City of David digs museum
City of David digs museumIsrael news photo: Flash 90

A group of 150 archaeologists and students sent a petition Tuesday to Environment Minister Gilad Erdan and Sport and Culture Minister Limor Livnat, asking them to drop their support for a law that formalizes private archaeological digs and research at national parks and historical sites. The petition says that the law would “politicize archaeology in Israel and damage the independence of researchers," and calls for the ministers to oppose the "privatization of archaeology," which, they write, would be the death knell of archaeology in Israel.

But supporters of the law said that there were already hundreds of independent and private groups conducting archaeological research around the country. In fact, supporters say, there is only one dig that the group is interested in halting – the one going on in Ir David (the City of David), conducted by the Elad organization.

The law, proposed by MK Yisrael Hasson (Kadima) and other MKs, has already passed its first reading, and is being discussed in Knesset committees prior to its second and third reading, which should take place soon after the Knesset reconvenes after the upcoming Jewish holidays. The law states that organizations which seek to preserve historical, archaeological, or architectural sites, either natural or man-made, and do not operate as for-profit groups, will be able to carry out work at sites.

Elad has been conducting work at Ir David under this formula – which, until recently, was unchallenged – for years. In recent months, leftist groups filed a petition with the High Court against Elad's work – prompting Hasson to propose his law. Hasson said that he was unconcerned with the charges by left groups that Elad was politicizing the work at the site. “We MKs are aware of the issues and we will know how to ensure a proper balance between the work that can save important sites, and political agendas,” Hasson said.

The law has a good chance of passing on its second and third readings, since coalition MKs support it, as do most Kadima MKs. As a result, the leftist groups were reduced to filing a petition, as a last recourse to convince the government not to support the law.

One of the authors of the petition is Dr. Rafi Greenberg of the Archaeological Department of Tel Aviv University, one of the most vociferous Israeli critics of the dig at Ir David. The dig, Greenberg said in a 2008 interview with USA Today, “is connected by its umbilical cord to politics. No amount of dealing with ceramics and rocks can obscure the fact that the work is being done to establish facts in the present.”