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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 the twentieth. Sukenik lectured the young kibbutzniks on Jewish history, modern archaeology, and memory. Jews were a community of memory. In his enthusiasm for digging up remnants and relics of the glorious Jewish past, he won over most of the kibbutzniks who until that moment had been less interested in digging up the past than in building a utopian future. The site was solemnly excavated to much acclaim throughout the Jewish world. A story in The New York Times reported that Jewish workers in Palestine were excavating Jewish history—in the holy land.

It was probably no accident that this first recorded outbreak of a popular passion for Jewish archaeology occurred at a time of relatively low morale among the settlers, owing to the economic crisis and the mounting Arab opposition to Jewish settlement. Among the more sensitive pioneers there might even have been something like nagging guilt at being intruders in a country populated by another people that bitterly resented their arrival. For them, Sukenik’s Jewish archaeology had a kind of cathartic effect. Word of Sukenik’s dig at Beit Alpha spread quickly. Volunteers streamed to Beit Alpha to work on the dig. The richly colored mosaic was uncovered in a remarkably good state of preservation. It included not only Hebrew inscriptions and common Jewish religious symbols but also a surprising representation of Helios, the pagan Greek sun god—highlighting the eclectic nature of Jewish religious worship at that time.

Contemporary reports stress the festive atmosphere among the participants at the dig. Reading these accounts today you get the feeling they were participating in a kind of communion. By digging up the hard ground they were retrieving memory—one is tempted to say—as though they were recovering checked baggage from a storage room.

Sukenik later recalled the event in glowing terms.

Suddenly people could see things that had never been so tangible before…. There was a feeling that this piece of ground, for which people had suffered so much, wasn’t just any plot of land but a piece of earth where their forefathers had lived fifteen hundred to two thousand years ago. Their work in the present was cast in a different light. Their history was revealed to them and they saw it with their own eyes.

The enthusiasm at Beit Alpha, from all we know, was unprecedented in the history of the Zionist enterprise. Earlier pioneers—in the first and second wave of immigration—had barely been moved by the charm of antique sites or objects. They felt little need for buried proofs of the past to uphold their claims of the present. Self-conscious about their historic roles, many of them were men of letters, inveterate diarists, polemicists, endlessly writing editorials, manifestoes, essays, and pamphlets. It was said of the men and women of the second wave that never was so much written about so many subjects by so few in so short a time. Yet even though their first years in Israel coincided with the first great excavations of important biblical sites by leading Protestant archaeologists, including Sir William Sellin, Sir Flinders Petrie, and R.A.S. Macalister, in their extensive writings there is hardly a word to suggest that any discoveries touched them even peripherally. The sudden outbreak of enthusiasm for Jewish archaeology at Beit Alpha in 1928 was unique. It anticipated the fervor of future years, and the political uses of archaeology in what was later hailed—or decried—as a “national syndrome”: a popular craze for archaeology, a bulmus in Hebrew. Bulmus is an old Talmudic term. It denotes a fit, a rage, a craze, a mania, a ravenous hunger resulting from prolonged fasting.

Archaeology often converged with nationalism in the new nation states created in Europe after the great war, but perhaps nowhere else did archaeology loom so large, or for so long, as in Israeli life until the early Seventies. In Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Finland, Poland, and the Baltic states archaeology was used politically to provide and occasionally fabricate material evidence of unbroken historical continuity. And let us not forget the Byzantine Queen Helena. I remember the late Yigael Yadin once calling her, a little wistfully perhaps, “the most successful archaeologist in history.” Whatever she looked for she promptly found hundreds of years after the event: the stable where Mary had given birth to Christ, the twelve stations of the cross, Calvary, the true cross, the nails, the lancet, the Holy Sepulchre and so on and on. In our own time we have seen elaborate celebrations at Persepolis staged by the Shah, a few years before his fall, to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of “his” empire. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein proclaims himself a worthy successor of the ancient Babylonians. The Serbs venerate Kosovo, which, like Masada, is not the site of a victory but of a defeat.

Archaeological finds have inspired nearly all Israeli national symbols, from the State Seal to medals and coins and postage stamps. (Walter Benjamin claimed that postage stamps were the visiting cards left by governments in children’s playrooms.) Since independence, Israeli coins have been stamped with motifs copied from first century Jewish silver shekels. (Many years ago I remember seeing in the shop window of an antique dealer on Allenby Road in Tel-Aviv a display that attracted some attention: a few modern Israeli coins were placed there in a row next to the ancient Jewish coins that had inspired them. It was obvious to anyone looking that the ancient coins were considerably more accomplished and more beautiful in design, more aesthetic generally, than those of the modern.) And I remember a television interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the peak point of hyper-inflation in Israel in 1980 when a pack of cigarettes cost in the thousands, and cash registers could no longer cope with so many digits, and the economy was grinding to a halt because of a sudden drop in investments. Begin was expected to announce cuts in public spending, a wage-and-price freeze, and other anti-inflation measures. He didn’t. He only proclaimed that the name of the monetary unit would be changed from the foreign name lira (i.e., “pound”) to shekel, a Hebrew name of ancient renown which by its historic weight alone, as Begin put it, would make it one of the world’s hard currencies at par with the American dollar.

How did all this come about? In the years of struggle leading up to the establishment of the new state and during its first two decades or so, the cult of archaeological relics did much to determine the direction of Israeli culture. It was widely thought to provide an immigrant society with a common culture. There was, of course, also a calculated effort at public relations aimed at Bible-minded gentile customers abroad. In a deeper sense, however, the apparent obsession with ancient Jewish sites and artifacts grew out of the feverish search for identity—a secular identity—which was characteristic of that period. The Dead Sea scrolls thrilled secular Israelis; most Orthodox Jews were and still are indifferent to them. In the ethnocentric atmosphere of these early years there was a rush to identify Jewish sites, an overemphasis on digging them up, and a tendency to expose to public view the Jewish strata of a site even where other layers may have been historically or artistically more significant or revealing. The task of archaeology was to prove a point about Jews in the Holy Land and not always, as it probably should have been, to explore material remains in order to determine the circumstances of ancient cultures and civilizations in a country where they have been so varied and so many. There was even a somewhat comic attempt, fortunately short-lived, by the then director of antiquities to impose a nationalistic nomenclature. He asked that the Iron Age be referred to henceforth as the Israelite Period, the Hellenistic as Hasmonean, the Roman as the Mishnaic and the Byzantine as the Talmudic periods.

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