Politics and Archaeology

A story is told of some early Zionist pioneers of Beit Alpha, a communal settlement in the Esdraelon Valley. The settlement was founded in the early Twenties by young men and women belong to the socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard). They subscribed to a bizarre combination of utopian Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and the then fashionable German Jugendkultur, with its Romantic worship of nature, cult of eroticism, and disdain for bourgeois values. In December 1928, some of them were digging an irrigation channel and suddenly struck the brilliantly colored mosaic of a sixth century Jewish synagogue. Their first reaction was to keep the discovery secret, and possibly cover it up again—a natural impulse, perhaps, that field archaeologists often encounter. The main concern, after all, had been to dig an irrigation channel. The unexpected discovery complicated this task and threatened to hold it up, perhaps indefinitely.

But there was more to it: an anti-religion attitude. The young kibbutzniks, full of the fervor of Russian radicalism, had only a year or two earlier come out of Eastern Europe with—as the saying went at the time—“no clothes, but with copies of Das Kapital and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in their knapsacks.” A few were still teen-agers. Others were in open rebellion against their Orthodox religious fathers. Some had actually run away from home to help build socialism and create the “new Jew” in the historic land of his forefathers: a utopian community not unlike those of the late 1960s in which their identity would be redefined and based on socialism and love. Religion was the opium of the people. For this reason alone, it might be best if the synagogue mosaic were covered up again. Others argued that the mosaic was not necessarily religious but rather political, a Zionist monument. It was important, so the argument went, to uphold every archaeological remnant that testified to the Jewish presence in the land, and confirmed the legitimacy of the Zionist claim. A debate took place. The conservationist view prevailed over the iconoclastic.

The story may be apocryphal but it sums up, as such stories sometimes do, the central facts of the case. A Jewish archaeologist, Eliezer Lipa Sukenik (the father of Yigael Yadin), was consulted. He proposed to conduct a scientific excavation of the site. It would be his first. Sukenik, formerly a high school teacher of mathematics and geography in Jerusalem, had spent a year studying archaeology at the University of Berlin at a time when the leading archaeologists and ethnologists at that university were obsessed with Volk and other ethnocentric prejudice. He never graduated in Berlin. His great ambition was the creation of a “Jewish archaeology.” His view of history was narrowly Zionist, or, if you like, Hegelian. He thought he recognized its spirit in Jewish longings for Zion throughout the ages. In his view, Jewish history during the past eighteen centuries was only an insignificant interval between national independence lost in the first century and national independence to be regained in…

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