The Moral Implications of Archaeological Fieldwork - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

The Moral Implications of Archaeological Fieldwork

Main Content
Friday, February 22, 2019

By Caleb A. Gilmore, President of the Graduate Student Association

Scholars of the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Near East, and archaeology endeavor to explain and analyze the objects of their study with integrity (it is to be assumed). No scholar is, however, an island. Every observer of texts and materials produced by the ancients, as an observer, carries all sorts of implicit biases and blind spots into their study. We undoubtedly believe ourselves to be seekers of “objectivity” and “truthfulness” (provided we believe in these concepts) when it comes to our own production of scholarship. At best, we hope to provide our guild with the best possible answer given our current information and understanding. But what happens when the information changes? What happens when the changing information does not come out of the texts or materials discovered in an archaeological report, but from the effects an archaeological excavation has on the modern inhabitants of the site?

These were questions many graduate students at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati had upon returning from the summer in Israel this year. During the course of our stay, we visited a small village on the West Bank called Jubbet al-Dhib. The people in this village had encountered multiple difficulties obtaining basic necessities like electricity and school facilities due to their location next to the archaeological site of Herodion, one of Herod’s palaces. As we observed the grit of this community, we began to wonder about our obligation as scholars who study these locations and publish about them. We began to seek out any organization that might be working to help us answer these questions.

Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that works to prevent the politicization of archaeology in the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict, forces us to ask these kinds of questions. On February 5th, members of the Pines School of Graduate Studies held a video conference with Yonatan Mizrahi of Emek Shaveh to learn about the effects of archaeology on Palestinian residents who live in communities impacted by excavation sites.

In particular, we discussed the Silwan (City of David) excavations funded by Elad and the political entanglements of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA). The residents of this area hold these “sites of memory” as sacred locations which are important for their cultural heritage, but they are systematically powerless to participate in conversations about their own community. Emek Shaveh seeks to bring dignity back to these residents, in addition to fighting for their for their legal rights and representation.  At the end of our session, we conversed about how, as scholars, we have an ethical responsibility to do more than just describe the past “as it actually was” (to borrow Leopold von Ranke’s phrase). We must also consider the present and future implications of our scholarship and its possible politicization. Although the academic guild has recognized some of these problems for decades, the conversation has usually been an ideological one, devolving at times to a labeling game in which one finds oneself a “minimalist” or a “maximalist.” The stakes are quite real, however, for the modern inhabitants of these sites and we must begin to realize our role within this system that at times oppresses these people due to the fluke of their chosen home’s location.

Our conversation and continuing relationship with Emek Shaveh sprang from a tangible experience regarding the living conditions of those who are impacted by archaeology and the study of ancient sites and the textual narratives about them. The world is far too complex for us to imagine ourselves as “impartial observers” with objectivity. We must always endeavor to practice our scholarship with integrity  ̶  not just for ourselves, but for any person who might be affected by our area of study. This will not be a conversation concluded quickly, but it is a conversation worth having.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.