The first time I joined an academic boycott of the state of Israel was in June 1986. That summer was my second as a volunteer archeologist for Israel’s Department of Antiquities and Museums through my college, Pepperdine University. Along with students from Notre Dame, Carleton College, and the University of British Columbia, a group of us from Pepperdine (a liberal arts college in Malibu, California) spent four weeks in a field school on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where we excavated Abbasid, Umayyad, and Roman-era village structures on the site of Capernaum, a small, first century CE city of 1,500 residents that the Christian New Testament refers to as Jesus’s “own city” (Matthew, Chapter 9:1).
As that second summer in Capernaum was concluding, the leaders of our excavation decided to allow our field school to be part of a South African film project that some of us decided would serve to normalize the acts of the state of Israel in its treatment of Palestinians and South Africa’s ongoing apartheid system. Faced with the prospect of tacitly approving the dispossession of Palestinians and the repression of non-white South Africans, a group of us refused to participate.
I am fairly certain no one has published anything about our protest before now. I will not claim it as a domino that fell as part of a chain of similar actions, but it served for me as a crucial juncture at which the shape emerged of my thinking on and commitment to a particular politics of indigeneity that includes solidarity with Palestinians as a people. This essay, which is part of a chapter in a book focused on crises involving indigeneity in the academic world, focuses on those two summers in Capernaum and the act of refusal that occurred during the last week of the dig in 1986.
In the 19th century, biblical archaeology promised to demonstrate that the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament and the physical evidence from its excavations were consistent—that archaeology would shore up the historical particulars of scripture. To the great disappointment of those whose faith depends on the historical accuracy of the Bible, archaeology has confirmed little from scripture beyond inscriptions mentioning things like names of some of ancient Israel’s kings, some military campaigns, and prominent cities. By the 1980s, the goal of archaeologists working in places like Capernaum was to deepen scholarly understandings of the ancient Near Eastern world.
Our head archaeologist, Vasillios Tzaferos (1936-2015), was a great resource for understanding ancient history and the ways it continues into our own time. He had come to Jerusalem from the Greek island of Samos in 1950 at age fourteen to study theology, eventually taking monastic vows and being ordained as a Greek Orthodox priest. He later recanted his vows and left the priesthood, then earned a PhD in archaeology at Hebrew University.
When our field school went to Jerusalem for a long weekend field trip, I was especially grateful for Vasillios’s expertise at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a complex of buildings housing pilgrimage sites where Helena, whose emperor son Constantine sent her to Jerusalem in search of the tomb of Jesus, reportedly located three crosses and a tomb. The church grew up around these sites, and would come to be regarded by many, because of its supposed connection to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the holiest site in the Christian world. The Via Dolorosa, the street that follows the Stations of the Cross commemorating the events leading to the Jesus’s crucifixion, ends at the church, with the last several stations being inside. Over the 1,700 years since Helena’s discovery and Constantine’s order that a church be built at the site, every nook, cranny, and portico inside, outside, and near the church has become a site for a chapel or shrine commemorating events in the story of the death, of Jesus and also the many people—especially Helena—connected to the founding of the church.
Adherents of various Christian traditions keep stirring the pot of ancient feuds over places that commemorate events that no one can prove with any certainty happened in these particular spots if they happened at all. They are not, of course, the only conflicts in Jerusalem or in Palestine and Israel. During my first summer at Capernaum, I emulated our faculty archaeologists, who were well-practiced at focusing on the material remains of the past rather than staking out a position on the contemporary conflicts around us. They did not ignore those conflicts completely, pointing out things like the growing number of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands and the concomitant proliferation of road systems and checkpoints that increasingly separated and protected Israelis from Palestinians. Their acknowledgment, however, seemed to indicate that these problems, however troubling or sad, were someone else’s to worry about.
Palestinian people were visible virtually everywhere we went, in spite of the many ways I would later come to understand they lived on the margins. In 1985, the West Bank was still accessible by car and was by and large without the militarized apparatus that makes it difficult to travel both across the “green line” that delineates Israel’s 1948 border and throughout the occupied West Bank. On our field trip to Jerusalem, we stayed at the Holy Land Hotel in the Arab-majority part of Jerusalem, just a few blocks north of the Old City. Archaeologists from the U.S. apparently stayed in that area typically, primarily due to the American School of Oriental Research being in that part of the city and also because the hotels there tended to be less expensive.
Palestinians were also visible every day in Tiberias and as we dug at Capernaum—the Franciscan excavations on the other side of the wall from us relied on Palestinian laborers. Yet, other than communicating with the men who ran the food carts near our hostel, the Arab presence was primarily impersonal and abstract. Not that we made a lot of Jewish or non-Arab Christian friends, either. Most people on the dig, though, were connected to various degrees with Christianity, and, except for Vassilios, the other three or four archaeologists we worked with from the Department of Antiquities and Museums were Israeli Jews. Michail, who had gone to graduate school in the US, was the one we got to know the best since her English was so good.
What was not abstract was the proximity of the geopolitical conflict that was playing out to the north and east of us. Capernaum is just a few miles from the Golan Heights, a region that’s western edge runs along east side of the lake, and the Lebanese border was less than 50 kilometers to the north as the crow flies.
My second summer digging at Capernaum, Palestinian people and their lives under occupation became real in a way I had missed the year before. A small group of us from Pepperdine decided to arrive a week before the dig began and accepted an invitation from a friend of a friend to stay at his house in the city of Ramla, which is in the corridor of land between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that Israel occupied in 1948. We spent most of that week with young Palestinians to whom the man we were staying with introduced us. Like our little group from Pepperdine, the young Palestinians we got to know were in their 20s.
Our host, who was from the U.S., took us that week to see shopping malls and do things like try the burgers at Burgeranch and McDavids. Our new Palestinian friends took us to the homes of their friends and relatives in Ramla, where we would sit and talk family by family in sitting rooms dedicated to visiting, eating and drinking.
I realized for the first time, as we were enjoying the multiple visits we were making every day, that our hosts saw me not as a curiosity, but rather as someone with whom they shared an affinity across time and distance. That affinity came not only from our similar histories of dispossession, but also from the role the United States played in the unfolding of that dispossession. I knew vaguely that the US was sending a lot foreign aid to the Israeli government, but that week in Ramla I began to understand that real people with a proud history were on the punishing end of those payments.
They were, I now assume, Palestinian citizens of Israel, which means never living as equals with Israel’s Jewish majority. Both those living in Ramla and other places on the side of the green line claimed by Israel and those who commuted to jobs from the Occupied Territories, mostly worked in low-paying jobs or didn’t have a job at all. Earning a degree, especially a graduate degree, did little to enhance a Palestinian person’s employment prospects.
The next weekend I was in Tiberias sitting on the long balcony, writing in my field journal. I hadn’t realized yet how differently I would see Palestine from then on. It started in small ways in day-to-day encounters with the Palestinian men who sold falafel at food carts that we frequented in Tiberias, or the Palestinian men and women at the market across from our hostel, or among people in Nazareth and other towns in the Galilee. They were no longer an undifferentiated set of people, but individuals with stories—stories I didn’t know.
Back at Capernaum , students began whispering to each other about an area that Vassilios and the other archaeologists were quietly excavating. One of our groups had found bones, and as excavation continued, the bones became clearly identifiable as human remains from a burial. Students were not allowed to help excavate the burial, but we could get close enough to see the shape of a human skeleton revealed as dirt was painstakingly cleared away. The secrecy, we somehow figured out, was all about the timing of this discovery. The team of archaeologists and faculty sponsors had decided to close out the Capernaum dig and move on to Banyas, an unexcavated site with a temple to the god Pan (pillars and other features of which were literally sticking up from the ground) north of the Golan Heights. A burial was almost certain to cause problems and delays—laws protecting the dead from construction or archaeology would come into play. Clergy would be involved and decisions about how to proceed would be a big headache.
Vassilios had come to prominence as an archaeologist when, in 1968, he excavated the funerary remains of the only identifiable individual who died by Roman crucifixion, so he knew quite a bit about burials. For many of us, the emerging skeleton was a source of unease. Sifting through the rubble of someone’s house 1800 years after they lived there was one thing. Digging up their bones was another.
Suddenly one morning, news traveled that Vassilios had identified the burial. An Abbasid or Ummayyad era necklace was at the neckline of the skeleton. Soon after that, the burial was gone, loaded into special boxes Vassilios’s crew kept around for fragile items. They carried the boxes away to government vehicles in the monastery’s parking area, and whisked them off. From the responses we got to the few questions our teachers would answer and from thinking about the questions they wouldn’t discuss, it became clear that those boxes of bones were heading to a storage facility somewhere in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and we got the impression that no record of the burial would appear in the excavation’s records.
The keen interest in the burial had suddenly changed when it turned out to be Arab. The same indifference I had seen on the face of the municipal employee at the Ramla permit office replaced the earlier active engagement that the Israeli archaeologists had if the burial had been identifiable as being Christian or Jewish, the bones would have remained covered for as long as it took to report that they had been excavated. Arab bones, on the other hand, were an inconvenience, and I am guessing they are still packed away like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A small group of us decided to join the woman from Notre Dame, and a plan emerged for how we would refuse to take part in normalizing Apartheid and the oppression of Palestinians. When we showed up the next morning, we would tell our supervisors that we were sick and needed to be part of that day’s detail assigned to pottery washing.
I can’t pin down specific memories of what transpired that morning. It wasn’t dramatic. We didn’t stand and denounce anything or anyone. We were, after all, guests in a foreign country thousands of miles from the US. We were representing our universities, as well, and generally liked and respected the archaeologists we worked with. None of us were inclined to make a big show of our protest, though I do recall that everyone figured out that none of us were sick, and most of them realized that we what we were doing was in response to the South African crew coming to film us. Vassilios and the other Israelis from the Department of Antiquities and Museums pretty clearly regarded what were doing with disdain. Not much if anything was spoken in our presence about our protest, but a group of college students living in close quarters for a month tends to get pretty deeply intertwined, and we knew that our fellow students would be talking to each other about us. If nothing else, at least some of them were miffed since someone in your small group of three to six people sitting out means one less person to do that day’s hard work. I hope our absence prompted some in our group to give some thought to what it meant for them to participate in the South African travelogue.
What I do remember about that day of pottery washing is that whatever apprehension we had as we crossed the line into refusal gave way pretty quickly to a lot of good feelings, good humor, and good conversation. That was especially true when the film crew showed up and we could enjoy the benefit of knowing we had done the right thing. We didn’t have to spend our day wondering how footage of us might be used to help prop up an evil, violent, and dehumanizing system in South Africa or go along with the myth of innocence that allows unseemly partnerships like this one that was built not only on the subjugation of Black South Africans, but the dispossession of Palestinians, as well. As people passed us on the way to the portable toilets that day, at least some of them looked at us quizzically, wondering what we were laughing about when we were supposed to be sick.
Solidarity does not always lead to a pleasant morning of lakeside conversation—it can be nerve-wracking, frightening, and dangerous. Crossing those lines does, however, usually lead to a camaraderie and a clarity that staying on the other side of them doesn’t provide. Indeed, I have often been reminded since then by those who always find a reason to remain on that other side how lonely it can be among the uncommitted, the uncaring, and especially the undecided. Those curious looks from our fellow students heading to the portable toilets were, at least in some cases I think, prompted by a yearning to be within that space of camaraderie.
That second season at Capernaum was pivotal in unexpected ways that remain with me even now. Those two summers following college graduation were the opening and closing of a liminal space, one that, upon leaving it, I set out in a direction I have never veered very far from. A little more than two years after leaving Capernaum, I more fully realized than I did in Ramla in 1986 the many ways that Palestinians’ experiences were deeply connected to my own. The indifference I saw among Israelis toward Palestinians, which was really contempt, had parallels in my life and history as an Osage, manifested through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the passive structures of contemporary life in the US that render indigeneity as invisible, inauthentic, inconsequential, and in the past tense. One reason I wanted to write this essay was to remember how little of all of this I knew or had put together back in 1986. In spite of all I did not yet know, I knew enough to see the truth and act on it.
Throughout my subsequent career as a scholar and as a writer, I have tried to stand up for the rights, hopes, and freedom of Palestinians, keeping their reality in mind and striving to understand more of the history that has brought us to this point.
Capernaum is now a national park with an impressive-looking building which covers what the Franciscans believe is the House of Peter, with the ancient ruins of the house visible through a glass floor. The Greek Orthodox monastery is still there, the land around it still largely unexcavated. I would love to see that site again someday. If I do make it back to that part of the world, I will joyfully return to Nablus, the Holy Land Hotel, and other places in Jerusalem and the West Bank. I won’t, at least for now, go to Capernaum, nor Mea She’arim, Tiberias, Haifa, or Ramla. That’s because I won’t cross to that side of the green line again until Palestine is free. For that reason, I hope I can make the trip soon.
 This is an excerpt of a longer text that Professor Robert Warrior is currently writing.
 The period after 1967 also proved to be a critical point for Israeli archaeology.
 “Strata: Milestones: Vassilios Tzaferis (1936–2015),” Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 43, no. 1 (May/June 2015).