Jerusalem, Where Archeology Meets Religion And Politics

Excavation site in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem
Excavation site in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem
Cyrille Louis

JERUSALEM â€" The pounding of the hammer resonates in Jerusalem. "They are in the process of constructing a synagogue," said the Israeli tour guide in front of the tunnel, which attracts hundreds of tourists even though they have difficulty navigating it.

"One might say that there are plenty of places of worship like this," said the guide, a 40-year-old originally from New York. "But the situation is a little different at these depths." Bewildered visitors walk through the tunnel until an unusual sight makes them pause. Three women are hunched over copies of the Torah, or Jewish law. They pray in silence in the cramped space in front of a stone wall close to the "Holy of the Holies" â€" the most sacred inner sanctum of the Temple of Herod. According to Jewish tradition, this is where Tables of the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai was buried.

"For now only a few people can worship here at a time but the situation will soon be improved," promises the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which hopes to introduce a dignified place of prayer within the next year.

Jewish worsippers take part in prayer at the Western Wall â€" Photo: Gil Cohen Magen/ZUMA

Plenty of Financial Resources

The construction is part of a vast underground work in the vicinity of the Esplanade of the Mosques, known to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City. "The authorities are in the process of revamping a parallel city under Palestinian homes," said Nir Hasson, a reporter for the newspaper Haaretz, who recently investigated the project.

"We dig wherever opportunities present themselves with the idea of facilitating public access to the Kotel (the Hebrew name for the Western Wall) and to better understand one of the most glorious periods of Jewish history," said a spokesman for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

After many years of excavation and renovation, the foundation recently opened a large vaulted chamber dating to the Mamluk period. Situated near the tunnel that runs along the base of the Western Wall, the chamber welcomes visitors to participate in an "interactive journey" tracing the footsteps of the Jewish communities expelled from Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Observers barely raise an eyebrow when they hear that one of the grandchildren of Israeli gas tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva celebrated his bar mitzvah here. "This incident illustrates the scandalous non-transparency by which the underground expansion of Jerusalem runs," said Yoni Mizrahi, the head of Emek Shaveh, an NGO campaigning against the misuse of archeology for political purposes. "Not only was this underground space annexed by the Western Wall without taking into consideration the opinions of those who live here but it’s operating in total disregard of that part of Jerusalem’s history that has nothing to do with Jewish presence."

The controversy surrounding the work conducted below the surface of Jerusalem is not new. The first pickaxes dug under the Kotel in the 1970s, just after the Israeli army’s conquest of East Jerusalem. The rhythm of the excavation and development, as well as speculation about the real objective of the work, intensified over the course of the last decade.

The promoters of these excavations emphasize their desire to learn from the archeology of the site and to develop tourism. Their critics denounce the political aims of their underground involvement. "It is not known if there is an exact plan for Jerusalem’s underground,” Hasson said. “But the general aim is clearly to impose a narrative centered on the Jewish history of the city at the expense of other periods. Without a doubt the goal is to exclude the Palestinian identity but also to make it impossible to divide the city in the case of a peace agreement."

The mayor of the city, Nir Barkat, recently said before a delegation of the Likud Party that it’s important that users of this underground "understand who exactly this city belongs to."

It was with this goal in mind that the Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, began to clean up and open the ancient network of tunnels underneath the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in the mid-2000s. With plenty of money and hard work, the foundation strengthened the Jewish presence in this neighborhood at the foot of the al-Aqsa mosque.

About 500 Israeli settlers reside among about 50,000 Palestinians in Silwan. "The discovery of the tunnels allows us to expose the Jewish history here to the entire world, where archeologists say King David’s palace stood 3000 years ago," said Zeev Orenstein, a spokesman for the tourist site in Silwan.

Israel’s Antiquities Authority, which supervised the excavations, has identified an original pipe of 533 meters from 8th century BC that brought water from the Gihon Spring to city walls. The guide recounts major events from the Bible without ever mentioning the Palestinian population that lives in Jerusalem.

Since 2013, visitors to the "City of David" have the possibility of seeing the Jewish neighborhood of the Old City without seeing any of the Palestinian homes. Tons of rubble and waste were cleared from a second tunnel that was 700 meters long and was drilled during the period of Herod.

"It is only a step," said Orenstein. Above the narrow tunnel, which was once used for sewage, archeologists have started to clear out the old Roman road near Temple Mount.

"It will be the highway of the underground city," predicts Hasson. "And I would not be surprised if Elad implants itself in the exhibits and businesses."

One of the underground caves in Jerusalem â€" Photo: Li Rui/ZUMA

The park, where only 10,000 to 20,000 visitors came each year a decade ago, now attracts almost a half-a-million visitors. Its popularity will continue to grow if the tunnels of the "City of David" are one day connected to those at the Western Wall.

Deadly Clashes

"The development of these tunnels for tourism serves to impose the idea that the authentic city is the one which remains underground. The settlers that would govern it would be legitimate residents while the Palestinians would live on the surface presenting an obstacle to its regeneration," said Mizrahi. His NGO accuses the archeologists of violating the rules of their profession by excavating in areas explored with a questionable objective since the end of the 19th century.

"It’s slander," said Ronny Reich, who led the research team exploring what lies under Silwan for nearly 15 years.

"I am not naïve. Of course I understood that the primary goal of Elad doesn’t have much to do with science," he said. "But that was never my way of working."

Reich said that his discoveries speak for him. "We published more than 70 scientific articles on the discovery of the fortified tower that protected the Gihon Spring, the location of the Siloam basin and the dozens of seals attesting to the presence of Judaism on this site," he said.

"We program our excavations by using great restraint because we are perfectly conscious of the immense sensitivity of the area in which we operate," said Yuval Baruch, the archaeologist in charge of Jerusalem at Antiquities Authority.

A bitter lesson was learned one day in September 1996 when Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu authorized workers of the tunnel along the Western Wall to drill an exit in the middle of Via Dolorosa. The Palestinians, angry that the work reached the basement of the Noble Sanctuary, responded with demonstrations that quickly turned deadly. About 100 people were killed.

"Our visit is over," the Israeli guide said when the small tour group resurfaces and prepares to enter the Palestinian neighborhood. "You are of course free to shop and eat wherever you’d like. But I advise you to follow me to the two armed guards who are waiting for us at the exit. They will accompany us to the starting point of our visit."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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