A Breathtaking Jewish Archaeological Discovery? Give Me a Break

That one little gold plate bearing Jewish symbols amid some sort of package that perhaps fell out of someone's pocket in Jerusalem of the 7th century C.E. does not prove anything.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

At the immigrant transit camp in Atlit in the late 1940s, my parents - a confused young immigrant couple who didn’t really grasp where they’d arrived at first - saw how their fellow tent dwellers, the offspring of wretched people from wretched neighborhoods of Izmir, invented glorious pasts for themselves. One declared that his grandfather’s home had been full of barrels of gold. Another, that his father was tailor to the Ottoman sultan. A third, that he had lived in a big house of not two but three stories. Over the years, these unfortunates convinced themselves of their illustrious past and recounted it to their children, who in turn passed it on to theirs.

The very same process of beautifying the past is characteristic of quite a few miserable peoples. In these cases, the greater their wretchedness and their sense of inferiority, the grander their past becomes. In Ceaucescu’s Romania, the reigning collective obsession was with proving that the citizenry had indeed descended from the Dacians, that ancient and daring Indo-European people of whose existence there is barely any evidence. All of Romanian archaeology enlisted to prove with signs and wonders that every finding from the Roman period was indeed Dacian, that the Dacians invented the alphabet, that Christianity came out of Dacia, that the Dacians also invented the concept of communism several millennia before Karl Marx, and so on and so forth.

In Turkey, a similar obsession long prevailed, whereby an attempt was made to forcibly link the Turks of our day to the Hittites, the ancient occupants of Anatolia who had indeed founded splendid kingdoms in the distant past. In remote Albania, a similar national-archaeological craze took hold, which sought to prove the Illyrian origin of that country. Likewise the Slovenes - a no-less remote people - had pretensions to noble origins from the Veneti people, a groundless invention.

It is clear from all the examples I have brought that an obsessive pining for a glorious past serves as a form of therapeutic compensation for nations suffering from a problem of low self-esteem in the present.

So, now we come to us Israelis and to the invention of our past. It is unpleasant to admit that archaeology here contains far too many identifying signs of a science that has been enlisted on behalf of a national obsession. In the state’s early years, there was still something quaint about the so-called “enlisted” archaeology and the national enthusiasm over each new ancient finding. No more. That enthusiasm has become a caricature.

And there was indeed something utterly ridiculous about the naive excitement with which archaeologist Eilat Mazar recently presented to all and sundry a round, gold plate that had been discovered in excavations at the foot of the Temple Mount, which bears the symbol of a menorah. Dr. Mazar declared it “a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime discovery.” This, of course, delighted our prime minister, who was quick to react with the comment: “This is historic testimony, of the highest order, to the Jewish people’s link to Jerusalem, to its land and to its heritage.” Blah, blah, blah.

In my opinion, a serious scientist ought to hang his head in shame when his findings are given a vulgar interpretation like that. But it turns out that the archaeologists excavating in East Jerusalem and the territories have already accustomed themselves to not being ashamed of tainting pure science with the dust of national-religious ideology. It brings them donations from right-wing organizations for additional excavations. It makes the public take an interest in archaeology. What’s wrong with that? Be happy for them.

I am not an archaeologist and not the son of an archaeologist. But I was not convinced in the least by what I saw. That one little gold plate bearing Jewish symbols amid some sort of package that perhaps fell out of someone’s pocket in Jerusalem of the 7th century C.E. does not prove anything: It is simply a little gold plate bearing Jewish symbols. What is new here? The design of the menorah and the other tiny ritual symbols around it appear to be identical to other Jewish findings. After all, nothing is more common than symbols of the menorah, shofar and so on - whether in ancient synagogues in the Land of Israel, Jewish mosaics, oil lamps or ossuaries. Scientifically speaking, therefore, this is a discovery that is in my opinion of near-zero importance.

From a national standpoint, we ostensibly have a treasure here. Except that if every piece of Jewish gold unearthed in Jerusalem is proof in the eyes of our prime minister of the Jews’ longtime connection to their country, then by the same token when a gold treasure from the

Ottoman period is found here - and quite a few have been - then the prime minister of Turkey can claim it is historic testimony of the highest order to the Turkish people’s link to Jerusalem. And when a Byzantine treasure is found, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch will claim it proves the historic connection of the Greeks to Jerusalem. And an Arab treasure will prove to the Arabs their deep affinity with Jerusalem. There is no end to this.

I also have a suspicion that if that round plate with a menorah on it had been made of brass or ordinary tin, it would not have drawn the same attention, and it is doubtful the excavator would have announced with pride that it is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. Why does gold have such a potential to draw attention? Because a gold object naturally makes a person say to himself greedily: “That could have been mine.” And this leads him to deduce that because there is a Jewish symbol on the plate, the plate itself belongs to him, for he is, after all, Jewish. And immediately the third and unavoidable thought comes to mind: that if it is so easy to scientifically appropriate

for ourselves a gold plate found in the ground in Jerusalem - then c’mon, folks! While we’re on a scientific roll let’s appropriate the ground as well, and Jerusalem as well.

The gold Medallion.Credit: Emil Salman

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