2022 Featured Activists: ALON ARAD

(Part One)

Meet Alon Arad, Executive Director of Emek Shaveh

As director of Emek Shaveh, Alon Arad works with other archaeologists to ensure that historical sites in Israel are protected as the heritage of all of Israel’s communities and are not used as political weapons. 

What he wakes up for every morning, Alon says, is to create change that will result in archaeological sites being used to connect different people, reflecting the variety of the peoples who lived and live here, and as such, serve as a bridge between cultures and peoples.

We should embrace this rather than seeing it as a threat,” he says.

To achieve this change, Emek Shaveh engages in research and monitoring, advocates with policy makers, turns to the courts when necessary, produces educational materials, position papers and reports, and arranges guided tours.

“We don’t talk politics at home.”

Alon, 34, was born in the U.S. when his father, Eyal, was the media spokesperson at the Israeli UN mission and his mother studied architecture at Columbia University. His father also worked as a strategic consultant to Bibi Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, and other politicians. His mother is a successful architect; his aunt, Yael Arad, is Israel’s first Olympic gold medalist; one uncle is head of a regional council; another is a regional judge and the list goes on. All of them, Alon says, are between Yesh Atid and Likud. So “we don’t talk politics at home.”

Alon grew up one of five siblings in Tel Aviv, is a lifelong fan of the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team (not usually associated with people with progressive politics), and served as a paratrooper during the second Lebanon war. He married his high school sweetheart, a physician, and has two children. He has a close extended family and spends every weekend with them. Being surrounded by all this love helps Alon face the adversity that comes with being the head of a progressive NGO in Israel today.  

Two formative experiences during his army service left their mark on the young Alon. One was participation in an IDF delegation to Poland called Witnesses in Uniform, a program that brings Israeli soldiers to Holocaust heritage sites. The visit had a powerful impact on him emotionally, including his sense of mission. But the meaning of the experience changes with time, Alon said. He now also understands how heritage can be used to recruit people and “we have to ask ourselves what we are being recruited for.”

Participation in Birthright also had a strong impact on Alon. On tours throughout the country, he saw the power of combining archaeological sites, charismatic guides, and young people in creating a narrative.

“Heritage sites are powerful and entail responsibility,” says Alon. “Their impact goes beyond making the past perceptible. They are part of the creation of a narrative and affect present day acts.”

A Responsibility to the Present

During his studies in history and archaelogy at Tel Aviv University, he participated in an archaeological dig on the Kinneret shore with Professor Rafi Greenberg, a founder of Emek Shaveh.

“He introduced me to what archaeology means today,” says Alon. “We’re not just studying the past, we have a responsibility to the present.” That encounter planted the seeds for what Alon is devoting his life to today.

“When we got back to the office to clean our findings, Prof. Greenberg gave me a stack of booklets about Emek Shaveh and Silwan and I had an ‘aha!’ moment: archeology is not just about layers of remains, the Bronze age, pottery, flint. It ultimately also crystallizes one’s identity, including a local and national narrative of people who live now.”

Alon continued his archaeology studies, simultaneously deepening his knowledge and awareness of the role archaeology plays in Israel.

“In 2019, I left my MA program to work in strategic consulting. But I promised myself I’d come back to archaeology. Last summer, the directorship of Emek Shaveh opened up and I felt this was my opportunity to make the change I believe is necessary in Israeli archaeology.”

Excavations are political acts

 “Almost every national movement turns to history for its roots and we also look for legitimacy in our history. That’s fine. But we need to understand that since the Second Temple in the second century AD, when the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel, a few other things happened here. We didn’t get an empty land. We didn’t return to the ‘empty water cisterns,’” he says, quoting the iconic song, Jerusalem of Gold.

“When an archaeologist decides where to dig, it is a moral as well as an academic decision,” he says. “Excavations are political acts that change the landscape through research. We go to a certain location and use an interpretive methodology that ultimately changes how people perceive this place.”

In the City of David, now a popular tourist site for example, only one story is told. “They use archaeology to make only the Jewish heritage of this site perceptible and deliberately leave out the histories of other groups who lived there,” says Alon.

The bias begins in the university archaeology faculties, Alon says, with many courses offered on Biblical archaeology and few on other periods. That bias is reinforced in the education system and the media, he maintains.

The organization’s opponents are efficient and intelligent, Alon says, and trying to change a hundred-year-old narrative is challenging.

“I get tagged as a leftist or as someone who is against the Bible, which means I constantly have to prove my professional legitimacy,” he says. “Right now there is an ongoing effort to delegitimize Palestinian and progressive Israeli organizations. What does it mean for us as a society if we can’t take criticism?”

 “There is growing pressure from settler organizations on heritage sites such as Sebastia and Mt. Ebal to determine future borders – this is subordinating archaeology to an ideological agenda,” says Alon. “Using archaeology in a competitive way to create a map, a landscape that is completely Jewish is problematic not only because it’s not true, but it will stand in our way if we want one day to achieve peace with the people with whom we share this land.” 

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

Photo by Gil Shalem.

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