Opinion |

How Jordan Is Weaponizing Archaeology Against Israel

Despite formal peace, you won't find maps naming Israel in Jordan. Visit the kingdom's archaeological sites, and the message is clear: 2000 years ago, Jews were already 'oppressors' in the Middle East

Adam Sacks
Adam Sacks
The Roman Temple of Hercules at the Amman Citadel, Jordan/Map of Jordan and the region on display in Amman, Jordan
The Roman Temple of Hercules at the Amman Citadel, Jordan/Map of Jordan and the region on display in Amman, Jordan Credit: Reuters and Adam Sacks
Adam Sacks
Adam Sacks

For Israel’s neighbor, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, it seems that the colder the peace, the less it is discussed. Despite a quarter of a century having passed since both sides formally endorsed the end of hostilities, in a peace treaty that specifically banned both sides from publishing propaganda hostile to the other, keen-eyed visitors to Jordan will find an implicit and unfriendly, if not hostile, propagandizing against Israelis and Jews.

It would be almost unfathomable to imagine King Abdullah, ruler of the remarkably stable and Western-oriented monarchy, reiterating the recent words of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi: "If Jews return, we will build synagogues."

Of course, Jordan hasn't had a Jewish community of any note in the modern era. But much of what is now Jordan was once Jewish territory - or was earmarked to be. During the Hellenistic period, two thousand years ago, the capital city of Amman was governed by the Jewish Tobiad clan. But the majority of the population of modern Jordan is Palestinian, a culture firmly embedded in the everyday life of the country.

A boy holds a model depicting the Dome of the Rock during a protest marking the Land Day in Amman, Jordan, March 29, 2019Credit: \ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

While Jordan is a fount of Jewish history, the Jordanians’ representation of it is largely a reflection of how modern Israel is perceived – and it's not a flattering portrait.

Given Jordan’s Jewish history and the admittedly cold peace with Israel, the country’s near silence on all things Jewish and Israeli is deafening. Any mention, whether in contemporary tourism or historical maps, seems strictly taboo - or subject to misrepresentation.

At times the obsessive denialism can seem delusional, even comic. While standing with a tour guide alongside the Jordan River near the baptismal site of Jesus, across from what is now Yardenit, Israel, and literally facing an Israeli flag, I commented, "So, that’s not Jordan anymore." The guide responded, "That is Palestine."

"Israel" is never seen on any map, and even archeological markers paid for by USAID dutifully support the prohibition on mentioning the forbidden name.

However, the silence is not total. The deep historical past is not entirely spared this neglect of all things Jewish. The overarching exception relates to the last time Jews had power in the region, during the so-called Second Commonwealth of the kingdom of Judea, which existed from 142 BCE-92 CE. That period of time is generally overlooked in modern Jewish memory, which in its religious vein chooses to focus on the Biblical Davidic kingdom or, in its secular variant, fastens firmly onto the modern Zionist narrative of redemption.

Map of Jordan and the region: 'Palestine' is the entire territory west of the River Jordan. Farah Hotel, Amman, Jordan. February 11th 2019Credit: Adam Sacks

This second commonwealth, which comprised the Hasmonean dynasty of Hanukkah fame, followed by the vexed and controversial Herodian successors, lasted for about 250 years. Half of this time it was an independent Hellenistic state, and the other half a client state, and then a province of the Roman Empire.

In many ways, the history of this era can be presented as a critical mirror of modern Israel, and in some ways it seems that the Jordanian authorities are better aware of this then their Jewish counterparts.

As the sole context in which Jews are mentioned in the Hashemite Kingdom, one cannot escape the impression that the Jordanians are really talking about the contemporary State of Israel, and that they are using a not so highly encrypted form of code language.

What is notable here is not the critical language itself, which appears frequently in left-wing media around the world, but rather the use of archeological and historical sources to draw evocative historical parallels. Leaving aside questions of historical veracity, the overall message given is that the late 20th century is not the first time Jews were seen as oppressors in the Middle East.

Here are some examples that illuminate that position.

The following description appears inside Jordan’s first archeological museum, on the grounds of the citadel atop the capitol city of Amman:

After the Seleucids achieved domination over the entire area from the late 3rd Century BC onwards, the militant Hasmonean Jews rose up against Greek domination and established their own reign in Palestine and the Northern part of Jordan. Most of the greek cities welcomed the roman army headed by General Pompey as a liberator from Jewish oppression.

In the only instance of the word "Jewish" I found on any of the markers or tablets at any of Jordan’s many historical sites, it appears as an adjective modifying the word "oppression."

In Palestine, 'The Roman army was welcomed as a liberator from Jewish oppression.' Citadel Hill Amman taken from the Jordan Archaeological Museum. Feb 18th, 2019 Credit: Adam Sacks

At the renovated museum at Petra, one can find another depiction of Judea as a ruthless, imperialist state:

Aretas II first minted coins, during his reign Alexander Janneus was King of Judah and he was a ruthless ruler who sought to expand and strengthen the territories of Judah. Around 100 BC he took control of Gaza and though the people of Gaza asked for Aretas help it came too late.

Thus the Jewish kingdom of Judah is described not just as oppressive but also as led by a "ruthless" ruler. The echo of a beleaguered and besieged Gaza is hard to not to cross-reference against contemporary events. It would be surprising if the effect were entirely unintentional.

Describing the peaceful, wealthy and diplomatic regime of the proto-Arabic Nabatean trading peoples (who spoke a Semitic language and migrated from the Arabian peninsula over centuries) in contrast to the warlike, expansionist Herodians, the permanent exhibit at Petra goes on to recount:

King Herod the great invaded twice second time taking control of large parts of the country… Aretas IV whose daughter married Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas later divorced Phasaelis in order to marry his brother’s wife Herodias, mother of the famed Salome, who danced for Herod and in return asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The shamed Phasaelis fled back home to Petra, escorted by Nabatean guard. Aretas, IV angered by the snub, sent an army to invade Herod’s territory and captured large parts of it along the west bank of the Jordan river.

So it appears that duplicity and decadence can be added to the cycle of war, revenge and retribution between the Judeans and the proto-Arabs in the last century BCE. Added to this is a reference to the infamous tale of Salome and John the Baptist, which could plausibly be considered one of the foundational narratives of Christian and global anti-Semitism.

Adulatory and anti-Semitic books on Hitler, Herzl, Saddam and Che on sale in Amman, Jordan. Feb 15th, 2019Credit: Adam Sacks

If we take this composite picture as a whole, we are left with a Jewish entity that refused to make do with a small state and had a tendency to make war on its peaceable proto-Arabian neighbors. It had an increasingly militant population, and ruthless leaders.

All the while, even though it flew a Jewish banner, it was perceived as a client state of a foreign power that stood for westernization and modernity, in this case Rome, whose global hegemony the Jews were seen to serve.

As disturbing a picture as this might appear, how one appears reflected in the eyes of one’s neighbor is worthy of consideration. From the Jordanian retelling, which is a reflection of some scholarly perspectives, the Maccabean state represented the forces of modernity and imperialism, rather than piety or monotheistic morality. Entirely overlooked in these descriptions are the considerable technological and cultural achievements of Herod’s Judea, which was often considered the significant junior partner in Augustus’ Pax Romana.

The sobering tale of the perils of power, and the exigencies of good neighborliness, and how it's showcased in Jordan, should not simply be written off as ignorant, intransigent prejudice. It is a warning from the past, as well as the present, that a formal peace that's not institutionalized and lacks popular support will be understood in the language of the "old" Middle East, not the "new."

Adam J Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York. He currently lives in Philadelphia

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