UNO suspends Bethsaida Excavations Project


By T.J. Accola

UNO’s renowned Bethsaida Excavations Project has been canceled for the first time in its 12-year history due to increasing turmoil in the Middle East.

“UNO’s primary responsibility is to maintain the continued safety of its students, faculty, staff and volunteers,” said Tom Gouttierre, dean of international studies, in a press release Friday.

Five two-week sessions, the first set to begin May 5, will be postponed, said Wendi Chiarbos, project coordinator. According to a press release, Bethsaida- and Israel-related grants and scholarships for the program will be deferred until next year.

Chiarbos said that while the Bethsaida site, located 150 miles from Jerusalem, “does seem quite remote” and that “absolutely no incidents” have occurred since the program’s inception, travel restrictions were a key factor in the decision to postpone the sessions.

In 1987, Israeli archaeologist Rami Arav rediscovered Bethsaida, an ancient fishing town mentioned frequently in the New Testament. In 1990, Arav and other archaeologists formed the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project. UNO is the supervising institution for the project, which includes 17 other colleges and universities.

As part of the project, paying individuals have the opportunity to travel to Bethsaida and participate in archaeological digs.

Chiarbos said 35 to 50 individuals were expected to participate in the summer sessions. Trips to surrounding excavation sites are also part of the project, but such travel would be highly compromised in light of recent events.

In years past, she said, the biggest threat to personal safety was heat exhaustion.

Earlier this month, the U.S. government issued a caution against traveling to Israel. Family members of U.S. diplomats in the area have already been evacuated, the first time such precautions have been taken.

Arav, now a professor at UNO, expressed great disappointment in the postponement, but agreed that he would “have to accept the decision,” which was reached via committee.

Arav said the suspension of the digs would greatly impede his research, “setting it back a whole year.” However, Arav said he still planned to travel to Israel to continue research, sans the several dozen participants the project would normally provide.

Despite the setback it presents, Gouttierre opined that it would be inappropriate for the project to “assume responsibility for students traveling to Israel and the West Bank and Gaza while excavations are suspended.”


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