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.
In our own time, a new post-Zionist generation of younger archaeologists has come to question the patriotic oversell and single-mindedness of their predecessors, their arbitrary choice of terms and subjects of study, their seeming haste, occasionally, to identify this or that site as unfailingly Jewish on the basis of partial or insufficient evidence. There is even a movement to discard the very term “Biblical archaeology” as a misleading and ethnocentric term. This is, perhaps, as it should be. And yet mistakes in attribution are common in art, too. The big question we must always ask is: Was the mistake caused by ideology? Excessive claims are also made in physics and in all other exact sciences. They are often made in order to raise money to support further research. In the philosophy of science it is common to distinguish between contexts of discovery and justification. We all have the right to pursue what we want to pursue, and to explore the buried past and eventually dig it up—the discovery. That we do so may be a personal or even a nationalistic choice or prejudice. But making a choice as a result of personal interest or ideology is common and natural in every field and as such is not objectionable. The problem arises when the justification or proof of our discovery is prompted not by evidence but by ideology. I may decide to study the history of my own family rather than that of someone else. But I may present my grandmother as a Balkan princess only if I can provide exact and irrefutable proof.
To judge them on this basis, I should say, most Israeli archaeologists, even of the early period, come out rather well. They were digging not only for knowledge but for the reassurance of roots, which they found in the Israelite ruins scattered throughout the country. They may have been prejudiced in their choice of study but not, in most cases, in their analysis of the results. They oversold their discoveries as other scientists do. The difference lay in the effects of their work on the culture as a whole, and in the manner its results were heralded in the press and on television, adopted by patriotic fan clubs, and popularized by eager schoolteachers, nationalist historians, tour guides, Bible nuts, youth leaders, and politicians. I am not saying that the archaeologists themselves had nothing to do with this manipulation. I am suggesting that their role in it was minor in comparison to, say, the powerful lobby of elementary- and high-school Bible teachers.
There were political and, I assume, psychological reasons why Israeli archaeology had at that time a distinctive, even chauvinistic, air. Several amateur archaeologists among the generals and the politicians imbued archaeological discoveries with a current “meaning.” Moses Finley, reviewing Yadin’s book on Masada in 1966 suggested that there was “a large and interesting book to be written about the politics of modern archaeology in which Masada will be a centerpiece.” This has now been done by Neal Silberman in his very revealing biography of Yadin, ‘A Prophet From Amongst You’—The Life of Yigael Yadin: Soldier, Scholar and Mythmaker of Modern Israel.*
As Silberman puts it, very succinctly I think, under Yadin archaeology in Israel was not strictly an academic activity but “a tangible means of communion between the people and the land.” The religious term communion is very well chosen here. Yadin himself often suggested that for young Israelis a “faith” in history and archaeology was a kind of “religion.” Its high priests were schoolteachers, youth leaders, army education officers. They and the mass media combined to give archaeology—a certain kind of archaeology—a cultic aspect, and a prominence it never had, as far as I know, in another culture.
As Silberman writes, archaeological discoveries of ancient Jewish sites offered “poetic validation for modern Jewish settlement. Artifacts came to possess the power of sacred relics in a new cult of veneration for the ancestors.” Now Yadin was certainly a very serious scientist. I am told that in his archaeological digs he followed the strictest scientific rules. And he kept insisting that archaeology and politics must be scrupulously kept apart. Yet, as Silberman shows, there was always an extra-scientific message afterward, in the oversell.
He notes Yadin’s reluctance or inability to define precisely the modern significance of Masada, if there was one. This is only partly true. Yadin initiated the practice of swearing-in troops on the top of Masada. He attended these bizarre ceremonies himself. In one often quoted speech he told the young recruits during the ceremony:
When Napoleon and his troops stood by the pyramids of Egypt he told them that four thousand years of history were looking down on them. What would he not have given to be able to say: Four thousand years of your own history look down on you…. The echo of your oath this night will resound throughout the encampments of our foes. Its significance is not less powerful than that of all our defensive armaments.
In his 1957 book The Message of the Scrolls Yadin gave a special symbolic meaning to the date on which his late father had purchased the first of the Dead Sea scrolls:
…at the (very) moment of the creation of the state of Israel. It is as if these manuscripts had been waiting in caves for two thousand years, ever since the destruction of Israel’s independence until the people of Israel returned to their home and regained their freedom. The symbolism is heightened by the fact that the first three scrolls were brought to my father for Israel on 29 November 1947 the very day the United Nations voted for the re-creation of a Jewish state in Israel after two thousand years.
He had, when he spoke, the rare knack for drama that allows some men to endow dumb stones with the quality of speech. Speak they did in his hands, on his lecture tours through five continents, where he did more for Israel than all its hack government propagandists put together; and, in Israel, on a highly successful TV quiz program on archaeology which he hosted for two years every fortnight. After finding a series of ancient papyri in a Judean desert cave, including dispatches from Bar Kokhba, the fabled leader of the last Jewish uprising against the Romans in 120 AD, he arranged for the entire government to assemble at president Ben Zvi’s residence without, however, giving them notice of what he had unearthed. At one point he turned to the President and announced: “Excellency, Mr. President of the State of Israel. I have the honor to present to you letters dispatched by the last president of the state of Israel: Bar Kokhba.” The event, if I remember correctly, was broadcast live on radio.
I remember hearing Yadin argue, on one private occasion, that he could not be held responsible for the immense publicity emanating from his digs; or for the popular message of Masada which had registered so powerfully and on occasion incorrectly in the public mind (“the Masada complex”). It is also true that he never conducted excavation in the occupied territories; or even in East Jerusalem, as he might have done after 1967. Moreover, after 1967 he publicly decried the spreading worship of national and religious relics as an “idolatrous” practice. Judaism was an abstract religion, he claimed, not given to the worship of saints and dead stones. And he ridiculed those who in 1968 had forced their way into the Muslim mosque within the cave of the Makhpela at Hebron, where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their spouses are supposed to be buried, and had turned parts of the mosque into a Jewish synagogue. (The awful massacre took place there earlier this year.) He mocked the entire idea and the worshipers too, and claimed he did not see why they were making so much fuss over the tombs of a couple of Arab sheiks.
He demonstratively refused to attend the bizarre state funeral Prime Minister Begin staged before television cameras for some obscure bones that had been found twenty years earlier in a Judean desert cave and were said to be the remains of Bar Kokhba’s heroic soldiers, who had died in battle for Israel. By then Yadin was Begin’s deputy prime minister. Begin insisted on staging the event as one of great contemporary relevance. The coffin containing the bones (several were of women and children) was draped in flags and carried to a tomb on the shoulders of four generals. Yadin’s protests against this kind of political theater were in vain. The images he had helped to imprint on the nation’s mind had taken on a life of their own.
In the 1950s, thousands of Israelis became ardent amateur archaeologists. Archaeology—by now a national cult—became a popular movement, as well as a sport of kings: politicians, socialites, top civil servants, famous army generals were known as ardent collectors. It was a cult quite unknown in this form in other countries: a national sport, almost—not a spectator sport but an active pastime. It turned into a movement that included tens of thousands of people, as perhaps fishing or hunting or bowling does elsewhere. In many a suburban private garden, flowerpots appeared on florid ancient marble pedestals. In middle-class houses one could see sizable archaeological collections assembled in bookshelves and glass cages through purchase or illicit digging by enthusiastic amateurs.
Government attempts to curtail illegal digging in the interest of science and the public museums were half-hearted and generally futile. The best known amateur archaeologist was General Moshe Dayan. His lifelong pursuit of archaeology nearly cost him his life in 1968 when a tunnel he was digging through a wet Philistine mound near Tel Aviv collapsed and he broke several of his ribs. He was asked in an interview what exactly he had been looking for underground. His answer was: “The ancient Land of Israel. Everything that ancient Israel was. Those who lived here then…I sometimes feel I can literally enter their presence.”
Dayan was a man of great personal magnetism. Apart from his military victories, he had an enormous collection of ancient artifacts, fast cars, numerous mistresses, and a highly developed business sense. His fame vastly contributed to the popular macho appeal of archaeology as a bloodless field sport. His private collection included one of the world’s largest hoards of ancient Near Eastern artifacts, some of them dug up with his own hands. The most dramatic items were sarcophagi and burial urns. Here was a man, the darling of the local and foreign electronic news, the favorite guest star of all the Barbara Walterses of the world, who in the eyes of millions had come to symbolize the sabra, the new Jew, an ancient people’s newly found vitality in modern times. Yet at home he lived in a morbid decor, among his burial urns, funeral plaques, death offerings, and sarcophagi.
In the Fifties and Sixties, the annual conventions of the Israel Exploration Society—a get-together of patriotic Bible and geography-of-Israel teachers—were regularly attended by more than a thousand spectators. This was almost one per thousand of the total Jewish population at that time. (Imagine about 150,000 people attending a similar seminar in the United States.) Long before the cable car to the top of Masada was built, scout leaders regularly led their young followers up the steep serpentine path to spend the night there. Lit by blazing torches, the dramatic nocturnal setting on Masada—much like Barbarossa’s mountain—invited mythic interpretations. Gathering around camp fires the youngsters recited the grisly tale of the mass suicide and intoned the well-known refrain of Lamdan’s poem “Masada Shall Not Fall Again.” Masada, Hatzor, and Megiddo—all excavated by Yadin and popularized thanks to his marvelous gift of communication—were part of a young person’s political education at that time.
So were the Dead Sea scrolls, displayed in the specially built “Shrine of the Book” on the grounds of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Archaeology and nationalism were perfectly matched in the “Shrine of the Book,” shaped like a chapel over a round altar where the main scroll was displayed like the relic of a saint. A ten-year-old schoolboy or girl could easily read it—as guides did not fail to point out. (Can a ten-year-old in Athens or Rome read ancient Greek or Latin inscriptions? In Greece and Italy, the language is no longer the same. In Jerusalem it is.) In an immigrant country, among a hybrid people from over a hundred countries of origin, the cult of archaeology reflected an obsessive search for common roots. It also promoted a kind of historical amnesia which assured that events that had taken place two thousand years ago were grasped more vividly than anything since, until the present. Joshua Kenaz, one of Israel’s foremost novelists, vividly portrayed this in his fine novel Hitganvut Yekhidim (“Individual Stealth”). Here is the monologue of Alon, a training sergeant haranguing a couple of nebbish recruits in an army auxiliary unit:
Imagine a shepherd of kibbutz Megiddo with his flock of sheep on the slope of an ancient mound. He suddenly discovers a tablet. It’s inscribed in cuneiform letters. He passes this on to the archaeologists. They decipher it. They discover it’s part of the epic of Gilgamesh. Someone wrote it 3500 years ago…. D’you understand?…Here’s a tale from ancient Babylon. It’s suddenly discovered here. In the Land of Israel. Next to your house. In the yard outside they discover Herod’s palace. In Nahal Hever near Ein Gedi they find a cave. Close to the remains of the Roman encampments there. A cave full of skeletons. Women’s and children’s bones. They all starved to death during the siege. Next to them shoes. Rags of clothes. Remains of foodstuff. And the big shard of a jar with Hebrew letters. As though waiting for us. For us to come and discover it. And now it all overflows and explodes. As the earth has saved it all just for us. As our roots…It’s amazing. It’s not like reading about it in the Bible…. These men…they were like Arik Sharon’s guys…men who know every wadi and don’t know what fear is…
But it wasn’t all politics, of course. Archaeology was more than politics, roots, or romantic yearnings for a distant barbaric past. There was an easy attraction in archaeology: unlike other outdoor sports, it combined fresh air with bookish toil and adventure. In Tel Aviv, where I grew up, we were never more than fifteen minutes away from three or four known but not yet fully excavated sites—Roman, Jewish or Hellenistic—each of them so rich in all kinds of fantastic finds that we rarely returned from an outing without a nice coin, or a shining piece of wonderful blue Phoenician glass, or an oil-lamp or the interesting fragment of one, or a potsherd or a lump of sculptured marble.
As we grew older, we occasionally had a sense in Israel of living inside a time machine. The mixture of ancient and modern history, the relentless intensity of daily life coupled with a notion, perhaps not always quite conscious, of a national legitimacy widely contested and by our nearest neighbors in the region—all that was likely to reinforce a lifelong fascination with antiquities of all kinds. You did not have to be an Israeli to share in it. Edmund Wilson who by inclination was a shrinker of myths succumbed to it very willingly, as his recently published diaries, The Sixties, clearly show.
Later on when the Old City of Jerusalem became accessible, the forces and physical presence of the past were so palpable that it sometimes seemed the city failed to have a present. The ancient past and the present intersected but almost never met. Everything was tight, crowded, old, ruined and intertwined. Under a stone parapet placed there by a British engineer after the First World War lies a Mamluk doorway built over a Hasmonean tower standing on foundations from the time of the Judean kings. A Roman arch of the first century spans an early Jewish pavement that connects the apses of a Byzantine church with the top of a Muslim mosque. The Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the mosques on the ancient Temple Mount are within a stone’s throw of each other—no pun is intended here—I simply wish to emphasize the oppressive proximity of things, the way they overhang and overlap.
A young person growing up in this milieu would frequently hear it said that the present in Israel reflected the distant past (and vice versa). Ben Gurion himself drew the analogy between Yoshua, conqueror of Canaan “in storm” (to quote Tshernichovsky’s famous poem), and General Yadin himself. Such rhetoric highlighted the mirroring of past and present. It stressed myths and symbols. We all turn history into myth and ritual and into symbols that give meaning to life. This is why we celebrate birth, and have mourning rites and funerals. The rhetoric was convoluted at times, but it had its appeal and sometimes it almost caused the time zones to overlap, as in those historic paintings in Italy or France where one sees Dante holding hands with Virgil, or Charlemagne in animated conversation with Napoleon.
Today, more than a century since the beginning of the Zionist settlement, Israel is often said to be the most excavated country in the world. Last year, according to official figures, some 250 excavations took place within Israel proper (plus over fifty in the occupied territories). And yet archaeology seems no longer so large an enterprise as it was in years past. It is no longer the popular field sport of two or three decades ago. The trend has been noticeable for some years. The great stars are gone too. There has been a dramatic decline in public interest in archaeology. The army, for reasons of economy, I am told, no longer stages spectacular swearing-in ceremonies on Masada. Native Israelis—they are the large majority now—appear to have less need to search for roots; those who do turn rather to religion. The secular majority appears self-assured enough to accept a historical compromise with the Palestinians in a pragmatic mood of post-Zionist open-mindedness.
During the past decade a younger generation of archaeologists and historians has deconstructed the Masadan myth of patriotic suicide into what might have been, at best, the calculated invention of the first-century historian Josephus Flavius, and, at worst, a senseless mass hysteria, a kind of Jewish Jamestown. (Oddly enough, this may well have been the view at the time of the Jewish religious establishment. If indeed the mass suicide had taken place at Masada, as Josephus claimed, the Rabbis must have preferred to suppress all memory of it. In the vast body of Rabbinic literature there isn’t a word about Masada.)
In a population almost six times larger than it was in 1952 the number of those attending the annual conventions of the Israel Exploration Society is still roughly the same as it was then. University statistics indicate a parallel drop, relatively speaking, in the number of archaeology students and a truly dramatic decline in Jewish and Hebrew studies generally, from Talmud to Jewish history and Hebrew literature or language. At the Hebrew University—in the Fifties the center of Jewish, Land of Israel, and related studies—504 students registered this year in the department of Japanese and Chinese studies. Only nineteen are in the Department of Talmud (one of them is a Japanese).
Peace, if it comes, will accelerate this openness. It may not necessarily bring an end to the political uses of archeology. Following the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO a first exchange of views on “archeology” last spring was marked by intransigence on both sides. Israel was ready to grant the Palestinians control only over “Muslim” or “Arab” archeological sites on the West Bank; PLO representatives insisted on control of all sites, including Jewish ones, and furthermore demanded the restitution, among others, of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which were bought by Israelis in New York and elsewhere or seized during the 1967 war). They argued that the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes, had been an “ancient Palestinian sect.” Jesus Christ too is being claimed nowadays by Palestinian intellectuals as an “ancient Palestinian.” Palestinian nationalism which has so often in the past taken cues from Zionism seems nowadays to be in need of archeology to assist in nation building.
It may well be that both Israeli and Palestinian claims on archeological sites are merely opening positions in what is bound to be a long-lasting negotiation. Except when it comes to Jerusalem, which is a hypersensitive subject for everyone, those claims are not likely to jeopardize a future settlement in the name of the past, however evocative or important the sites may be for the sense of identity on both sides.
We have all heard the old saying that archaeology thrives on ruins and war. There are more known ancient sites per square mile in Israel than in any other country. In Jerusalem alone we know of some fifty major sieges, sacks, captures, and destructions during the past thirty centuries (three in this century alone), and of at least ten more or less violent changes in the ruling religion. Jerusalem is a veritable outdoor Louvre of the history of warfare. A short time before his death W.H. Auden visited Jerusalem. I saw him standing one afternoon on the terrace of Mishkenot Saanim, the municipal guest house, admiring the magnificent view of the Old City. The mayor, Teddy Kollek, was standing there, too. They were both looking out across the valley of Hinnom, at the battlements and the tombs, and the mayor said in a laconic tone that Jerusalem would be a beautiful place if it weren’t for the wars, and the orthodox of all faiths, and their squabbles and their riots. He said this, Auden recalled later, as one would say in London that it would be a lovely place except for the weather. Shortly after this Auden wrote the following lines, in one of his poems before he died in 1973:
one moral, at least, may be drawn
to wit, that all
our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,
being made, as it is
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.
September 22, 1994