The Knesset passed a bill in first reading on wednesday that would abolish a rule requiring the chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority to be a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
The bill, which will now go to committee for further discussion, passed by a vote of 30-1. The sole vote against the bill came from MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ), who charged that the bill's "true purpose" was to make it easier to add a political appointee to the post.
"The cat has been let out of the bag, to the degree that it was ever in the bag," he said. "The field of archaeology in Israel is a sensitive field, and it is exposed to a powerful onslaught of partisanship and politicization. Instead of doing proper professional work, archaeologists are forced to prove political theses that prove that we were here, or that we were here first, or all kinds of political theses that can obviously be debated in the political arena, but to which archaeological science shouldn't be subordinated."
Culture Minister Limor Livnat, however, denied that the law was intended to enable political appointments.
The bill says that the authority chairman need not be a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; he must merely be "a senior scientist in the field of history or archaeology." However, the appointment must be made "after consulting with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities."
The explanatory notes to the bill say that the current law forces the minister to choose the chairman from among a very limited group of candidates, while in practice, there are many suitable candidates who are not members of the Israel Academy.
But senior archaeologists claim the bill's real purpose is to prevent the appointment of archaeologists identified with the left.
In July, the heads of four university archaeology departments sent a letter urging Livnat to withdraw the bill. One of the signatories, Prof. Zeev Weiss of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Haaretz that the new law "could undermine archaeology's academic freedom and its ability to operate free of political influence." While he assumed a worthy candidate would be appointed this time, he said, "It could degenerate into people with a political agenda being chosen because of their agenda."
Another archaeologist from a different university termed the bill "inappropriate," saying, "We're getting close to being a Third World country. This really depresses me. I have no doubt the issue is political."
In addition to Weiss, the July letter was signed by Prof. Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University, Dr. Haim Goldfus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Prof. Arthur Segal of Haifa University.