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Middle East Issues





Time's McGirk Sides With Opponents of Jerusalem Archeology


Tim McGirk, Time Magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief, is notorious for his lack of impartiality on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Time and again, he has departed from the code of journalistic ethics by failing to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting,” and by misleading readers with false information. In a Feb. 8, 2010 article entitled “Archaeology in Jerusalem: Digging Up Trouble,” McGirk once again replaces objective reporting with advocacy journalism, this time promoting opponents of archeological excavations in the City of David.

Jerusalem's past, present and future is a subject of controversy that arouses passionate opinion and positions on both sides. One of the main obstacles to previous peace‑making efforts has been the issue of dividing Jerusalem and control over its holy sites. Muslim denial of Judaism's historical and religious ties to Jerusalem, the Waqf's illegal construction on the Temple Mount, and the violent response to Jewish archeological digs have long stymied Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. (See "The Battle Over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount".) While the strongest opposition to the archeological excavations taking place in Jerusalem comes from Palestinian and Muslim leaders who for political reasons deny a Jewish historic bond to the city's holy sites, opposition has also come from pro‑Palestinian activists who oppose Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem's holy basin and from revisionist or minimalist archeologists who reject the Bible as a guide to the history of ancient Israel. Support for the archeological studies comes not only from right‑wing Jewish nationalists but from archeologists, historians and scholars throughout the world who believe that the discoveries support biblical accounts of a united Davidian monarchy.

A responsible reporter would objectively present all aspects of this controversial topic. An ethical journalist would not attempt to “spin” the story with editorial comments and omission of relevant information. But McGirk demonstrates that he is neither. He weighs in on the debate from the start of the article, introducing the subject by derogating archeology in Jerusalem as something akin to a delusional “psychological disorder.” And just in case it is not clear enough where he stands on the issue, McGirk follows with an even more prejudicial characterization of the archeological dig in Jerusalem's holy basin as “an extreme case of the willful jumbling of science and faith [that] is threatening Jerusalem's precarious spiritual balance.”

By characterizing the excavation in this way, McGirk embraces one side of an ongoing debate within the field of archeology. He further shapes the story by reserving pejorative characterizations for those involved with, or supportive of, those archeological excavations while characterizing their opponents in a respectful way.

The reporter refers to the Israeli government as “hawkish” and “disinclined to compromise,” but makes no mention of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' disinclination to compromise by setting preconditions even to negotiating with Israel.

He characterizes "City of David" or "Elad", the group under whose auspices the archeological excavations are taking place, as “a right‑wing Jewish settler organization” and its founder as “an ex‑Israeli commando who used to disguise himself as an Arab for undercover missions in the Palestinian territories.” But he does not mention the credentials of those involved in the excavations. Of what relevance is the founder's commando past? None, of course, except to paint him as a cunning operator against Palestinians.

The journalist respectfully refers to Daniel Seidemann, an outspoken foe of Israeli sovereignty and habitation in eastern Jerusalem, as a lawyer who works for a civil rights organization and, elsewhere in the article, as “Lawyer Seidemann,” but does not afford similar honorifics to the archeologist who heads the Jerusalem excavation. McGirk conveniently omits her credentials, introducing her simply as “Eilat Mazar” and incorrectly describing her as “an associate of the right‑wing Shalem think tank” And while he includes this incorrect affiliation – Time has already issued a correction stating that Mazar is not currently affiliated with the Shalem think tank – McGirk neglects to inform readers that Dr. Mazar is a respected archeologist – the granddaughter of Benjamin Mazar, who was a prominent archeologist, historian and former president of the Hebrew University. She received her PhD in archeology more than a decade ago, has published in scholarly journals, was a visiting scholar at the Hebrew University's Institute of Archeology and is currently a research fellow there.

By contrast, McGirk characterizes those who oppose the field of biblical archeology and disagree with Mazar and her team's findings as “scholars” and “experts.”

Unsurprisingly, the journalist gives short shrift to proponents of Mazar's archeological excavation, devoting the bulk of the article to highlighting the views of its detractors and their inflammatory pronouncements against Elad. McGirk quotes several “experts” in the field, as he describes them, who are critical of Mazar's work. But the only praise he quotes is from “a Jewish settler and activist.” McGirk suggests that the archeologist's support comes from “religious Jews.” Of course, there are others, as well, who admire Mazar's work not for political or religious reasons, but as scholarly contributions to the field. They include such prominent archeologists as Haifa University Professor Ronny Reich, Eli Shukron of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, Dr. Gabriel Barkay of Bar Ilan University, Professor Amihai Mazar of the Institute for Archeological Studies, and numerous other biblical scholars, archeologists and historians both inside and outside of Israel.

McGirk does not bother to interview or quote any of them about the excavations. Instead, he attempts to show that it is Mazar's archeological investigation that “complicates efforts by the White House to enable both Palestinians and Israelis to share Jerusalem as their respective capitals, a key demand of the Palestinians”— as if a scholarly archeological investigation should be abandoned merely because the results are inconvenient to a political agenda.

Complicating the efforts of the White House far more than the City of David excavations is the fact that Palestinians and Muslim leaders routinely deny any Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, while the Waqf has actively attempted to erase evidence of Jewish history. McGirk, however, buries these facts in a single paragraph near the end of the article, presenting it as a claim by “irate Jewish scholars.”

Indeed, in his apparent zeal to portray Israel as a wrongdoer, McGirk ignores key information that would shed more light on the political side of the debate. While he acknowledges that Baron Rothschild “bought several acres of land in Silwan” in the early 20th century, he neglects to mention that 60% of Silwan is Jewish-owned, including the land purchased by Rothschild. Nor does he mention that Jewish families inhabited this neighborhood, known in Hebrew as Shiloah, as early as 1882 and that Silwan's Jewish residents were only driven from their homes by Arab attacks in the late 1920's. Instead, the journalist introduces the area in which the excavations are taking place as “Silwan, an Arab village now listed in Israeli guidebooks as the City of David.”

And while McGirk writes about Jewish expansionist activities in Silwan, he provides no mention of the argument that it is Silwan's Arab residents have who have been actively expanding there by illegally building in an area that for hundreds of years has been a public area designated for preservation. McGirk asserts:

Elad's archaeological expansion continues, with 88 Arab homes marked for demolition to build an "archaeological park."

The missing side of the debate can be found in a Ha'aretz article by journalist Nadav Shragai:

Progress has brought troubles along with it to the King's Valley [the area of the designated archeological park]. For hundreds of years floodwaters drained into the garden of the kings of Judea, east of the Shiloah Pool in Jerusalem. In winter it was a swamp, but in summer it became a blooming garden.

With a bit of imagination and with the help of varied historical sources it is possible to imagine King David strolling in the royal garden with its abundant greenery and water among the olive, fig, pomegranate and almond trees, singing Psalms.

According to one tradition, this is where the Book of Ecclesiastes was composed.

About 20 years ago, the Jerusalem municipality shored up the water runoff there, and in the open green area (al Bustan, in Arabic), which the Turks and the British took care to preserve for hundreds of years as a public area intended for preservation and development of parks and tourism, an illegal Palestinian outpost arose.

Within 18 years 88 buildings went up there, under the noses of mayors Teddy Kollek and now outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Under former mayor Uri Lupolianski, the construction was halted, after the municipality confiscated tractors and heavy machinery from the lawbreakers.

Last summer the director general of the Antiquities Authority, Shuka Dorfman, noted in a kind of "post mortem" that the construction in the King's Garden caused significant and irreversible damage to antiquities.

Representatives of the municipality and Dorfman admitted that they had no good explanation for what has happened in this lovely garden, which is described in the Books of Nechemiah and Ecclesiastes, in midrashim (rabbinic Biblical homiletics) and in many historical sources. Dorfman stressed that together with Tel David, the garden constitutes the only complete archaeological garden of first‑rate importance.

Time's readers cannot reliably learn about the controversies and arguments surrounding the history, archeology, and future of Jerusalem as long as Time's Jerusalem bureau chief continues to serve as an advocate for one side of the debate instead of as a responsible and ethical journalist.


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