The Israeli Defense Minister Who Stole Antiquities

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Maj. Gen. Moshe Dayan in digs a trench in the Gaza Strip in 1956.
Moshe Dayan digging in Gaza in 1956.Credit: AP

In 2012, Dr. Asaf Matskin's book "Too Close to the Edge" was published, telling the story of political corruption since the creation of Israel. Amid the scandals detailed in the book was the story called "The Antiquities of Moshe Dayan." Dayan was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and eventually became defense minister. 

According to Matskin, some in Israeli society were rooted in the mentality that "everything is allowed" — at least everything that your name, reputation or position allowed you to get away with. That's how Dayan, who was a sworn lover of archaeology, used his position and authority to dig at any site of his choosing while illegally using equipment and manpower belonging to the IDF.

Opposition to Dayan's digs began years before the publishing of Matskin's book. On December 16, 1971, Haaretz reported that during an archaeology conference at Tel Aviv University, 20 out of 60 archaeologists in attendance signed a petition demanding that Dayan, then serving as defense minister, give up his hobby and stop his archaeological digs. 

According to the report, 19 of the signatories were junior archaeologists who expressed worry in the face of Dayan's thievery of antiquities. Their older, more experienced colleagues noted that Dayan was digging at sights that members of the antiquities department had labeled "uninteresting" and that his activities had saved some of those locations from being lost or forgotten.

The director of the conference, Dr. Yigal Yedin, refused to bring up Dayan's digs for official debate but agreed to circulate the petition between those present. The signatories claimed that Dayan managed the digs without a license or scientific oversight, didn't report his discoveries, and prevented the scientific studies of artifacts. 

Additionally, Dayan was accused of selling some of his findings and giving them added value by affixing labels bearing his signature as well as the details of the objects. The defense minister, felt the archaeologists, had used artifacts that belonged to the country for his own personal gain.

In an editorial published by Haaretz approximately one year after the Tel Aviv conference, one writer claimed that antiquities in Israel "aren't tempo bottles and pocket flashlights from 2,000 or 3,000 years ago ... of course, they must be displayed in the collections of archaeological museums, but only a thousandth of the number of artifacts that have been discovered to date or are yet to be discovered have made it there." 

An article in Haaretz from December 28, 1971, entitled "Director of Antiquities Department ignored complaints about the transfer of findings from the Golan to Dayan."Credit: Haaretz archive

In the opinion of the author, the craze over Israeli antiquities was born only because Dayan had shown an interest in pottery and glass, which hadn't previously interested anyone. Isn't it a better idea, the editorial asked, to change the law and allow for the collection and sales of antiquities "as long as the items have no special value." 

Of course, added the writer, laws must be followed, but sometimes the law itself needs to be adjusted to reality.

Among the responses to the article was a letter to the editor in which Tel Aviv resident Moshe Kramer expressed his consternation: "The opinion expressed in the editorial must be pushed back with two hands. Even to those who are ignorant in legal matters, it's clear that Moshe Dayan broke a number of laws."

"He deals in [antiquities] without a license ... apparently he also deals with foreign currency without a license," alleged Kramer. "Apparently he doesn't pay income tax as required by law ... the tolerance here isn't acceptable, and the 'naughty sabra' in this instance crossed over a long time ago into the realm of criminality."

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