Forsaking the material legacy of our forebears

The threat to the archaeological record in the heartland of Israel, Judea and Samaria, the cradle of our civilization, is untenable, and cannot be subject to political persuasions.

 The Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation stands in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, March 29, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)
The Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation stands in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, March 29, 2021

A muted but persistent cultural cleansing and destruction of immense proportion is occurring throughout Judea and Samaria. Historic sites, antiquities, and artifacts are being plundered, damaged, pilfered, or simply erased.  

In certain instances, illicit development work by Arabs in the area, such as the paving of pirate roadways or illegal mining operations, causes the unintentional destruction of rare and indescribably important antiquities. In other cases, it is the desire for looting and profit that causes intentional and irrevocable damage to archaeological sites in Judea and Samaria. Further still, and perhaps most egregiously, is the willingness of Arab leadership figures in Judea and Samaria to erase or culturally appropriate the history and archaeology of the Nation and Land of Israel fuel and intensify this cultural cleansing. After all, a rich archaeological record and abundant historical texts are the most conspicuous and potent testaments to the falsehood of Arab narratives concerning Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.

These attempts at cultural appropriation and expunction are also a critical aspect of the global campaign waged by many against Israel’s legitimacy and its very right to exist. The farcical proclamations made by UNESCO, the ethically bankrupt international body with a contempt for historical fact regarding anything to do with Israel, is one illustration of this campaign.

There is a troubling lack of awareness among the general Israeli public of the size and scope of the wanton destruction of antiquities in Judea and Samaria and its repercussions. Outside of Israel, awareness is almost non-existent except in archaeological and academic circles, and even then, it is limited. In recent years, a number of Israeli NGOs have been working hard to identify and publicize the ISIS-style damage and destruction. Addressing the problem properly will only come about with a sea change in the policies of the State of Israel toward archaeology as a whole in Judea and Samaria. A public outcry and the political pressure it can create are necessary to have the required policy changes enacted.

Currently, the Israel Antiquities Authority, one of the leading, if not the leading organization of its type in the world, is severely limited both in resources and in freedom of action in Judea and Samaria.

In fact, technically, the responsibility for archaeology in Judea and Samaria is in the hands of the very small and resource-lacking archaeological unit of the civil administration of Judea and Samaria.

The situation is further complicated by stipulations stemming from the Oslo Accords regarding responsibilities for historic sites and antiquities in different parts of the region (the Area A, B, and C classifications).  

Given the Arab authorities’ facilitation as well as subtle and not so subtle support for the destruction and cultural appropriation of historic sites, diplomatic agreements on the subject have been contravened and so should be null and void. As such, the IAA should be empowered and have its mandate expanded in Judea and Samaria.

The blood-boiling character of the overall situation is perfectly encapsulated by what has gone on at Beitar. The ancient village is perched in the hills south of Jerusalem and was where, under the command of Simon Bar-Kokhva, Judean forces entrenched and fortified themselves for a final epic battle against the bitter enemy and oppressor of Am Yisrael – the Roman Empire. Like Masada and Gamla nearly 70 years earlier, Beitar would go down in our history not just as a bloody battle but as a symbol. A symbol of an unwavering struggle for independence and liberty in the face of an evil empire, the world’s mightiest power at the time. The defeat and destruction at Beitar in 135 CE would mark the severing of the Nation of Israel’s sovereignty over the Land of Israel until May 14, 1948 CE, when David Ben-Gurion would declare its reestablishment.  

Battir, an Arabic corruption of Beitar, is an Arab village that was built on the site of ancient Beitar. The ancient site has never been fully and properly excavated. It has been continuously looted and damaged by local Arabs over the years, and to add insult to injury, the ridiculous to the hypocritical, the Palestinian Authority together with UNESCO have worked to have “Battir” and its two-thousand-year-old terraced agriculture and irrigation systems classified and declared “Palestinian” World Heritage sites. These are absurdities made worse by the absence of the State of Israel in intervening to protect the site from looters, as well as by neglecting the absolute necessity culturally, academically, and ideologically to excavate the archaeological site. 

To be clear, the Roman Emperor who renamed the province of Judea and the Land of Israel “Palaestina” was Hadrian. He did so at the end of the very war that was decided at the battle of Beitar, to achieve precisely what today UNESCO and many others (Amnesty International, just in the last few days) are striving for, the eradication of the identification of the Land of Israel with the Nation of Israel. As a great admirer of Hellenism, Hadrian chose to call the province after the Greek name for Israel’s ancient and bitter enemy – a corollary to the Romans themselves – the Philistines (also known as the Sea Peoples, whose origins were in the Greek Islands).  

Furthermore, two millennia ago, there were no Arab villages or towns in the Judean Highlands. Those tilling and irrigating the soil around Beitar were our ancestors who also fought to defend it against impossible odds and to the last drop of blood. The ruins of ancient Beitar do though have a name in Arabic, a very telling one, that in their own tongue refutes the artificial claims made by the residents of Battir and the Palestinian Authority – Khirbet al Yahud. Literally the ruin of the Jews. Finally, near one of the springs which feeds the irrigation system that the UN views as a unique and important vestige of “Palestinian” heritage, an inscription was discovered. Inscribed are the names of two Roman Legions, the V MACEDONICA and XI CLAUDIA –  two legions out of a much larger force that was fighting in Judea that laid siege to, destroyed, and then held Beitar.

In Samaria, an archaeological site that takes us back to well over one thousand years before the Bar Kokhva War is under threat as well and has been in the news recently as a result. The site of Har Eyval (Mt. Ebal), along with the adjacent Har Grizim, are where blessings and admonitory curses were proclaimed to the Nation of Israel after entering the Land of Israel. Joshua, son of Nun, Chieftain of Israel, also built an altar to G-d on Har Eyval, which was inscribed with the words of the Torah. On the mountain still today, there is an ancient altar of unhewn stones with an Israelite design as is described in the Books of Joshua and Deuteronomy.

Famed Israeli archaeologist and scholar, the late Professor Adam Zertal, identified the extant altar with the one Joshua constructed. Arab contractors have brazenly taken stones from the wall of the altar and crushed them into gravel for use in paving a road being developed near the site to connect Shkhem (Nablus) to a nearby Arab village. Further damage was reported at the site just a few weeks ago by the Israeli NGO Shomrim al Ha’Netzakh (Guarding the Eternal). Recently almost providentially, when sifting through piles of earth excavated from the site decades ago, researchers found a small lead amulet that dated to circa 1200 BCE. The amulet sheds new light on Zertal’s thesis and the ability to date the altar more precisely through further excavation and study. That is not all, though. Using new scientific methods that did not exist when Professor Zertal excavated at the site in the 1980s, an image was uncovered on the amulet along with two Hebrew letters (at the time of this writing, the research continues). The site at Har Eyval is left, for the most part, unprotected. That cannot continue, and it must be excavated and studied more thoroughly.

The threat to the archaeological record in the heartland of Israel, Judea and Samaria, the cradle of our civilization, is untenable. It cannot be subject to political persuasions. When the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, outrage and condemnations were not based on whether one subscribed to leftist or rightist political ideologies. So too, politics are absent when we oppose the construction of a new parking lot or shopping mall over a two or three-century-old exilic cemetery on foreign soil in Europe or elsewhere.

It should then go without saying that there be no politicking when it comes to stopping the looting and destruction of the ancient tombs of our nation’s vaunted freedom fighters, the Hasmoneans, on our native soil at Jericho or at any other site in Judea and Samaria.

Ilan Pomeranc is an Israeli hi-tech entrepreneur and a member of the Israel Leadership Forum. Ilan is involved with various Israel advocacy causes, including working with Christian Zionist and pro-Israel Noahide groups.