The Politics of Archaeology in Israel

Christine R. Perdue’s master’s degree thesis, “The Politics of Archaeology in Israel” (University of Oregon, Interdisciplinary Studies, 2005), is a blistering indictment of Israeli government policies regarding the practice of archaeology both on Israeli soil and in the occupied territories. According to WorldCat only one copy of this thesis exists, namely, at the University of Oregon library. In a fortuitous coincidence, I happen to live only a few blocks away.

Perdue reveals her overall goal on page 2: “I will argue that archaeology in Israel has been politicized successively through the efforts of colonialists, biblical archaeologists, the process of nation-state building and tourism, and that ‘the facts’ of archaeological investigation have been and continue to be determined through political agendas and biases.”


The thesis is 117 pages and divides into two halves by content. The first half is a historical review and consists of four chapters:

– The British Mandate and colonialism (subheading: “Eurocentrism”)
– Antiquities organizations
– Immigration and land acquisitions
– Zionism, excavations, and national identity after 1967

The overall conclusion of this first half is on p. 58:

The alleged empire of David and Solomon in the 10th century BCE.

Archaeological evidence has been molded not only to assert what is written in the scriptures but also to assert the dominion of Israel… The nationalistic tendencies of the state have been absorbed by scholars and archaeologists who propagate the idea of a strong Davidic monarchy and insist on recreating that image in the present through the support and justification of the Israeli state, and therefore of the occupied territories as well. This connection of past to present is one foundation of the legitimacy of the Israeli state.

Perdue characterizes the European mindset of pre-Israel colonization as arrogant and condescending. In one of her quotes, Lord Cromer (British representative to the Middle East) refers to Arabs as “the subject race.” He was opposed to “nationalism, free native institutions, the absence of foreign occupation, or a self sustaining national sovereignty.” For this British overseer, the locals could only benefit from “Western knowledge and experience.” It gets worse. Cromer wrote:

Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind… The mind of the Oriental, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description. Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat higher degree the sciences of the dialectics, their descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. (Pp. 8-9)

The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed the blossoming of Zionism as Russian and European Jews streamed into Palestine. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 supported Zionist aspirations and “laid the foundation for the emergence of the Israeli state” (15). The immigrants, who came from many different lands and even spoke different languages, found an element of cohesion in the land under their feet and in their “belief in the national return.” Archaeology suddenly became important, for “the ideology of facticity that governed archaeological practice was essential to establishing the historic truth of the Jewish national return” (20). This ideology was rooted in Jewish scripture.

The entire Zionist movement was built on the premise that the Jews were returning to their historic homeland, and modern archaeology played a decisive role in demonstrating that this was not just a myth cherished by the pious but a thoroughly secular fact that every Jew (and every Christian) could take seriously. (33)
In sum, a variety of supposedly scholarly societies and institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were created to validate rather than test the assumptions upon which they were founded. In this process there was almost no possibility of a “rival archaeology”—an alternative archaeology of “Palestine” rather than of “Biblical Israel”—being allowed to encroach upon or threaten preconceived notions of biblical “truth.” (23-24)

Moshe Dayan, Israeli general and amateur archaeologist.

Many prominent Israelis including some generals became archaeologists, such as Moshe Dayan. When he was asked what he was looking for in excavations, Dayan simply replied, “The ancient land of Israel” (36). In the worldview of leading Zionist figures such as Yigael Yadin and Dayan, archaeology aided in cementing Jewish identity to the new Jewish state. Archaeological sites were turned into settings for the emotional and vivid remembrance of allegedly historical events in a remote and perhaps mythical past (38).
The overall Jewish curriculum for children in Israel begins with the study of the origins of the Jewish people during the biblical period, covering topics such as “From Tribes to People”, “The Kingdom of David”, “Prophet versus King”, and “Jerusalem a Capital.” The Hebrew Bible is consistently studied in Israeli secular schools for over eleven years, from second grade on for three to four hours a week (44).
In an exercise in circular reasoning, the biblical text was often used to validate results in the field, results which themselves could be massaged to validate the biblical text. Thus it is that Nahman Avigad and other Israeli archaeologists cited Hebrew scripture as corroboration of their excavation interpretations (48). Perdue concludes: “The consistent attempt to legitimize the Bible has not only led to a complete dismissal of the history and archaeology of groups other than the Israelites, but it has also led to the erroneous manipulation of archaeological finds to fit the Biblical text” (52).
The current paradigm shift toward minimalism
The second half of Perdue’s thesis deals with the present state of affairs and contains four chapters:
– Minimalist vs. maximalist
– Destruction of artifacts and sites
– Tourism and the formation of Israel
        (This includes a section “Evangelicals and Archaeology”)
– Conclusion
In 1992 the British academic Philip Davies argued that biblical archaeology and biblical studies were scholarly constructs built on a misreading of the biblical traditions and that the history of ‘ancient Israel’ was not an historical reality (53). Neils Lemche and Thomas Thompson view the Bible primarily as literature composed centuries after the events they allege. The literary-based work of these ‘minimalists’ has now received strong archaeological support from Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. His excavations carried out in the last generation have undermined the accepted chronology of important sites (including Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer) and have dated the material to a much later time (54). Jerusalem was not settled until about 900 BCE and it became a major town only after the conquest of Lachish in 701 BCE. Thompson concludes: “Without a significant population in Judea, without a city of Jerusalem, it’s very, very difficult to talk about a united monarchy under David and Solomon in the tenth century” (57).
Archaeological revisionism of course has important political ramifications, for “finding the Hebrew Bible in the archaeological record secured and legitimized the presence of the Jewish state in Israel.” However, the majority of biblical scholars have shown themselves resistant to the new data. Perdue writes:

Although Biblical scholars and archaeologists have been aware of the lack of archaeological evidence to support the Davidic theories, they have still persisted in constructing the massive edifice of a Davidic empire, which has basically benefited the propagandistic policies of the Israeli state. The Bible has been the background before which many archaeological assumptions are made. This bias unfortunately has added to the disregard for Arab or Palestinian culture and history. (58-59)

The modus operandi on the ground in Israel confirms the bias noted above:

The search for the Iron Age in the archaeological record is solely the search for the origins of the Israeli people—origins that will attest to and validate their presence in the area as the “first” inhabitants and thus the legitimate inheritors of the land. And the neglect of Islamic remains by Israeli archaeologists is not only seen in the physical destruction of sites, but also in the omission of any written accounts of those remains in the excavation reports. (62)

Security concerns have also worked to the detriment of Palestinian interests, as Israelis insist upon guarding their sites of “national historic interest” while ignoring or sometimes even destroying those of Arabs. For example, construction of the massive wall which separates Israel from Palestine has removed numerous sites of interest to Palestinians. That wall has provoked international criticism of Israel by the World Archaeological Congress. (64-66)
Palestinian archaeologists were not permitted in the field until 1993, and thereafter their work has been severely restricted. Valuable finds in Palestinian territories have also been confiscated by Israeli authorities who maintain the policy that “all antiquities discovered or excavated in the occupied territories remain under Israeli control” (66). Operation Scroll, beginning in 1993, basically was an Israeli effort to seize remaining artifacts in the occupied territories in anticipation of a withdrawal. The Israel Antiquities Authority claimed it was protecting the seized artifacts. It has also argued that since Palestine is not a legal entity it has no right to any artifacts (68).
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is an especially sensitive area. On the one hand, rabbinic sages maintain that it is the place where God chose the Divine Presence to rest (Isa 8:18). On the other hand, it is also the location of the Islamic al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (al-haram al-qudsī ash-sharīf, or “Noble Sanctuary”) completed in 692 CE. The Temple Mount is the site of frequent clashes between Arabs and Jews and is so sensitive that no on-site excavating is permitted.

Ultra-orthodox Israeli soldiers pray atop Masada after having marched all night. (AFP)

The Zionist Information Bureau for Tourists was established in 1925 by the World Zionist Organization on behalf of Palestine’s Jewish population. After the creation of Israel in 1948, sites of unique importance for the Jewish heritage became venues of vigils and even pilgrimages. Masada was especially significant and “captivated rabbinical authorities” (79), helping to cement the connection of Israel’s present with its past. After 1948 Masada became the selected site for the swearing-in ceremony of the Israeli Defense Forces (40). Y. Yadin, who was Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army before becoming an archaeologist, stated: “Even the veterans and the more cynical among us stood frozen, gazing in awe at what had been uncovered; for as we gazed we relived the final and the most tragic moments of the drama of Masada.”
Large numbers of foreigners came to Israel not only as tourists but also to volunteer in excavations which have yielded an enormous number of artifacts. During the 1970s and 80s approximately eighty heritage museums were established in Israel (80). Often extreme irony accompanies locales in Israel, as with the museum called The Beginning of Pioneer Settlement in the Land of Israel—it is located on the site of the destroyed Arab village of Mdjedel (81).
The ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Labor both have forged alliances with the Antiquities Authority to produce large scale excavations, such as at Beth Shean, Caesarea, and Banias. The purpose is not merely historical but, in the words of author Neil Silverman, such sites “should be seen as part of an international trend toward the exploitation of monumental archaeological remains as income-gathering entertainment venues” (82).
[I certainly can attest to the above as regards Nazareth, where several recent excavations have preceded new tourist developments. They include the Nazareth Village Farm (sponsored by the University of the Holy Land), now a tourist venue with streets and structures which seek to recreate the town of the time of “Jesus,” as well as the humble “house from the time of Jesus” excavated by Yardenna Alexandre which is now covered over by the imposing Mary of Nazareth International Center—a worship and tourist destination that is made up of five buildings including a guest house, a 120-seat theater, a restaurant-cafeteria, a boutique, a chapel, and a garden… For more details see Scandal Five (“The Nazareth Village Farm Report”), Scandal Six (“A ‘House for the time of Jesus’?”) and Scandal Seven (“Israel’s Evangelical Approach and Nazareth”).—R.S.]
Most tourists to Israel are Christian, and government initiatives have largely targeted them. In the 1970s the Israeli government began seeking evangelical leaders’ attention by hosting “Holy Land” tours for well-known preachers including Jerry Falwell and Bailey Smith of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2002, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism hired the Colorado Springs company Touch Point Solutions to “target an estimated 98 million evangelicals and especially a subset of that group, the Christian Zionists” (85). In October, 2003, hundreds of evangelicals from the West marched through the streets of Jerusalem together with Jews in order to commemorate the capture of the city by Israel. U.S. evangelicals find biblical support for the “restoration” of Jews to Palestine, and an organization called International Fellowship of Christians and Jews raised over $60 million to that end (89). Fundamentalists both East and West have made Palestine and Palestinians “literally invisible” (86).
However, the link between archaeology and tourism is fragile. The Intifada has had a disastrous effect. According to an article in USA Today (June 20, 2002), “Ancient remains and biblical history are the bedrock of Israel’s tourism industry, which has plummeted to almost nothing since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000” (83).
Perdue writes:

The issues examined in this thesis are still relevant today. As recently as the 1980s, membership in the Near Eastern Archaeological Society required accepting the Bible in its entirety as the written word of God. Although the Society is known for its accurate information gathering and data recording, topics that do not involve or support the Biblical interpretation are prohibited from publication in the Near Eastern Archaeological Society Bulletin. This type of fundamentalist attitude adopted by supposed “reputable” institutions has helped to keep the Biblical myth alive. (93)
Repeatedly societies and governments have used archaeology [in Israel/Palestine] to validate their own agendas rather than objectively consider that data as evidence for a range of possible interpretations. As a result, archaeology as it has been practiced in the Holy Land for the last century and more is an ambiguous and possibly unreliable guide to the great debate over the historicity of Biblical literature. Those who have used archaeology to document the Bible to achieve their specific ends have paradoxically undermined their own essential claims. (95)

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


The Politics of Archaeology in Israel — 3 Comments

  1. Excellent report. Too bad there is no general access to Perdue’s thesis. I suppose there is more in it about the eye- and mind-opening work of Finklestein and Silberman.

    • Curiously, Perdue doesn’t go into much depth on the theses of the minimalists & Finkelstein. She’s more into the political situation and contemporary dynamics. It can only be a matter of time, though, before the whole tent comes crashing down. I mean, both Xty and Judaism are surviving on fumes. . . I think this stuff is going mainstream right now. It’s just happening so slowly for impatient people like me, who want mythicism to be well known in months and not years or decades.

      I tried to contact Perdue, but no luck. The last address I have for her I can see from my window in Eugene. But she’s moved and a letter was returned to me.–RS

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