LOOTING THE HOLY LAND OR PILLAGING THE TRUTH?
This is a piece of political propaganda, aimed – as the bon ton goes today – at de-legitimizing Israel.
By Israel Finkelstein
Tel Aviv University
Let me start out by stating the very obvious: This is a piece of political propaganda, aimed – as the bon ton goes today – at de-legitimizing Israel. The viewer must keep sight of the fact that the film was produced by the Arab TV network al-Jazeera. So rather than give a general statement, I wish to demonstrate – point by point – why this is a worthless film, ridden with manipulations, political propaganda, incorrect facts and even lies.
1. The creators of the film has no intention of being balanced. The Israeli side is represented only by anti-establishment archaeologists. Not a single scholar with an opposing point of view was interviewed. And while the Palestinian Director of Antiquities speaks in the film, not a single Israeli official (e.g., from the Israel Antiquities Authority) appears. This should come as no surprise; it fits the notion of pluralism and free speech in the Arab World.
2. At times the film, intentionally or unintentionally, resorts to anti-Semitic stereotypes, in which Israelis are shown either as religious settlers or as soldiers carrying guns. Then comes the cliché: The Palestinians are the true people of the land: peace loving farmers riding donkeys in beautiful fields with romantic flute music playing in the background.
3. Let the truth be known: Most of the looting in the West Bank (as well as in Israel!) has been carried out by Palestinians. In addition, the viewer should remember that since the 1993 Oslo agreement about 50% of the West Bank has been administered by the Palestinian Authority. If looting there continues, it is being done under Palestinian rule.
4. From the point of view of international law, the West Bank and Gaza are contested territories. To differ from Israels border with Egypt, which is a border between states, the 1967 border with Jordan was a result of war. Jordan tried to annex the West Bank with a motion in the UN in the 1950s and failed. The verdict regarding sites in these territories and antiquities found in them must therefore wait for a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. These issues are on the negotiating table. Meanwhile, artifacts from excavations in the West Bank are kept separately from artifacts from Israeli sites. Archaeology in the 50% of the West Bank which is under Israeli administration is administered according to the Jordanian law which prevailed before 1967.
5. Hishams Palace near Jericho (Khirbat el-Mafjar) was excavated between 1934 and 1948 at the time of the British Mandate, and the artifacts were then taken to Jerusalem. Israel had nothing to do with this. These artifacts, like all others, will be on the negotiating table when a border between Israel and a Palestinian state is drawn.
6. The Dead Sea Scrolls on display in the Israel Museum were bought in the US in the 1940s and 1950s. As such, they are not contested, not even by the Palestinians and Jordanians. The other scrolls were excavated in the 1950s, under Jordanian rule, and were then taken to Jerusalem. Israel had nothing to do with it. They too will be on the negotiating table.
7. Moshe Dayans looting of antiquities was scandalous and the sale of the looted antiquities to the Israel Museum a shame. For the record it should be mentioned that Dayan looted sites not only in the Palestinian territories but within the borders of the State of Israel as well. In fact, in 1968 he almost died in an accident in an illicit excavation on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
8. The fact that the City of David site is administered by a non-governmental organization with a political orientation is disgraceful. This sensitive place must be administered by the state, that is, by either the Israel Parks Authority or by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Excavation in the City of David is done according to law and in a proper archaeological method.
9. Also for the record, it must be said that the most devastating damage inflicted on antiquities in Jerusalem was the bulldozing of (mainly Islamic) antiquities from the Temple Mount by the Waqf – the Islamic religious authority which controls the Temple Mount. This was done in the course of constructing a mosque under the el-Aqsa mosque. Work there was carried out savagely, with no inspection by archaeologists.
10. The narrator complains that only Jewish antiquities are being sold in the Arab markets of east Jerusalem and that Islamic antiquities have no value in these markets. Now, the value of antiquities rises and falls in accordance with the interest of foreign tourists and possible (mainly foreign) collectors. If there were genuine interest by Arab collectors in their heritage, the price would go up overnight.
11. The program is full of false allegations:
a.) An insinuation at the beginning that artifacts from excavations in the West Bank were handed over to collectors is a lie.
b.) The insinuation that tunnels are being dug under the el-Aqsa mosque is false propaganda. The closest excavation to the mosque is some 70 meters away from it.
c.) Thomas Thompson makes a connection between (first Prime Minister of Israel) David Ben Gurions interest in archaeology and the refugees of 1948. This is a manipulation of the facts: the refugees left their villages during the war of 1948, while Ben Gurions interest in archaeology began in the 1950s.
d.) The program shows pictures of ongoing excavations, giving the viewer the impression that they are conducted in Palestinian territories. Yet, most of these pictures were taken in Greenbergs dig at Beth-Yerah near the Sea of Galilee, within the borders of the State of Israel.
e.) The line of the anti-terrorism fence is a matter of political dispute. But there is no straightforward connection between it and the looting of antiquities. If the fence increases unemployment, it is the duty of the Palestinian Authority to prevent this unemployment from being channeled to looting.
Before concluding, there are a few things to be said beyond politics. Archaeology in Israel is prospering and is of a high quality, ranking among the best in the world. Israeli archaeologists are in the frontline of research. A hasty look at the front pages of international journals which deal with archaeology – not only of the Levant – reveals a number of Israeli scholars far beyond their proportion in the world archaeology community. With all criticism that one (once in a while by this author, too) may have concerning the Israel Antiquities Authority, the organization administers archaeology in Israel in an efficient, orderly and professional way. And finally, without counting articles, I dare state that Israeli scholars contribute to the knowledge of Islamic archaeology more than all archaeologists in the Arab world combined. In the end, archaeology – as every other science – is decided by the level of education and scholarly work, not by politics and propaganda.
“Thomas Thompson makes a connection between (first Prime Minister of Israel) David Ben Gurion’s interest in archaeology and the refugees of 1948. This is a manipulation of the facts: the refugees left their villages during the war of 1948, while Ben Gurion’s interest in archaeology began in the 1950s.”
However, the basis of my statement was the following: The late Hebrew University professor of biblical studies, Abraham Malamat, who had been a friend of mine since the early 1970s, often discussed, in considerable detail, the regular meetings that Ben Gurion held with historians and archaeologists since the mid-1940s dealing with the development of historical education for the sake of nation building. This early interest of Ben Gurion’s in history and archaeology is also confirmed by his decision already in July, 1949, to place the Committee on Toponyms—established since the 1920s by the British Mandate—under the authority of the Jewish National Fund and to give it the added authority to a) Hebräicize and translate Arabic toponyms and b) replace Arabic place names with alternative Hebrew names; that is, to de-Arabicize Palestinian toponomy (cf. Th.L. Thompson and F. Goncalvez, Toponomie Palestinienne, Louvaine la Neuve, 1988, p.90). Such changes were particularly systematic and thorough in areas which had been settled by Palestinian villages prior to the ethnic cleansing that had begun already in March, 1948.
On the second series of points - 70 metres is indeed quite a distance but I would be concerned if someone were tunnelling at that distance from my house, unless I had assurances that there would be no closer approach and no question of undermining my property. I can't see that it makes much difference whether BG developed his interest in archaeology and biblical studies in the 40s or the 50s: either way he would have influenced the climate of thought. Archaeology and politics had long been mixed, not only in the ME, and BG would have been well aware of that.
More importantly, Thompson seems ignorant of the context of Hebraization which had been going on long before that time.
It started with personal names: to take one example, Ben Gurion's original family name was Green. When it comes to toponyms in Israel, the knowledge that many Arab villages carry place names specifically mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, certainly encouraged reversion to those names by people who felt that they returned to their homeland.
There is a great deal of scholarly literature on this fascinating subject.
I have no wish to engage Thompson in the political statement he made, since this is definitely not the proper forum for such a debate.
Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
Do people expect that the Jews will focus on the good old days in their respective 180 countries but ignore the importance of their historical homeland, many parts of which lie underground and require excavation to find and scientific study to understand?
Furthermore, is anybody surprised that these same Jews returning to their ancient homeland will take pride and use archaeology as an educational tool and adjunct to the Torah? The archaeology enlightens and proves a deep historical connection between Jews and their remembered past. No, not always, but in sufficient cases, including some biggies like the Place of the Trumpeting stone and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I find Thomas Thompson's entire approach to the discussion of the history of the Jewish people be undermined by his political intentions. Scholarship requires the objectivity and scientific rigor he demands of others. Yet, he himself appears to permit the altar of emotional empathy for the Palestinians to sway his views. No matter how gratifying it may be for Thompson every time he can poke a hole in somebody else's "Jewish" archaeology, the fact remains that a large Israelite nation, Israelite kingdoms and at times vassal communities of Jews lived on this land for about a thousand years before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
These facts disturb Thompson and his group for the simple reason that they prove the perspicacity of Zionist views on a "return to Zion" and undermine Palestinian rejection of the right of Jewish self-determination on any part of the ancient Jewish homeland. Eighty percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew.
With regard to the claim that only Jewish antiquities are sold in Arab markets, one may note two additional factors: (a) since the Arabs did not arrive until the 7th century C.E., Jewish antiquities are in general much older than Arab antiquities. In general, the older the artifact, the greater its interest and value. (b) the Jewish antiquities come from the heartland of the Jewish people, the only place in the world in which Jewish artifacts of great antiquity are to be found. The Arab antiquities come from a relatively marginal portion of the vast area occupied by Arabs and so are less likely to be of particular interest even to those with a special interest in Arab antiquities.
Both authors have contributed immensely to the education of the average reader (of which I am surely one) in the area of archaeological/biblical scholarship.
For those reasons the above dispute is painful to read.
Thank you very much for your comments. I find my friend Israel's charge that I have manipulated our knowledge of Ben Gurion's involvement in the implementation of the Palestinian Nakhba painful. My own understanding of what happened in the forties is rooted in memories and not least as supported by my many conversations with Avram Malamat. Quite sincerely, I wish I were wrong.
Israel and I, as you say, agree on far more that we ever could imagine us disagreeing on. I would be sincerely grateful if Israel could tell me why he sees my comments in the film as "manipulating",for I am truly unaware of doing that and I consciously strive to avoid that kind of thing. Are his and my understanding of Ben Gurion's integrity at odds? I do not know.
Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
However, not for the first time do I see the professor engaged in what appears to me to be anti-Palestinian sentiment. I refer in particular to his article “In the Eye of Jerusalem’s Archaeological Storm” published in The Jewish Daily Forward in May 2011. In that piece, Israel Finkelstein presents the Palestinians as the harbingers of lies and the perpetrators of damage to ancient tombs with their sewers and city garbage, whereas the Israeli authorities come across as the guardian angels of humanity's heritage.
Finkelstein is right to uphold the correctness of the methodology of Israeli archaeologists, whose absolutely phenomenal work, with him and his team to the forefront, is there for all who wish to see it. Having said that, it was Finkelstein himself who sharply criticised the proceedings at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa where, in a mad frenzy to unearth a 10th century BCE (hence Davidic) construction, Israeli archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel went on an uncontained binge and broke all the rules of good archaeology, right down to bedrock. Some people might argue that the findings, however flawed, are nonetheless legitimate and that they contribute to the debate. Other people might argue that the whole escapade is tantamount to falsehood and lies as part of an ideological platform. Either way, that the Israelis are “the good guys” (true in Finkelstein’s case, a fact on which I hope we can all agree) and the Wafq “the bad guys”, is a gross oversimplification which reveals an irrational bias on Finkelstein’s part.
When noting on this blog that the video did not include an interview with a representative from one of the Israel authorities (and I agree that this is regrettable), Finkelstein sarcastically observes that this “fits the notion of pluralism and free speech in the Arab World”, but forgets that his namesake, Normal Finkelstein, not to mention another great Jewish intellectual, Noam Chomsky, have been banned from entering Israel for the sole reason that they expressed their political opinions. Also, Israel Finkelstein rather loftily takes on the task of placing any number of issues on a “negotiating table”, over which he has absolutely no control, which the state of Israel clearly has no intentions of engaging in, and which, in short, is a figment of Finkelstein’s imagination and little more than an easy way out of an uncomfortable controversy.
Nothing good comes of systematic oppression, and, amongst other things, an oppressed people can at times resort to exaggeration as well as to uninformed or even false propaganda. I don’t think this furthers their cause, but neither do I think that it can merely be dismissed as vulgar lies. Yet in my view, Israel Finkelstein’s anger, however legitimate from a certain perspective, fuels the very situation to which we would all like to see a just and lasting solution, including in the name of the furtherance of our knowledge of the ancient history of the Levant. In short, I think Israel Finkelstein would do well to avoid engaging in a “them and us” approach and that he should seek, rather, to use his position and the enormous international prestige he has so rightfully earned in order to strive for a greater level of understanding of the way the Palestinian people see the situation.
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