­i­cal record, how­ever, is more com­pli­cated.

Tel Aviv Univer­sity ar­chae­ol­o­gist Is­rael Finkelstein led ex­ca­va­tions at Tel Shiloh in the 1980s. He said there is ev­i­dence of con­tin­u­ous re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity at the site for cen­turies lead­ing up to the early Iron Age, the pe­riod as­so­ci­ated with the emer­gence of the ancient Is­raelites.

“What ex­actly was the na­ture of the cult, whether there was a tem­ple there, and also the ex­act lo­ca­tion of this cult place at the site, is not very clear,” Finkelstein said. As with any ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site, Finkelstein said “our re­spon­si­bil­ity is to give the facts, and then we can of course say that there is more than one way to in­ter­pret the finds.”

No ev­i­dence of the taber­na­cle has been found, but ar­chae­ol­o­gists are look­ing. Ex­ca­va­tions are be­ing car­ried out by the As­so­ci­ates for Bi­b­li­cal Re­search, whose stated aim is “demon­strat­ing the his­tor­i­cal re­li­a­bil­ity of the Bi­ble through ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and bi­b­li­cal re­search.”

Scott Stripling, head of the cur­rent ex­ca­va­tion, is one of a handful of evan­gel­i­cal ar­chae­ol­o­gists cur­rently ex­ca­vat­ing in the West Bank. Evan­gel­i­cals are the only non-Israeli teams in­volved in West Bank digs. Ex­cept for Tel Shiloh, how­ever, the oth­ers op­er­ate in con­junc­tion with Israeli uni­ver­si­ties.

“We will likely be the largest ex­ca­va­tion in Is­rael once again this sum­mer,” Stripling said. De­spite broad aca­demic stigma in­volved with ex­ca­vat­ing in the West Bank, Stripling said his or­ga­ni­za­tion “is com­pletely apo­lit­i­cal, and we would be ex­ca­vat­ing the same re­gion, re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal changes.”

Rico Cortes, a tour guide from Orlando, Fla., who re­cently led a Span­ish-speak­ing group through the site, said Shiloh’s con­nec­tion to the state of Is­rael is un­ques­tioned.

“I bring ev­ery­one to re­spect Is­rael, the peo­ple and the Book,” he said. “The fact that the pres­ence of God one time dwelled here is over­whelm­ing.”

SE­BAS­TIAN SCHEINER/AP

Tourists view ru­ins at the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of Tel Shiloh, which is part of an Israeli set­tle­ment in the West Bank.

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