Prof. Benjamin Z. Kedar has been chairman of the board of the Israel Antiquities Authority for 11 years. He is also the deputy chairman of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Kedar will leave his position at the authority at the end of July. Haaretz reported yesterday on an amendment to the Antiquities Authority Law, proposed by Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, that would make it easier for her to find a replacement for Kedar. At present, the chairman of the Antiquities Authority board must belong to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Livnat's bill would require only that the chairman be a "leading scholar in the field of history or archaeology."
Senior archaeologists criticized Livnat on Sunday, claiming that the purpose of the amendment was to enable her to appoint archaeologists who are identified with the right or who will toe the establishment line. Livnat's critics say the bill reflects the anti-intellectual winds blowing through the government ministries. Kedar rejects this interpretation, but cautions against amending the law.
What do you think of Livnat's proposed amendment?
"I was surprised by the proposed changes." It is no coincidence that the law stipulates that the chairman of the board be a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and that the minister should make the appointment after consultations. The aim is to place at the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority a senior person in a professional field. It is also based on the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities Law which expressly states: 'The objective of the academy is to gather members who are among the most distinguished scientists, residents of Israel ... to advise the government on matters requiring science planning.' The goal was to appoint as chairman of the Antiquities Authority someone deemed one of Israel's outstanding scientists.
The first proposal when the Antiquities Authority was established was to have the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities serve as chairman of the Antiquities Authority, that is to appoint the most senior of the senior scientists. That is why this proposal to expand the circle of potential candidates in effect damages the perception of the scientific and national standing of the Antiquities Authority. If its leader does not have to be one of the most distinguished scientists and it is possible to make do with someone else, this is damaging to the Antiquities Authority."
What is your response to the argument that opponents of the change are basically trying to preserve their status in a closed club, a kind of old-boys' network?
"Over the last few years, we have greatly expanded the academy's work, both in the disciplines included and in the number of members. The gender ratio also changed so that it is not 'an old-boys' club'; it is expanding constantly. At the same time, we have maintained very strict criteria for entry into the academy and we are convinced that the people we have chosen are the very best."
Do you see the proposal as part of a broader trend of anti-intellectualism in Israeli society?
"I don't think there is depreciation. On the contrary, I feel that science in Israel is esteemed across the political spectrum, although science is beyond some components of Israeli society. You can also see in the ratings of professions in public opinion polls that scientists are ranked very high. Historically, intellectuals did not enjoy great prestige. During the pre-state Yishuv era people spoke of mountain versus valley, [Hebrew University, on Mount Scopus] versus the Jezreel Valley. Clearly the pioneers in the valley are perceived as the ones doing the important things; the intellectuals then were quite marginal. Today I think the public does indeed listen to the opinions of the intellectuals, on both the right and the left. I do not think there are limits on freedom to engage in research, and everyone does what they must do. There is no thought police. But constant vigilance is necessary."
Over the last few years Israeli archaeology has become a flashpoint for political and scientific debates, including over the excavations in the City of David and on the Temple Mount. How would you summarize your tenure in this respect?
"This job is not always easy. The authority has been attacked on one hand for not doing enough to preserve the Temple Mount antiquities. On the other hand we were sharply attacked for supposedly being a tool in the hands of extreme nationalist groups. And on yet another hand, there is pressure not to build a road in a place with graves of Roman soldiers, because a group of fanatics thinks these are Jewish graves. There was also the decision by the attorney general to the effect that bones are not antiquities. Every place I go in the world people offer their condolences over this restriction on scientific research, especially at a time when there is talk of the possibility of studying ancient DNA. So there are countless problems. That's why it is important for a senior academic, a member of the Academy of Sciences and Humanities, to be there to assess the situation and see how to preserve that which is most important and where it is possible to compromise."
Do you have an opinion on the archaeologists' debate over the existence of the kingdom of David and Solomon, and on the identity of the Dead Sea scrolls?
"I do not have a professional opinion on [the first] matter; it is not my field of research. But I think these are fascinating arguments. They promote research in the sense that you ask new questions about existing findings, and do new excavations. I imagine that in the near future we will be on more solid ground. As for the scrolls, my impression is they are more likely not to be Essene writings, but rather represent the writings of various groups in Jerusalem before its destruction."
What changes did the Antiquities Authority undergo during your term as chairman?
"Israeli archaeology has undergone a very big change between the time of the Yishuv and the early days of the state and now. Once the field was limited to Jewish history, the question of settlement and matters relating to the first and second temples. In the 1950s and certainly in the 1960s, we switched to a much broader perspective. I still remember an article in the newspaper Davar titled "This is not Crusader land," protesting the excavation and preservation of Crusader sites. Today it is clear that it is necessary to study all the eras. I learned, for example, that archaeologists do not get sufficient training on Islam, that we have no experts on the Ottoman era, so I pushed for supplementary training programs in these subjects. I also spearheaded a change in the area of public involvement. The law gives broad jurisdiction to the director of the authority, essentially the situation freezes what existed in mandatory Palestine. This is not a personal criticism of the current director - he proved to be an excellent director - but rather a critique of the powers the law grants to the position. That is why I started advocating for greater collaboration with the public and with archaeologists beyond the Antiquities Authority."
Whoever succeeds you as chairman, what advice would you give him?
"Why 'him,' perhaps it will be 'her'? I would say, you are taking on a very difficult job, one that will expose you to many challenges but which also give you the satisfaction of leading a very important body in the right direction scientifically."
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