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Archaeology and Nationalism in Eretz-Israel

July 2010 (114.3)

Book Review

Archaeology and Nationalism in Eretz-Israel

Edited by Michael Feige and Zvi Shiloni (In Hebrew). Pp. 266, figs. 10. The Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Jerusalem 2008. $23. ISBN 978-965-510-056-3 (paper).

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The active role of the past in forming present national identity is a recurring theme in the archaeology of Israel and has been discussed since the 1990s in articles and books in the English and Hebrew languages (e.g., P.R.S. Moorey, A Century of Biblical Archaeology [Cambridge 1991]; N.A. Silberman, A Prophet from Amongst You: The Life of Yigael Yadin [Reading, Mass. 1993]; “Structuring the Past: Israelis, Palestinians, and Symbolic Authority of Archaeological Monuments,” in N.A. Silberman and D. Small, eds., The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present [Sheffield 1997] 63–81; A. Kempinski, “‘When History Sleeps, Theology Arises’: A Note on Joshua 8:30–35 and the Archaeology of the ‘Settlement Period,’” Eretz Israel 24 [1993] 176–83; “The Impact of Archaeology on Israeli Society and Culture,” Ariel 100 [1994] 179–90; A. Elon, “Politics and Archaeology,” in Silberman and Small [1997], 34–47; N. Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society [Chicago and London 2002]; R. Kletter, Just Past? The Making of Israeli Archaeology [London 2006]).

It is likely that many of these publications were not sparked by the advent of postprocessual archaeological theory in the Levant but rather by a watershed event: the 100th anni­versary, in 1990, of scientific archaeological excavations in Palestine by Flinders Petrie at Tell el-Hesi. At the same time, it may be wrong to assume that critical perspectives on archaeological research in Israel did not occur before this. It is possible to demonstrate that at least some form of reflectiveness about the archaeological process and even criticism of the use of archaeology as an ideological tool existed within the scientific community and in Israeli intelligentsia even before the foundation of the State of Israel and continued into its early years. A telltale case is the 1936 endeavor of one of the founders of Israeli archaeology, Benjamin Mazar, to write a two-volume popular account in Hebrew—not of the archaeology of Israel but rather of the history of archaeological research (B. Meisler, History of Archaeological Exploration in Palestine. Vol. 1 [Jerusalem 1936]). It is likely that the bitter 1948 war and the need to support and stabilize the fragile State of Israel in its early years had David Ben-Gurion (as prime minister) and Yigael Yadin (first as general and then as a professor of archaeology) seeing eye-to-eye in giving archaeology an almost cultic prominence in tying the biblical past to the Zionist present (Elon [1997] 39). Yet, at the same time, prominent members of the archaeological community expressed criticism against nationalistic tendencies in the archaeology of Israel. In an article in Ha’aretz newspaper on 31 October 1950, Ze’ev Yeivin, director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums (founded only two years earlier), argued for the active role of archaeology in maintaining an atmosphere of cultural pluralism: “Restoration works may also encourage relations of respect and tolerance to the cultures and spiritual assets of the other, and calm down the spirit of national and political extremism that shows worrying signs recently, especially among the youth” (Kletter [2006] 73). The ideological connection between archaeology and the present is mocked by authors of the 1950s describing the 1948 war. Yizhar (Yemey Ziklag [Tel Aviv 1958]) and Puchu (Ani Pahdan Ani [Ramat Gan 1966]), for example, portray the irrelevance of such ideology in the face of the individual war experience.

Archaeology and Nationalism in Eretz-Israel stems from a conference held in 2001 by Ben-Gurion University in Sede Boqer, the former residence and the burial place of Israel’s first prime minister. The aim of the conference, stated in the blurb on the back of the book, reads, “Today, in the age of globalization, privatization, and so-called critical research, archaeology is searching for its path in a changing environment. This book stands at the crossroads, examines the way made by the discipline, marking potential courses for the future, and inviting the educated public in the country to discuss the fundamental questions of science and nationalism, research and faith, past and present” (translation by the reviewer). Its interdisciplinary approach—with articles written by archaeologists, historians, geographers, sociologists, and anthropologists—aims at holistically treating the impact of archaeology on past and present Israeli society. Participating scholars have employed up-to-date anthropological and archaeological theory, as well as case studies from other parts of the world, to illuminate the complex discourse of Israelis with their past (14, 17).

Ben-Arie recounts the history of archaeological research before the foundation of the State of Israel and into its early years. He suggests two phases in this process—a phase of Jewish archaeology, followed by a phase of national-secular archaeology.

Broshi examines the history of the Albrightian paradigm for the ethnogenesis of Israel and its influence on archaeological research in Israel until its final rejection in the 1980s. Fein explores an intriguing aspect of the history of archaeology in Israel: the contribution of Jewish-American communities to the excavation and study of ancient synagogues in Israel between 1926 and 1928.

Feige presents the diminishing role of archaeology in the eyes of the general public through the history of annual conferences of the Israel Exploration Society. These conferences, starting in 1943, drew an enormous audience of both scientists and laypersons. However, in 1964, they became mainly tours to archaeological sites abroad. Feige argues that the decline of the public role of archaeology was not connected to subversive finds produced by archaeologists but to changes occurring within the Israeli public, which no longer felt the need for a national archaeology.

Avni and Seligman give a firsthand account of the involvement of the Israel Antiquities Authority in the archaeological excavations around and within the Temple Mount, as well as in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Their contribution exposes the complex nature of interrelations between Israeli archaeologists and the Christian and Muslim custodians of the holy places, often heavily affected by political tensions.

Greenberg explores four case studies, from the 1940s to the present, in which the Department of Antiquities (later the Israel Antiquities Authority) compromised, in his opinion, its professional standards to please political and commercial powers. He argues that the will of the archaeological establishment to maintain and support the political and economic mainstream blocked internal discussion within the archaeological community, which led to the absence of a strong moral agenda within it.

Ohana embarks on a journey exploring the role of the past in forming Israeli art icons. He explores the history of Danziger’s Nimrod, a masculine statue heavily influenced by Canaanite art that was first embraced by the Neo-Canaanite ideology of the 1950s and 1960s and then, like every true icon, criticized heavily by artists, from 1959 to the present.

Herzog surveys the different approaches of various sectors of the Israeli public toward archaeology and its treatment of the biblical narrative. In most cases, the public, whether ultra-Orthodox or secular, sees little relevance in the contribution of archaeology to the understanding of the national past. So far, the critical treatment of text and archaeological evidence of modern Israeli academia has had only a limited effect on the public perception of the past.

Rosen suggests that the fading interest in archaeology among the Israeli public is an artifact of the decrease of nationalism, as well as the diminishing need of both the political powers and the public to legitimize the State of Israel using archaeology. At the same time, the academic freedom enjoyed by Israeli academia is encouraging archaeologists in universities to pursue their own interests and to adopt critical approaches toward the ancient texts.

Cinamon recounts one of the first experiences of community archaeology in Israel—the Rogem Ganim Project, the excavation of an Iron Age tumulus site located within a ­residential area. He explores the impact of such a project on the local preservation of cultural heritage and on processes of creating local identity that are triggered by the excavations. Weingrod in­vestigates the role of minority groups in determining archaeological policies, comparing the case studies of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel with those of the Native American Chumash in California.

Yekutieli argues that, in the last decade of the 20th century, archaeology in Israel no longer served the cause of nationalism but rather the interests of contractors and developers, as seen in the massive rise in salvage excavation activities conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and by universities. Finally, as a comparative case study, Baram offers an intriguing look at the role of archaeology in the building of Iraqi national identity, from the first years of independence to Saddam Hussein’s extensive use of the ancient Mesopotamian past.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the era of national archaeology is long gone—a distant memory of the 1950s and 1960s. With five research universities containing departments of archaeology that accommodate many dozens of graduate students, and with a strong antiquities authority, the future of scientific archaeology is not bleak. The archaeological community, thankfully, is too big and heterogeneous to be unified under any political agenda. What is worrisome is that, at the crossroads where Israeli archaeology and national ideology parted ways, the public went in yet another direction. Indeed, the need to find a new public role for archaeology echoes through the pages of this book.

This edited volume, therefore, is an intriguing and unique document, written in Hebrew—a self-statement of Israeli academia about archaeology at the beginning of the third millennium C.E. It is aware of current archae­ological and anthropological discourse, yet it aims directly at Hebrew-speaking academia and the general public, relating to current Israeli debates, and it is not intended in any way to contribute to ongoing discourse on archaeology and nationalism in world archaeology. In other words, the choice of language, theme, method, and audience makes it fantastic reading material that should, of course, be translated into English.

Assaf Yasur-Landau
Department of Maritime Civilizations
University of Haifa
31905 Haifa

Book Review of Archaeology and Nationalism in Eretz-Israel, edited by Michael Feige and Zvi Shiloni

Reviewed by Assaf Yasur-Landau

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 3 (July 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1143.YasurLandau

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