The Politics of Archaeology – Christian Zionism and the Creation of Facts Underground
On November 18, 2020, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the City of David archaeological park in East Jerusalem, a Jewish settler-run site near the Old City purporting to be the ancient seat of power of King David. The following day, he spoke about his visit at a press conference, turning toward then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who stood on the dais with him:
Last night I had a chance to walk through the City of David. Today you and I met looking out over the Old City. The peace, the increased prosperity, and the reduced risk to citizens all across the world and in the region and to here, in the Jewish homeland, that we have accomplished together is historic, and you should be proud.
Pompeo’s juxtaposition of the City of David and the current city of East Jerusalem was likely no accident. The City of David park is just one of many archaeological sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank that are illegal under international law and serve Israel’s settler colonial project by legitimizing the theft of Palestinian land and the dispossession of Palestinians through a (sometimes spurious) focus on the traces of ancient Jewish history at the expense of traces of other peoples also found in the archaeological record. Such a focus shores up the argument that the land “belongs” to Israeli Jews, who are simply “returning” to a home that was – and hence still is – theirs.
This use of archaeology stretches back to before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. Nadia Abu El-Haj, for instance, analyzes the collection of “ever more facts, cumulative instances of [ancient] Jewish art and architecture” during the period of the British Mandate (1923-1948):
This work of fact-collection needs to be understood as…about “world-making.” And in that work of world-making, the point of view of the archaeological relic…was fundamental. Archaeological relics were fetishized as…facts of ancient Jewish history through the perspective of which the land was fashioned as an old-new Jewish national home.
Even further back we find roots of this world-making work that are more religious in nature, specifically Christian. In the mid-nineteenth century, scientific research such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species increased interest among both the public and scholars in proving the opposite – that is, the factuality of the Bible. This period saw the advent of American and European archaeologists looking to link places, events, and people found in the Bible with archaeological remains, thus confirming the text’s veracity. Much interest, and therefore excavation, centered in and around Jerusalem.
Journalist Andrew Lawler notes that this new fascination was also related to the Protestant idea that the Jews must return to Jerusalem to facilitate the second coming of Christ, an interpretation of the Bible that rose in influence during this period. The belief is based in the idea that four millennia ago God promised the land of Israel to the Jews, who will rule it until Jesus’s return.
This interpretation became known as Christian Zionism, of which Mike Pompeo is an avid proponent. About 80 percent of evangelical Christians in the United States express the Christian Zionist belief that the modern state of Israel and the “regathering of millions of Jewish people” there is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. As such, Israel and its settlements signal that this promise is growing closer to its realization: Jesus will soon return to Jerusalem and Christians will be saved via the rapture. For those with religious beliefs other than Christianity, they must convert or be sent to hell.