The protests taking Israel by storm this month are part of a long, heartfelt history of Israelis taking to the streets to make their voices heard. Whether their demands are peaceful or passionate, one thing has always remained constant: The power of ordinary Israeli people to affect big change when they put their mind to it
A protest in Haifa over the cost of living, photo by Yossi Zamir, published in "J. The Jewish News of Northern California", 23 September 2011
Baby Strollers, tents, and cottage cheese – the protests that changed the face of Israel started from the smallest, most innocuous of sparks, which burst into flames that couldn’t be ignored.
Anyone who lives in Israel right now will be aware of significant changes happening in the country. Even if you aren’t politically-minded, when every bus ride through town is diverted, when quiet days are interrupted by remote chants over distant megaphones, and when poster board is sold out in every stationary shop, you sit up and pay attention!
But in case you didn’t know, for the last two months or so, nearly half a million Israelis have taken to the streets in protest of judicial reforms being proposed by the current government. This is one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in Israel against government legislation. In short, this new legislation would allow the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to overrule supreme court decisions far more easily, allow the ruling coalition much more influence over the process of appointing judges, and administer a few other contentious points.
Believing this to be undesirable, or simply undemocratic, thousands of Israelis have donned blue and white garb, while waving Israeli flags and taking to the streets in what often looks like a cross between Israeli Independence Day celebrations, a street party, and an uprising. In reality, it is none of those things. It is, however, the latest in a long succession of protests which have been gracing the streets of Israel since long before there was even a state to protest against.
They say that two Jews have three opinions, but this is a sore underestimation. The scope of this article could never be wide enough to cover all of Israel’s various protests, but we will explore some of the most impactful ones from the last ten(ish) years.
Over the last decade, the price of housing has risen all over the world, and Israel is not immune to this trend. ‘A nation of renters’ is the phrase sometimes used when referring to the new generation of youngsters in Israel. So, just over ten years ago, across Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv and other vital locations, tents started springing up in small communes. What better way to show the consequences of rising house prices than displaying to the government a snippet of a potential future homeless-population. At its height, around 400,000 protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, with small stores and water stations popping up in the midst of the sea of tents to service the masses of people temporarily living on the streets. In 2022, ten years later, the next generation of Israelis were facing the exact same housing problem – and decided to implement the exact same solutions.
Housing prices were up by 15% at the beginning of 2022, after a year of prices rising monthly by 1.5%. Again, the makeshift town of tents arose, this time incorporating singalongs, public debates and even a daily Daf Yomi Jewish learning group! So, did it work? Well, it’s impossible to say for sure but in October 2022, the Knesset unveiled a program to build 280,000 new homes and approve 500,000 more, meaning that the government had essentially pledged to spend over 18 billion shekels on affordable housing.
Soon after the success of the tent protest, tens of thousands of parents with children between the ages of 1 and 4 years old, decided that it was time for them to take charge as well. Israeli parents, notorious for impeccable organizational skills, mobilized quickly and took to the streets with their strollers to protest the cost of raising young children in Israel.
Generally, parents of young children have more fixed routines and less time to take part in politics, so when these mothers and fathers – dressed in neon colors with yellow balloons tied to their baby buggies – gave up a day of sensible parenting to stand outdoors and protest, people took notice.
The main issue revolved around what many Israelis scornfully call their “second mortgage.” Daycare for infants costs around 3000 shekels per month, if not more, and with a mode Israeli monthly income of 7700 shekels, it is easy to see why young children prove to be such an expense in Israel. As a result, many women don’t return to work after giving birth, which results in an unnatural gender pay gap.
Initially, the organizers of the stroller protest requested a permit for just 500 protestors, but the week before the march more than 6,000 parents had pledged to show up. In the end, tens of thousands participated. Consequentially, the government agreed to implement free education starting a year earlier, at age 3 instead of age 4, saving families an average of 30,000 shekels per child. Eventually the stroller protest sparked a new demonstration, called the Sardines protest in which parents aimed to reduce how many children could legally be taught in a single classroom. Again, it was successful and the state reduced the maximum number of children in classrooms from 40 to 34.
Having covered accommodation and child care, the next obvious culprit was food. In the UK, young people (genuinely) judge the rising cost of living based on a chocolate bar called a Fredo. In the year 2000, Fredos cost 12 pence. Over time, the cost of a Fredo rose by a few pence annually, and now it is rare to find a Fredo bar being sold for less than 80 pence. The metric for economic downturn in the UK is routinely measured by the cost of a chocolate bar. Israeli chocolate, however, is known for being subpar, so in leu of a sweet treat with which to judge the economy, the metric used in Israel is cottage cheese.
With the growth of social media, 90,000 Israelis took to Facebook to rage against the price of cottage cheese in Israel, but the online campaign was not enough and eventually 300,000 people stormed Tel Aviv in anger over the price of the cheese. Hand-in-hand with the protests, a boycott was issued, urging people to only buy cottage cheese if the tub was sold for less than 5 shekels, as opposed to the 8 shekels it had risen to by the end of 2011.
In response, the government reduced taxes on the import of dairy products and increased import rates of food products, to promote wider market competition. An investigation into Israeli food prices was also launched. The price of dairy was set to be regulated by the Knesset and on December 30, 2013, the government imposed price controls on Israel’s largest dairy manufacturer, Tnuva, forcing the price of cottage cheese down by 20%, after the Prime Minister created a committee of experts to propose adequate socio-economic reform.
Despite the fairly-priced cheese and additional year of daycare, peace in Israel didn’t last. The following year, the Knesset proposed a plan to gradually incorporate the country’s Haredi population into the armed forces, which was met with heavy protests from the Ultra-Orthodox community. Haredim had, until this point, been exempt from military service due to religious reasons. They argued they were contributing to the safety of Israelis on a spiritual realm by studying Jewish scriptures in yeshivas, instead of physically fighting.
After the founding of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion reached an agreement with Ultra-Orthodox leaders that exempted Haredim from military service. In 1977, Menachem Begin entrenched this arrangement in law, permitting all yeshiva students to avoid the military draft. However, in February 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court decided that this law was discriminatory, and demanded that everyone should be drafted equally to the IDF. Thus it was, that on May 16, 2013, around 25,000 Haredim demonstrated outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem.
As it currently stands, all Haredim are technically required to join the army, but can easily succeed in getting an ishur – an opt-out – from their yeshiva or rabbi. Therefore, the vast majority of Haredim do not enlist in the army today. This remains a contentious aspect of Israeli culture, and many smaller protests take place both for and against this status quo on a regular basis.
On some matters, however, Israelis stand united. In 2015 the Israeli government proposed a deal to give an international consortium led by companies Delek and Noble the rights to the newly-found Leviathan gas field off the coast of Israel, which contained around 18.9 trillion cubic feet of gas, in exchange for reducing their involvement in other, smaller gas fields across the country. This plan would have furthered the goals of the Israeli government, who sought independence in those smaller fields, but it also represented the selling of Israeli goods to international firms, who would then manufacture the gas before selling it straight back to Israel at a higher price, paid for, of course, by the consumer. Professor Yaron Zalika, one of the main speakers at the resulting protests, said that “the government is plundering the largest national natural resource ever found here, after handing it — without tender — to a group of wealthy people, for almost nothing in return!”
Despite being the largest protest to take place since 2011, the deal went ahead, with minor amendments, and the Leviathan gas field was sold to Delek, Noble Energy, and Ratio Oil Exploration who still own the gas field today.
So, was hope lost for good? Well, no, but for those who supported the gas protests, it was certainly a blow to their spirits to see their demonstrations being so adeptly ignored. But despite the many people who felt knocked down by the escapade, no one can be silenced forever. In 2020, thousands of Israelis made a comeback – one of the biggest so far!
As COVID-19 took over not just Israel, but the whole world, tensions started to build. There were those who demanded more vaccines, those who insisted that vaccines were harmful; people who advocated for masks, and people who wanted to do away with masks all together; some people wanted more public closures and some wanted the country to remain open. As such, it would have been impossible for a government to please all of their constituents. Even if someone happened to totally agree with government policy, there would have been other members of society who were violating what they considered to be sacred moral codes during the pandemic. Tensions rose, and people were angry. On top of that, Israel was in the midst of what felt like a million governmental elections, and the country seemingly couldn’t agree on who would run parliament, as election after election was called. Add to this an unemployment rate which rose alarmingly in a matter of months, and you had near-chaos in the streets.
Protests sprung up quickly, and each Saturday night the numbers grew. Walking through the protests, the demonstrations were divided into small groups, each with their own flags and colored clothing, many shouting personalized slogans or playing their own music. Entering the protests from King George Street in Jerusalem, the first group one would encounter was the Breslov community, angry that their annual trip to Uman was being thwarted by travel closures. Next, one would meet supporters of the Meretz political party, with their vehement anti-right-wing chants. If you continued westward, you would get to a small but loud group of anti-mask protestors, followed by the large anti-Bibi Netanyahu group, decked out with blow up figurines and fancy-dress costumes. Further forward were the women’s rights’ activists, bearing pink flags of Israel, followed by a large floor-based meditation circle of peace activists. You would then pass by the unemployed group who demanded financial compensation from the government, and so on until you emerged, exhausted, from the other end.
As bars and restaurants were closed, large swaths of bored youngsters joined the protests, sometimes latching onto a cause, other times showing up with alcohol and music. There was even a 10 person jump-rope, live band, and fire dancers at times. Between the genuine anger and frustration, there was also a street party taking place.
That’s the beauty of protesting in Israel. People show up, in a big way, and express their democratic right whenever they have the desire to do so. In the most recent protests this month, parents bring their children along, completely unafraid. Elderly people have joined the ranks, knowing that they will be safe. Whole families have taken part, and been allowed to release their hard feelings. Prayer quorums have been formed at the protest site so that no one need miss their daily minyan due to demonstrating, and during the protests, merchants sell food and water to those who didn’t bring their own peanut butter sandwiches. The Israeli public gets to voice their opinion, knowing that they are not only completely safe to do so, but actually protected by the general good will of society, and those who enforce it.
No matter your opinion, you can find a demonstration in Israel which would fit your beliefs, and allow you to release any pent-up tensions. And perhaps that’s why, in a society comprised of so many religions, ideologies, and walks of life, Israel is able to keep going.
An Ode to the National Library of Israel, the Love of My Youth
“I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political oversight or involvement regarding the life of the Library, may indelibly tarnish it, causing it and those who enter its doors irreparable damage.” Professor Aviad Hacohen pleads: Do not harm the love of my youth—the National Library of Israel
Opening day of the new building of the Jewish National and University Library, November 1, 1960 – the Circulation Desk, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
“I was an unhappy boy during the nights, wandering alone, never letting anyone know, you were the love of my youth.”
-From Ahavat Neurai (“The Love of My Youth”) by Shalom Hanoch
The first time I saw you, I was on my way to the Gymnasia high school. Back then, I would sometimes skip the boring classes and run to you instead, if only to inhale your scent. You are not a great beauty, I know, but you always welcomed me with love and a warm embrace.
At sixteen, a first love can seem like that, all roses and sunshine. But forty-five years on, that first love is still going strong. It cannot and must not be stopped.
You stood there, your pale, white facade hidden among the trees and grassy lawns of Givat Ram, your body upright, confident in yourself, radiating an aura of dignity.
On the ground floor one would see the heavy wooden card cabinets, their old hinges worn with use, the drawers filled to bursting with thousands of cards covered in dense handwriting.
Every day, for years, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, the regulars would show up at your door to be let in and then move quickly to their regular corners. (There was a running joke back then that these scholars were so much a part of the Library, that if movers were ever called in for a relocation, they would move them right along with the rest of the “furniture”.)
Among these regulars were some of the world’s greatest scholars of Jewish studies: Jacob Katz, Gershom Scholem, Menachem Brinker, Shmuel Safrai, Shmuel Werses, Hava Lazarus-Yaffe, David Weiss Halivni and Meir Benayahu, to name but a few.
After a few hours, the prophet of rage would arrive. Somewhat grim-faced, he would stride briskly through the Library’s doors to the “press room”. There, seventy-five-year-old Yeshayahu Leibowitz would begin to go one by one through the journals—hundreds of scientific periodicals that were arranged like soldiers on shelves along the walls. He would start with the journals that dealt with the Bible and Talmud, then move to the medical journals, followed by the chemistry and microbiology section, and finish up with the daily newspapers stored between two giant wooden boards and that smelled intoxicatingly of the past
His younger sister, the great biblical scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz, also well on in years, would sometimes stroll into the adjacent hall, the Judaica Reading Room, her signature beret pushed down low on her head, her students hurrying to offer her help in locating a book.
Inside the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, located on floor -1, scholars and yeshiva students would sit side by side, each one hunched over a creaking microfilm machine, working tirelessly in order to rescue centuries-old Hebrew manuscripts from oblivion. Next to them would be a literary researcher asking to look at the notes and early drafts of the great Hebrew author, literary genius and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, in order to try to grasp the hidden meanings contained his works. Peering out above them would be the bright bald head of the gifted writer Yossel Birstein, who worked in the Hebrew Manuscripts department alongside cultural figures such as Rafi Weiser and Shlomo Zucker, from whom no secrets were hidden.
On the second floor, among the dusty piles of old audio tapes, Ephraim Yaakov would be trying once again to convince a one hundred-year-old newly arrived immigrant from Georgia to sing her community’s lullabies and lamentations, so that they would be preserved for generations in the Library’s Sound Archive.
Only in the rarest cases were we permitted to enter the “underworld”: floor -2. That was where the real treasures were kept. The manuscripts of Maimonides and Albert Einstein, genizah fragments and ancient Qurans.
Full disclosure: Over the years, I have had the pleasure of her favor, but I have also had the privilege of giving something in return to my great love. During its renewal, I had the privilege of participating as a representative of the Library’s readers, the “users,” in meetings of its board of directors and even to represent the Library in court in order to protect its rights.
I also drafted the “National Library Charter”, which was signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the then-President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, as well as by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Rut Arnon, alongside dozens of other renowned public figures from Israel and around the world.
The charter reflects the unique spirit of the Library, whose doors are open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, political outlook or orientation:
“The physical and virtual doors of the Library will be open to people of all nations and religions, to draw an increasing number of users from among the general public and from among the research community in Israel and the world, and to serve them in the best way possible.”
The charter emphasizes the National Library of Israel’s status as a “national and Zionist cultural and educational center”, meant to serve as an “inspirational space, which will be both an optimal learning environment and a meeting place drawing researchers, intellectuals, artists and seekers of knowledge from Israel and around the world, as well as a site of vibrant cultural creation that is based on its treasures and collections.”
Days and years have gone by and the love of my youth has matured and long since passed one hundred and twenty. The guards who used to zealously rummage through our briefcases and backpacks by hand are now aided by technological devices. The old-fashioned, awkward hand-written paper slips once used for ordering books were replaced by a simple computerized system, accessible from anywhere in the world, even by mobile phone. The old creaking elevators were replaced with new ones; even the official name was changed from the “Jewish National and University Library” to the “The National Library of Israel.” The Library began hosting an array of inspiring cultural events, wonderful concerts ranging from classical music to Israeli song, and the entrance hall was filled with groups of Jewish and Arab elementary school students coming to see and experience this great hall of culture for the first time, maybe even falling in love with it, as I did so many years before.
The National Library of Israel was and remains a unique nature reserve in the Israeli landscape. A fascinating human and cultural microcosm unlike any other. Perhaps the last place, apart from the hospitals, where a university professor conducting research for a new book or article might sit beside a regular Joe who took a four-hour bus ride to come explore his family’s roots; a place where a young Torah scholar from Mea Shearim might sit surfing the internet and its “forbidden fruit” next to a young bare-shouldered university student leafing through rare books for a seminar paper she is writing.
Indeed, like many others, I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political involvement in the life of the Library may indelibly tarnish it, and cause irreparable damage to the Library and those who enter its doors. And we haven’t even talked about donors—whether of money or of rare and irreplaceable archival materials— who might be discouraged from supporting a body that is guided by politics, and not professionalism. Many of them may avoid donating to the Library or perhaps even choose to rescind donations of funds or collections they have already made.
If this plan to impose political involvement in the Library goes forward, the National Library of Israel will become one more political estate among many. A pointless institution, devoted only to the powers that be.
As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it.” The National Library of Israel is not broken and is not in need of a fix, certainly not of a political nature.
A True Jerusalem Story: The Failed Raid of the Lost Ark
More than a century ago, a group of English treasure-hunters showed up in Jerusalem with the most ambitious of goals: They were determined to find the treasures of the ancient biblical kings, no less. This grand quest and its strange results made sensational headlines in newspapers around the globe, not to mention the riots that erupted across the city…
The Temple Mount, Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker and a model of the Ark of the Covenant, credit: Avraham Gracier, The National Trust, Mary Harrsch
The rumor spread like wildfire across the city.
The crimes were unthinkable. Perhaps too fantastical to believe. And yet many did.
In mid-April of 1911, a team of English treasure hunters was busy at work in Jerusalem. They were digging under the Dome of the Rock, under the Temple Mount – the Noble Sanctuary, one of the world’s most sacred and sensitive religious landmarks. They were actually given permission, of a sort, to do so, but this did not make the act any less scandalous.
It was on the night of April 12 that the excavation came to an abrupt end: the wrong person found out about the dig, and it quickly became clear that remaining in Jerusalem was dangerous. The team packed up its equipment and findings and left town in a hurry. They were long gone when word began to spread that British adventurers had made off with the treasures of the ancient Jewish kings.
The press did not feel the need to downplay the event. Respectable newspapers declared that the stolen artifacts included King Solomon’s crown, his sword and his ring, as well as an ancient manuscript of the Bible (long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The New York Times ran with the headline: “Gone With Treasure That Was Solomon’s”. Some dispatches even mentioned the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant itself.
The incident soon led to chaos. Riots were sparked in Jerusalem, with local citizens going on strike and venting their fury at the Ottoman government for allowing such an outrage to occur. It was clear to all that the authorities had been in the know. Only the eventual resignation of the district governor was enough to calm the masses.
But what was the nature of this strange incident? Who were these treasure hunters? What were they looking for and what did they truly find?
The Genesis of the Parker Expedition
It began a few years earlier with a man named Walter Henrich Juvelius.
This strange Finnish poet was a man of eccentric interests, a doctor of philosophy who was fascinated with numerology, the Kabbalah and Jewish chronology. At some point in the early 1900s, Juvelius claimed to have made a startling discovery: he believed he had found a mysterious cipher while conducting research on Jewish history (one report mentioned he found it in the library of St. Sophia in Constantinople).
The cipher supposedly enabled one to unlock secrets hidden in the Bible and other ancient Jewish texts. Among these: the location of the treasures of the First Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant. As if this wasn’t odd enough, there was also talk of strange ancient documents unearthed in Ireland that also hinted at treasure buried in Jerusalem.
Armed with these “revelations”, Juvelius eventually turned up in London, where he met Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker. A decorated British soldier who had fought in the Second Boer War, Parker was also a well-connected aristocrat – his brother was the 4th Earl of Morley. Parker bought into Juvelius’ scheme to locate the ancient treasures in Jerusalem, and set about raising money and recruiting personnel. The 30-year-old English officer was quite successful in this: he managed to raise some £25,000 from a number of wealthy British and American patrons (equivalent to more than £3.8 million in 2023), and convinced several of his army buddies to join him and Juvelius on the expedition to the Holy Land.
Why were these affluent socialites and bored army veterans so eager to support such an overly ambitious excavation based on such flimsy evidence, you ask? It likely had something to do with Juvelius’ estimate that the treasure they were certain to find, including copious amounts of gold and silver, would be equal to a value of around $200 million dollars (over $6.4 billion today). This was also a time when the Spiritualist movement was still quite popular in the upper classes of British and American society. Hidden bible codes, mystical long-lost artifacts and ancient buried treasure? What’s not to like?
In 1908, before beginning the dig, Parker made a stop in Constantinople. His team may have been unorthodox (it included a former cricket player, a Swiss psychic and precisely zero archaeologists) and his motives were perhaps questionable, but the army captain was still intent on getting the proper legal permits from the Ottoman administration. After a quick negotiation, officials from the new Young Turks government supplied the permit in late November in exchange for £500 and half of any treasure to be found.
By this point Parker and Juvelius had already made a brief scouting trip to Jerusalem to identify the exact locations for the dig. Juvelius believed that the treasure lay underground, somewhere in the vicinity of the Temple Mount – the massive stone platform thought to be the site of both Jewish temples, where the Dome of the Rock now stood alongside the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Let the Digging Begin
Since digging under the platform itself was (initially) out of the question because of the religious sensitivities involved, Juvelius planned to reach the area by using already-existing ancient underground passages, accessible from what was known as the Hill of Ophel, the area south of the Temple Mount and the mosques. These would hopefully lead to a secret treasure chamber, that Juvelius was convinced existed under the Temple Mount itself.
The British team actually purchased land in the area of the dig site with some help from Ottoman officials. The Turks were able to overcome local resistance to the sale by announcing that the land was to be used for a hospital (this did not pan out). Finally, with the bureaucratic wrangling out of the way, work could begin.
In August of 1909, the team set up in a lone villa south of the Old City walls, the dig site was fenced off, and preparations for the excavation began. The European visitors stood out like a sore thumb in early 20th century Jerusalem, and their secretive behavior aroused plenty of attention and curiosity. Inevitably, despite the efforts to pretend otherwise, rumor got out that these were treasure hunters. Soon enough, the team was under pressure from suspicious locals and community leaders, who were eager to have someone on the inside that they could trust – a serious professional whose mere presence would reassure them. Parker finally gave in.
Enter Louis-Hugues Vincent.
Vincent was a Dominican monk, but also a respected archaeologist who worked at Jerusalem’s École biblique et archéologique française. Parker agreed to allow Vincent full access to the dig, three days a week, on the condition that no information would be shared with the public until Parker saw fit. This had the double effect of silencing local criticism, as well as providing the team with its only certified and relevant expert.
It is primarily thanks to Vincent that we have a detailed record of most of the Parker expedition’s underground work in Jerusalem. In fact, mere months after the scandalous incident on the Temple Mount, Vincent published an entire book, in both French and English, about the Parker expedition, detailing its work methods and findings and featuring intricate maps, drawings and photographs. A rare copy of Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel (1909-11) can be found in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.
As work got underway, some three hundred men were employed from the nearby village of Silwan (Siloam) to do the digging. The team began the excavations in the area of the Gihon Spring, Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam Tunnel (also known as Hezekiah’s tunnel). Both the tunnel and the shaft were previously explored in the 19th century, to much fanfare, and were thought to have formed parts of ancient Jerusalem’s underground water system. The general plan was to search for as-yet undiscovered passages, branching off from the known tunnels, that would hopefully lead the team to the secret treasure under the Temple Mount.
The work was arduous and dangerous, continuing at all times of the day, in 4-hour shifts. The workers carried torches and chanted songs as they picked away. Vincent wrote that they “found it necessary to take some such means to counteract the monotony of the dark, mysterious tunnels which seemed to stretch endlessly into the very entrails of the rock”.
The 1909 dig lasted into the autumn, but bad weather soon made further progress impossible. The team dispersed for the season, with Parker and company returning to Britain. They were back in Jerusalem by early August of 1910, with better equipment and aided by experts who had worked on the London Underground subway system. In this second dig season, the team continued to clear out the existing tunnels and even discovered previously unknown passages and chambers. Yet none of these came near the area of the Temple Mount, where the treasure was believed to be hidden. Parker even decided to begin carving out new tunnels, to bore an underground path that would lead them to their goal, but this was a slow and laborious process.
Vincent’s book contains a number of detailed maps charting out the network of ancient tunnels excavated by the team, as well as tunnels that they themselves dug underground.
Conditions were difficult, even for those with experience. Vincent wrote: “Thirty metres from the fountain the candles would not burn any longer, and we had to fall back on portable electric lanterns. In spite of a ventilator and oxygen capsules, the gangs had to be relieved every hour. At certain times I was not able to be more than a quarter of an hour in the gallery.”
While work was underway, water had to be diverted from the ancient Siloam Tunnel in which the famous Siloam Inscription was found in 1880. One of the benefits of this entire enterprise was that the clearing out of the underground waterways meant that water could now flow more easily through the channels. As the dig season drew to a close, the water was diverted back on October 11, 1910. Vincent wrote that its volume was now double what it had been previously, to the delight of the villagers of Silwan: “The flow of water gradually passed through to the Pool of Siloam; the shouts of acclamation and the noise of the feast to celebrate this occasion will long sound in my ears”.
This act of benevolence made Parker and his associates momentarily more popular with the locals, but for the team itself, the year 1910 was full of frustration and disappointment. Two seasons of hard manual labor in the summer heat had taken their toll, and the treasure hunters had little treasure to show for their efforts. Juvelius, the original visionary behind the quest, contracted malaria, packed his things and left for home. The winter rains once again put a stop to the digging and the Ottoman overseers also seemed to lose faith at this point. Parker’s dig permit was set to expire in late 1911, and chances of a renewal appeared slim, but the Englishman, who had investors to answer to, was not quite ready to give up.
With the excavations south of the Temple Mount not yielding any treasures belonging to biblical kings, a desperate Parker decided it was finally time for a different, more direct approach.
Things Fall Apart
Parker proceeded to discreetly bribe Sheikh Khalil al-Zanaf, the caretaker of the “Noble Sanctuary” (the Haram al-Sharif, the Arabic name for the Temple Mount). This payment allowed Parker and his team access to the massive ancient platform, now a site of daily Muslim worship. It was April of 1911, and that year Easter and Passover coincided with the celebration of Nebi Musa. This festival honoring the figure of Moses was marked by local Muslims with a pilgrimage to a religious site near Jericho. Sheikh Khalil made sure the guards usually stationed on the platform were given well-paid leave to attend the festival.
With prying eyes removed from the premises, at night and with a police guard present, Parker and his associates commenced digging on the Temple Mount. Louis-Hugues Vincent, the French archaeologist-monk, did not participate in this part of the venture. He may have disapproved, he may have been kept in the dark, but there is no mention of the dig on the mount in his book. What we know of these events comes from other contemporary accounts and press reports.
Parker’s men began digging in the south-eastern corner of the platform – the area that the crusaders erroneously called Solomon’s Stables. Gustaf Dalman wrote later that year that the team “apparently hoped to be able to get underground from thence to the site of the Temple, but they were stopped by cisterns, and gave up the attempt as impossible.”
At this point, Parker finally stopped beating around the bush. He and his men entered the Dome of the Rock, and began digging beneath the Foundation Stone, the place that many believe to have once been the location of the Holy of Holies, the sacred innermost chamber of the ancient Jewish temple. Dalman, the director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem at the time, wrote that the team: “opened the rock tunnel, which leads from the north to the Sacred Rock under the Dome of the Rock, and which perhaps carried away the blood from the Altar of the Temple. This tunnel was followed for about seven metres in a northerly direction, but nothing particular was found except a slight enlargement of it.”
Some accounts claimed the men also dug into the floor of the cave beneath the Foundation Stone, known as the Well of Souls, in search of a chamber rumored to exist there, though Dalman was not convinced this occurred. In any case, after nine nights of digging on the Temple Mount, the excavations were stopped when the secretive work was discovered. Dalman wrote that one of the Haram guards, who was “insufficiently bribed”, was responsible. According to another version of events, a guard happened to show up at the Haram at night, intending to sleep there as his own home was full of relatives attending the pilgrimage festival, when he came across the sacrilegious work being done.
The word soon spread, and chaos broke out.
Fueled by rumors of ancient treasures being stolen by foreigners, angry mobs formed in the streets. Some two thousand Muslim demonstrators vented their fury in front of the Ottoman government headquarters, the Saraya, not far from the Temple Mount. A general strike was announced, marches were held and calls were made to kill the foreign intruders and Azmi Bey, the Ottoman governor, along with them. The tension lasted for days, occasionally erupting into public demonstrations and violent riots. Sheikh Khalil, the caretaker of the Haram al-Sharif, was another target of the protestors’ ire. The demonstrators were even supported by some of the local Hebrew press. One article stated that “The Ashkenazi newspapers accuse the English and American tourists of not treating the Muslim holy places with the proper respect”.
Scholar Louis Fishman described these events in detail in his 2005 article, The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident. Writing of the episode on the Temple Mount and particularly the protests that followed, Fishman noted that there was something remarkable about these demonstrations and the motivation behind them:
“we can also detect the beginnings of a Palestinian identity as distinct from the local population’s overlapping Ottoman and Arab identities. This is important because it gives us a rare look at the beginnings of a local nationalism expressed through opposition to Ottoman policies concerning not Zionism but the city of Jerusalem.”
As for Parker, he and his men quickly left for Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast, once their secret was out. The Ottoman authorities, who of course had approved the whole enterprise to begin with, made a show of searching their ship, declaring that no treasures were found onboard. The Englishmen were then quietly allowed to leave for home, likely thanks to Parker’s political connections. Sheikh Khalil, however, was soon arrested, as was a local Armenian named Hagop Makasder, who had served as the team’s translator and was found to be a convenient scapegoat.
In the aftermath, both Azmi Bey, the district governor, and Sheikh Khalil lost their jobs. This was decided during a parliamentary inquiry into the episode, held in Constantinople. The incident made international headlines, especially across the Islamic world and as far as India. The masses wanted accountability. Representatives of the Ottoman government again declared that no ancient treasures of significance were stolen, while also justifying their original support for the expedition, arguing that it could conceivably have turned out to be a profitable venture. In any case, the higher-ups in the Ottoman establishment were cleared of any wrongdoing.
So it seems that no crowns belonging to ancient kings, no scepters, no rings, no swords and of course no curious-looking boxes topped with winged angels were uncovered during the work of the Parker expedition. But after two years of digging under ancient Jerusalem, using state of the art equipment and hundreds of workmen laboring day and night, it would, after all, be ludicrous to suggest that absolutely nothing at all was found… So what did Parker have to show for his efforts?
What Did They Find?
The excavations under the Hill of Ophel, south of the Temple Mount, were able to reveal a number of ancient subterranean tombs. One of these was, according to Vincent, “a most remarkable Egyptian-looking tomb, containing wonderfully well-preserved pottery, with specimens as fine as any yet found in Palestine”. Vincent identified the pottery as Jebusite, dating it to around 2,400 BCE at the latest, meaning these finds were significantly older than the Jewish treasures the expedition was looking for. Despite the Egyptian artistic features, the Frenchman concluded that the tomb belonged to a wealthy Jebusite “who either introduced or fostered” Egyptian fashions in the area.
The expedition excavated a number of other tombs and burial chambers that Vincent believed were “almost exactly contemporaneous with the palmy days of the Israelitish kings”. Vincent made impressive efforts to document the large amounts of pottery found in the many chambers and passages dug up by the workers. The pottery finds included “thousands of Israelitish jars”. A handful bore stamps that indicated their purpose or owner. Vincent wrote that only one of these was legible, and that in his opinion, this particular stamp’s letters formed the word “MoReSHeT”. The Frenchman believed that the jar was a tribute from the small town of Moreshet on the southwestern border of ancient Judea, sent to the royal treasury in Jerusalem. This he saw as evidence that the Judean king’s palace could not be far away from the dig site.
The team also found the remains of an ancient gateway, held up by two monolithic stones, each around 5 feet 10 inches high and less than 3 feet apart. The small size of this strange portal led Vincent to conclude that it was a postern gate, leading to a secret passage towards the nearby Gihon Spring, a critical source of water for ancient Jerusalem.
Another interesting find was “a magnificent chair of ‘royal’ stone”. The workers at first thought this must indeed have been Solomon’s throne, but Vincent was not convinced, writing cryptically – “I fear its actual destination was at once more private and more naturally necessary”. A recent study has confirmed this particular item as the remains of an Iron Age toilet seat.
Other finds included “a few big balls of metal”, some indecipherable Roman coins, a small statue, probably Herodian, a handful of Canaanite idols and carvings of animal figures, as well as:
“certain blocks of stone we discovered which probably formed the bases of columns or candelabras; the lower portion of a porphyry table; various mouldings cut in rare marbles; the remains of a splendid bronze flower-pot. All were found at about the same place, and all confirmed the impression that we were among the remains of a magnificent and luxurious household”
One discovery was somewhat puzzling. Vincent described “a mark like an arrow-head cut in the rock of the natural escarpment…” Similar marks had been found at Tell es-Safi and on the Mount of Olives. Vincent thought they were possibly made by the master mason “to indicate the limit or the plan of various constructions”, but the matter is open to debate.
When Israeli archaeologists Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron re-excavated this area in 2009, their discovery of several more of these mysterious V-shaped markings in an underground chamber nearby made headlines. They hypothesized that the incisions may have been used to hold some sort of apparatus in place, perhaps a type of loom or other device in the field of industry or agriculture.
Reich and Shukron have argued that Vincent’s work in the area south of the Temple Mount (facilitated by Captain Parker, of course) was critically important in the context of the archaeological study of Jerusalem. They make the case that it was Parker and Vincent who proved this site to be the true site of ancient Jerusalem. Reich and Shukrun believe, as did Vincent, that the City of David was built on this spot, as it was here and only here that remains from the early and mid-Bronze Age were found – meaning that this was Canaanite Jerusalem, the city that would later, during the Iron Age, become the Jerusalem described in the Bible.
Not everyone agrees, however. Another leading Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, has argued extensively that the center of ancient Jerusalem was on the Temple Mount itself, and not on the Hill of Ophel, which lies slightly to the south.
Of course it is difficult to know for sure, without digging below the surface, but that, as we have seen, can get complicated.
Louis-Hugues Vincent, Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, London: H. Cox, 1911
Gustaf Dalman, “The Search for the Temple Treasure at Jerusalem”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1912
Nirit Shalev Khalifa, “In Search of the Temple Treasures,” Qadmoniot, Vol. 31, issue 116, 1999 (Hebrew)
Louis Fishman, “The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident: Palestinian Notables Versus the Ottoman Administration”, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Spring 2005
Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron, “One Hundred Years Since the Parker–Vincent Excavations in the City of David”, City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 7 (Hebrew)
The Holy Land “in Natural Color”: German Postcards From 1932
Less than a year before the Nazis came to power, a collection of postcards featuring holy sites and the developing Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel was published in Munich…
In addition to the thousands of books that find their way to the National Library of Israel every year, there are also hundreds of other historical items which are added to the collections on an annual basis: photo albums, posters, letters and, once in a while, the occasional mysterious cardboard box.
Such a box was recently donated by Chana and Yoram Harel. On its cover appears a description in German that offers a first clue to its contents. The description reads: Das Heilige Land: 126 Ansichten in Naturfarbenphotographie. Preiss & Co., Munchen – “The Holy Land: 126 Postcards in Natural Color, Price and Co., Munich”.
When we opened the box, its contents were as we had expected—several dozen postcards featuring landscapes of the Holy Land, two maps of Palestine (north and south), a map of Jerusalem and a booklet in German. A closer look at the postcards reveals that these were created using the photochrome technique.
Landscapes of the Holy Land
In 1880, a Swiss printing company by the name of “Orell Füssli” developed a technique for creating color images. This method came to be known as the photochrome technique. Long before the development of analog color photography, which captures original colors of the subject being photographed on a roll of film, the photochrome technique enabled color reprinting of a black and white photo. Orell Füssli’s innovation was the use of the centuries-old technique of lithography to produce these color prints.
Ironically, the photochrome technique gave rise to a strange state of affairs: in the event that the colorists did not have precise instructions concerning the original colors of the image they were being asked to reprint, they had no choice but to use their own imagination and common sense.
This was the case in many photochrome albums, where the relationship between the actual colors of the photographed subject and the colors that were artificially added later on is often purely coincidental. In the postcards we have here, on the other hand, it seems that the “Uvachrom” company that published them went to great lengths to get as close as possible to reality.
The booklet that accompanies the postcards provides the necessary background. The 126 photos in the collection were taken during a “trip to the Holy Land in spring 1931,” a year before the postcards were printed in Munich. The booklet’s title page makes reference to a “High Shepherd”, who gave his approval to the project. It seems this collection of postcards was produced for a German Catholic audience, printed with the approval of a high-ranking bishop, possibly even the Pope himself.
But don’t let this fact mislead you. Despite the many images of Christian holy sites (including, of course, the Church of the Dormition, which was built following the visit of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Holy Land), many others depict the progress of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel. There are, for example, pictures of the Hebrew University, the National Library at its former location on Mount Scopus, the tomb of Rabbi Meir in Tiberias, and the electric power station established by Pinchas Rutenberg.
Eighty of the original 126 postcards in the collection remain in their original box. The rest were probably sent by the owners of the collection to friends and family. This leads us to the obvious question: Who was the target buyer of such a collection? While we do not know the identity of the collection’s original owner, the accompanying booklet makes clear who it was meant for. The collection is described as a “precious souvenir for anyone lucky enough to see the land with their own eyes, providing all others with a vivid glimpse of its beauty.”
The 67-page booklet contains detailed information about the Holy Land: general topographical information, an explanation of the perpetual water shortage; a history of Zionism and the Hebrew language; an in-depth discussion of Jerusalem including information about the Temple Mount and the Western Wall; as well as details of the different stations in the life of Jesus in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. The booklet concludes with a drawing of the Temple Mount Plaza.
The collection’s date of publication is of particular historical significance. It was published in Munich, Germany, in 1932; less than a year later, on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.
Dr. Stephen Litt, Curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library, contributed to the preparation of this article.