In the Enlightened World It's Called Robbery

The excavation of the tomb of Herod was carried out in occupied territory, where Israel has no moral right to dig and certainly not to remove archaeological artifacts.

The discovery of Herod's tomb, or to be more precise a few fragments of dressed stone that one archaeology professor has concluded are the remains of Herod's sarcophagus, have preoccupied television news and magazine programs since Tuesday. Amid the general zeal of the Londons and the Kirschenbaums and their talking-heads colleagues for demonstrating their mastery of the history of the Second Temple period, and to revive debates from their youth movement days over whether Herod was good or bad for the Jews, one important detail was forgotten, or almost forgotten: that the excavation of this tomb of Herod was carried out in occupied territory, where Israel has no moral right to dig and certainly not to remove archaeological artifacts. In the enlightened world, what Israel isdoing is called robbery.

According to Israeli law, of course, the robbery is organized and supported by state officials bearing the title of junior staff officer for archaeology. Below them or alongside them in the hierarchy there are others, such as director of the Gush Etzion Field School. All these idealists expressed their happiness that day, in front of the television cameras, at the exciting discovery at Herodium, because it is another nail in the hold of the eternal Jewish people on its eternal land on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the land, etc. etc.

The cameras did not conceal the fact that the excavation of the sarcophagus and the surrounding buildings was carried out on the territory of a populated Palestinian village. But when Prof. Ehud Netzer, the excavator who sought and found, appeared on Tuesday evening on the aforementioned news magazine "London and Kirschenbaum," (Israel Channel 10, 7 P.M.), or on Channel 1 news (9 P.M.), none of the interviewers thought to ask him about the legitimacy of the dig and about the egregious gap between the academic faculty ranks and physical coercion.

The only ones who exhibited a certain degree of sobriety among the general euphoria were (for a change) Gadi and Yonit on Channel 2 news, who rightfully mentioned the presence of a military force in the Herodium area. Even they could see that the armed soldiers strolling through the Palestinian village were not there out of scientific curiosity.

It would appear that the ideological bias flows almost naturally from the basic immorality of excavating in occupied territory: The rush to declare that this is Herod's grave recalls various vain attempts by local archaeologists to deceive the world with sensational discoveries that have little connection to reality and which dissipate like soap bubbles: beginning with the dubious Josiah inscription, which turned out to be a forgery; continuing with the fraudulent James Ossuary, reputed to be that of Jesus' brother; the family tomb of Jesus' family, that recently caused a baseless sensation; not to mention the cave discovered in the Judean Hills a couple of years ago, which, based on a few blurred carvings on its walls, was attributed to John the Baptist, with the same certainty and insistence that the same Jerusalem professor is now attributing four broken stones to Herod.

It is important to point out the accepted ritual, or quasi-ritual, that occurs on television when it is obliged to cover archaeology news. They are informed of a sensational find, and duly pass this information on to the audience, always with a festive announcement by the news anchor about something being discovered "after 2,000 years." In the case of Herod's tomb, the majesty of royalty was added to the proceedings, together with a longing for the days of splendor, as it were, of Herodian rule. And everyone was happy and proud to contribute information about the great king, who "as we know" murdered his wife and children, and worshiped his mother, as if to say: "Look, we had our very own King Henry VIII."

The scientific community used to mock Romanian archaeologists, who during the Ceausescu dictatorship were forced to describe every find that fell into their hands as Romanian-Dacian, in order to serve the national ideology that defined the Romanians as the direct descendants of the Dacians, who fought valiantly against Emperor Trajan. Archaeology was distorted in other ways in other unfree countries, but it was almost always distorted. Here in Israel there is ostensibly no dictatorship, but there is a great deal of motivation to grab at any straw in order to distort. On Tuesday, this straw was the remains of the tomb of an invented King Herod. How is that different from those same vain beliefs in the grave of this unknown tanna [Mishnaic sage] and that anonymous amora [Talmudic sage], when it is clear to any intelligent person that they are apparently nothing more than the graves of sheikhs that were Judaicized by officials of the Religious Affairs Ministry?