Date: Tue Dec 03 2002 - 18:08:35 EST
We were discussing the James ossuary recently. This is why I am skeptical=20
about Israeli archeology:
Israeli Icon Under Fire: Did the nation's most celebrated archaeologist=20
deliberately deceive the public about Masada?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2.12.6
=A0=A0 By RICHARD MONASTERSKY
=A0=A0 On the last day of October, a cavalcade of foreign dignitaries and
=A0=A0 Israeli officials joined hundreds of ordinary citizens making their
=A0=A0 way to the top of a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. They gathered t=
=A0=A0 proclaim this secluded fortress, called Masada, one of the world's
=A0=A0 most important historical sites -- a place worthy of global attention
=A0=A0 and protection.
=A0=A0 The United Nations, which put the Israeli mesa on the list of World
=A0=A0 Heritage Sites, chose the place in part to commemorate the Jewish
=A0=A0 rebels who held the lofty stronghold, and eventually perished there,
=A0=A0 in the waning days of a revolt against the Roman Empire in AD 73. In
=A0=A0 its report on Masada, the U.N. concludes that "the tragic events
=A0=A0 during the last days of the Jewish refugees who occupied the fortress
=A0=A0 and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of Jewish cultural identit=
=A0=A0 and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between
=A0=A0 oppression and liberty."
=A0=A0 One prominent Israeli scholar, though, stayed home. He tossed aside
=A0=A0 his invitation and instead made scornful remarks to the news media.
=A0=A0 For Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a sociologist who is dean of the faculty of
=A0=A0 social sciences at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Masada stands as a
=A0=A0 symbol of national mythology and academic deception -- a case study o=
=A0=A0 how archaeologists can hijack the scientific method for ideological
=A0=A0 In his controversial new book, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the
=A0=A0 Myth of Masada (Prometheus/Humanity Books), Mr. Ben-Yehuda accuses
=A0=A0 Israel's most celebrated archaeologist, the late Yigael Yadin, of
=A0=A0 professional misconduct in his excavations at the site during the
=A0=A0 1960s. After studying transcripts of conversations and documents
=A0=A0 written during the work and years later, Mr. Ben-Yehuda concludes tha=
=A0=A0 Yadin conducted "a scheme of distortion which was aimed at providing
=A0=A0 Israelis with a spurious historical narrative of heroism."
=A0=A0 Many archaeologists, however, reject Mr. Ben-Yehuda's harsh assessmen=
=A0=A0 and even accuse him, in turn, of manipulating facts to promote his ow=
=A0=A0 agenda. "He twists and distorts things," says Jodi Magness, a
=A0=A0 professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina in
=A0=A0 Chapel Hill, who has excavated at Masada in recent years. "It's very
=A0=A0 disturbing to me. I can only imagine that Yadin must be rolling in hi=
=A0=A0 Diamond in the Desert
=A0=A0 Seen from above, Masada is literally a diamond in the desert -- a
=A0=A0 kite-shaped mesa 2,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide, rising 1,500
=A0=A0 feet above the Dead Sea. It sits at a schism where two giant patches
=A0=A0 of the earth's crust have ripped apart, exposing a gaping chasm so
=A0=A0 deep that it ranks as the lowest spot on any continent.
=A0=A0 The violent human history there mirrors its geologic past. For
=A0=A0 millennia, warriors have retreated to the flat top of the plateau to
=A0=A0 escape their enemies. Surrounded by cliffs, Masada provides a superb
=A0=A0 natural refuge that one group after another has exploited over the
=A0=A0 ages. Its Hebrew name (pronounced "Me-tza-dah") means fortress.
=A0=A0 The most extravagant resident of Masada was Herod the Great, who was
=A0=A0 appointed client-king of the Jewish nation by the Roman emperor in 40
=A0=A0 BC. Around 31 BC, Herod built a magnificent set of palaces and
=A0=A0 fortifications on the plateau as a winter home that could also serve
=A0=A0 as a safe house in case his restive subjects rejected his rule or
=A0=A0 Cleopatra tried to take his country.
=A0=A0 Many of Herod's buildings still remain, but they alone do not draw th=
=A0=A0 crowds. It's the remarkable set of events following Herod's death tha=
=A0=A0 make Masada the second-most-visited spot in Israel. Before the
=A0=A0 violence of the past two years, hundreds of thousands of foreign
=A0=A0 visitors each year ascended the plateau and heard the tale of
=A0=A0 resistance and death that turned the isolated rock into a memorial.
=A0=A0 The standard story is attributed to Josephus Flavius, a Roman
=A0=A0 historian who had been a Jewish priest and commander. In The Jewish
=A0=A0 War, he tells how the "Great Revolt" broke out in AD 66, when militan=
=A0=A0 Jews rejected Roman rule and kicked the foreign forces out of
=A0=A0 A group of Jewish rebels, known to history as the Zealots, took over
=A0=A0 Masada soon after the start of the revolt and occupied the site for
=A0=A0 seven years. After the Roman army reconquered Jerusalem and the rest
=A0=A0 of the country, Masada stood as the remaining pocket of Jewish
=A0=A0 In AD 73, the Roman general Flavius Silva marched thousands of troops
=A0=A0 to the base of the plateau and built a siege wall around it, trapping
=A0=A0 the 967 Jewish men, women, and children at the top. The Roman forces
=A0=A0 built a ramp along the western edge of the plateau and hauled
=A0=A0 equipment to the top to batter down the walls of the fortress. As the
=A0=A0 Romans were breaching the defenses, the leader of the rebels, Elazer
=A0=A0 Ben Ya'ir, persuaded his people to burn their belongings and to kill
=A0=A0 themselves rather than let the women and children be taken as slaves.
=A0=A0 When the Romans reached the top, Josephus says, they were "met with
=A0=A0 the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact,
=A0=A0 though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than
=A0=A0 wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable
=A0=A0 contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when the=
=A0=A0 went through with such an action as that was." The only survivors wer=
=A0=A0 two women and five children who had hidden themselves and so lived to
=A0=A0 describe the rebels' last acts to the Romans.
=A0=A0 From Army to Archaeology
=A0=A0 Two millennia later, another charismatic Jewish leader was rallying
=A0=A0 his troops at the summit of Masada. In 1963, Yigael Yadin marshaled a
=A0=A0 force there to carry out the most massive archaeological excavation
=A0=A0 ever attempted in Israel. He had served as a military commander of
=A0=A0 Jewish forces from the 1930s to the early '50s before going into
=A0=A0 archaeology. He gained fame in that discipline by studying one of the
=A0=A0 Dead Sea Scrolls that had been found in cliffs not far north of
=A0=A0 Masada. Written by the Essenes, a messianic Jewish sect, the scrolls
=A0=A0 provide a window into Jewish life around the time of Jesus.
=A0=A0 Yadin came to Masada hoping to find more scrolls and motivated as wel=
=A0=A0 by Josephus's historical account, say his former students. Between
=A0=A0 October 1963 and April 1965, he led an archaeological team financed
=A0=A0 mainly by overseas backers and staffed largely by international
=A0=A0 volunteers and members of the Israeli Defense Forces. Igor Stravinsky
=A0=A0 gave thousands of dollars. Donations also came from The Observer, a
=A0=A0 London newspaper, which ran reports on the digging, says Mr.
=A0=A0 The site attracted so much interest because Masada had by that time
=A0=A0 become a symbol of Jewish strength in the face of great odds. The
=A0=A0 Israeli army held regular ceremonies atop the hallowed site, inductin=
=A0=A0 soldiers into the elite armored unit with the oath, "Masada shall not
=A0=A0 fall again!"
=A0=A0 When Yadin's forces started excavating on the plateau, they found
=A0=A0 unmistakable signs that the Jewish rebels had occupied the fortress a=
=A0=A0 precisely the time Josephus had said. The diggers uncovered living
=A0=A0 quarters, written scrolls, Jewish coins minted during the rebellion,
=A0=A0 pottery, weapons, and clothes. At the base of the plateau, the
=A0=A0 remnants of the Roman walls and siege camps were still clear, as was
=A0=A0 the earthen ramp constructed along the western edge, on top of a
=A0=A0 natural embankment.
=A0=A0 Other evidence provided clues about the rebels' final moments. The
=A0=A0 archaeologists found signs of a great fire that had consumed the
=A0=A0 defenders' possessions. They also discovered many ostraca, or
=A0=A0 potsherds with writing on them. A cluster of a dozen ostraca in
=A0=A0 particular made a strong impression because 11 of them each bore a
=A0=A0 Jewish name -- one of which was Ben Ya'ir, the name of the rebel
=A0=A0 In his 1966 book on the excavations, Yadin called that cluster of
=A0=A0 ostraca the excavation's most spectacular find, even if it did not
=A0=A0 hold the most archaeological importance. "We were struck by the
=A0=A0 extraordinary thought: 'Could it be that we had discovered evidence
=A0=A0 associated with the death of the very last group of Masada's
=A0=A0 defenders?'" Josephus had described how 10 men were selected by
=A0=A0 lottery to kill the rest of the rebel families and then drew lots to
=A0=A0 determine which one of the 10 would slay the remaining fighters and
=A0=A0 finally himself. Yadin wondered whether the ostraca were the lots cas=
=A0=A0 by the last 10 defenders and their commander. "We'll never know for
=A0=A0 certain. But the probability is strengthened by the fact that among
=A0=A0 these 11 inscribed pieces of pottery was one bearing the name 'Ben
=A0=A0 Ya'ir.'" At that time and place, such a name could refer only to the
=A0=A0 commander, said Yadin.
=A0=A0 For the archaeological team and people around the world, such finds
=A0=A0 and others buttressed the tale of rebellion and suicide on that
=A0=A0 windswept mountaintop. "The archaeological interpretation provided fo=
=A0=A0 this [ostraca] discovery by the most authoritative contemporary voice
=A0=A0 -- that of Yadin -- helped bring into being a construction which
=A0=A0 appeared to give unequivocal support to Josephus's narrative," writes
=A0=A0 Mr. Ben-Yehuda.
=A0=A0 'Falsifying Historical Evidence'
=A0=A0 Unfortunately, the construction rests on a flimsy and even fraudulent
=A0=A0 foundation, he charges. It involved "falsifying historical evidence
=A0=A0 and concealing facts, adapting deceptive techniques and inventing
=A0=A0 historical realities," according to Mr. Ben-Yehuda, who has long done
=A0=A0 research on scientists who deviate from the mainstream, both those wh=
=A0=A0 commit fraud and those who legitimately seek out new methods of
=A0=A0 Over the past decade, Mr. Ben-Yehuda has dedicated a large portion of
=A0=A0 his time to exposing what he sees as the Israeli self-delusion over
=A0=A0 Masada. He is not the first to have questioned the facts surrounding
=A0=A0 the rebellion that ended there, but he has provided one of the loudes=
=A0=A0 voices on the topic.
=A0=A0 In The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel
=A0=A0 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), Mr. Ben-Yehuda looks at the
=A0=A0 origins of what he calls the myth: that Masada was a heroic tale,
=A0=A0 worthy of celebration. He argues that the standard story's descriptio=
=A0=A0 of the Jewish rebels as Zealots -- religious revolutionaries -- is a
=A0=A0 distortion of Josephus's narrative by early Zionists. Josephus
=A0=A0 actually said the rebels belonged to a group known as the Sicarii.
=A0=A0 The distinction is crucial, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda, because Josephus
=A0=A0 characterizes the Sicarii as political extremists, distinct from the
=A0=A0 Zealots. The name Sicarii comes from sica, the daggers that members o=
=A0=A0 the group carried and used to assassinate their opponents, whether
=A0=A0 Jewish or Roman. According to Josephus, the Sicarii turned their
=A0=A0 weapons on the leaders of moderate Jews who submitted to Roman rule.
=A0=A0 The Sicarii left Jerusalem early in the revolt, and they were the one=
=A0=A0 who took over Masada. While there, they raided the nearby Jewish town
=A0=A0 of En Gedi, killing some 700 people and stealing the town's food, say=
=A0=A0 Contrary to the popular tale of heroism at Masada, Mr. Ben-Yehuda
=A0=A0 views the Sicarii as terrorists who killed innocent people and
=A0=A0 committed suicide rather than fight to the death. "If you read
=A0=A0 Josephus Flavius, there is no heroism" in the Masada story, the
=A0=A0 professor says. But like other Israelis of his generation and
=A0=A0 preceding ones, the 54-year-old scholar was weaned on the heroic epic=
=A0=A0 which had been molded by the Zionists to forge a new Jewish identity,
=A0=A0 he says. "They needed a new type of Jew, somebody who was willing to
=A0=A0 fight and die for his own country."
=A0=A0 After finishing his first book, Mr. Ben-Yehuda wondered how a
=A0=A0 scientist as celebrated as Yadin could have perpetuated the myth. Tha=
=A0=A0 curiosity turned into a research project when the sociologist learned
=A0=A0 that Yadin had tape-recorded the nightly meetings of his team during
=A0=A0 the Masada excavations. Examining transcripts of those discussions,
=A0=A0 Mr. Ben-Yehuda compared them with what Yadin said later about the
=A0=A0 excavations in his speeches, articles, and, most important, in his
=A0=A0 1966 book, Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand
=A0=A0 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).
=A0=A0 What emerged from that research disturbed Mr. Ben-Yehuda, who says
=A0=A0 Yadin consistently distorted Josephus's words and the data that
=A0=A0 emerged from the digs. "It's obvious why he does that, because he
=A0=A0 wants to make the people who were on Masada appear in a more positive
=A0=A0 Problem Bones
=A0=A0 By contrast, Mr. Ben-Yehuda casts much of Yadin's work in a negative
=A0=A0 light. In addition to faulting the archaeologist for calling the
=A0=A0 Masada rebels Zealots and failing to mention the massacre at En Gedi,
=A0=A0 the new book charges that he:
=A0 =A0=A0 * Labeled the dozen ostraca as potential "lots," when there were
=A0 =A0 =A0=A0 actually two more than Josephus described in his narrative.
=A0 =A0=A0 * Implied that the mass suicide happened in a part of the lower
=A0 =A0 =A0=A0 palace, which Mr. Ben-Yehuda says was too small to hold the 9=
=A0 =A0 =A0=A0 people on Masada at the time.
=A0 =A0=A0 * Never published a full scholarly report on the excavations, and
=A0 =A0 =A0=A0 prevented others from doing so until his death at the age of=20=
=A0 =A0 =A0=A0 in 1984.
=A0 =A0=A0 * Interpreted one building as a ritual bath and another as a
=A0 =A0 =A0=A0 synagogue, although the evidence was equivocal.
=A0 =A0 =A0=A0=20
=A0=A0 In the latter case, Mr. Ben-Yehuda says, Yadin was originally
=A0=A0 cautious, during the nightly meeting on November 6, 1963, in
=A0=A0 deciphering the use of a particular building that was designed to hol=
=A0=A0 many people. Archaeologists at that session suggested that the
=A0=A0 building might be a synagogue, but Yadin demanded more proof. That
=A0=A0 caution disappeared a few days later, when he spoke to the news media=
=A0=A0 which reported the find as possibly a synagogue -- a conclusion that
=A0=A0 was unwarranted at the time, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda. Later,
=A0=A0 archaeologists made other discoveries -- including texts from
=A0=A0 Deuteronomy buried under the floor -- that solidified the
=A0=A0 interpretation of the structure as a synagogue.
=A0=A0 Mr. Ben-Yehuda finds another major problem in the descriptions of the
=A0=A0 human skeletons found on Masada. Although Josephus wrote that nearly=20=
=A0=A0 thousand people committed suicide, the excavations uncovered the bone=
=A0=A0 of only about 28 people, in two locations. For Mr. Ben-Yehuda, the
=A0=A0 story of those bones provides proof of Yadin's penchant for twisting
=A0=A0 the data to his own purposes.
=A0=A0 Early in the excavation, the team found the remains of a man, woman,
=A0=A0 and child in Herod's former palace on the northern side of the
=A0=A0 plateau. In one of the Yadin team's nightly discussions, an
=A0=A0 anthropologist estimated that the woman had been 17 or 18 years old,
=A0=A0 the man between 20 and 22, and the child 11 to 12. In the same
=A0=A0 discussion, Yadin responded that the man and women could be a couple,
=A0=A0 but that the woman could not be the child's mother because of their
=A0=A0 ages. Yadin concluded that the man was a rebel warrior because some
=A0=A0 armor was found at the same spot.
=A0=A0 Two years later, in an interim report, Yadin wrote, "It cannot be
=A0=A0 stated with certainty that these skeletons are those of the family of
=A0=A0 that last warrior who ... took the lives of his family and set the
=A0=A0 palace on fire ... but there seems to be no doubt that these skeleton=
=A0=A0 are those of the people of the Great Revolt."
=A0=A0 Although Yadin took care to qualify the uncertainty of his hypothesis
=A0=A0 at that point, his hesitation vanished over time, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda=
=A0=A0 In 1971, the archaeologist wrote that "the skeletons undoubtedly
=A0=A0 represent the remains of an important commander of Masada and his
=A0=A0 Then, in a speech atop Masada in 1973, he said, "I shall mention the
=A0=A0 remains of the three fighters that we found in the northern palace: a
=A0=A0 very important commander, his wife, and their child, just like the
=A0=A0 description in Josephus Flavius."
=A0=A0 To Mr. Ben-Yehuda, the metamorphosis in those statements exposes
=A0=A0 Yadin. "It was obviously a deliberate, falsified interpretation, one
=A0=A0 that had nothing to do with the facts, and it was meant to make
=A0=A0 audiences believe in a mythical narrative."
=A0=A0 That statement angered North Carolina's Ms. Magness, who took a cours=
=A0=A0 with Yadin during her freshman year at Hebrew University. "That's not
=A0=A0 true," she says, "and it's libelous."
=A0=A0 In fact, she accuses Mr. Ben-Yehuda of sloppy scholarship. "There are
=A0=A0 places where this guy not only distorts things but puts in factual
=A0=A0 errors in order to make his case."
=A0=A0 For example, the professor accuses Yadin of misleading readers by
=A0=A0 wrongly implying "that the revolt against the Romans was a popular on=
=A0=A0 and encompassed all the Jewish population." But Yadin was correct, Ms=
=A0=A0 Magness says. "During the course of the war, everybody became
=A0=A0 involved, moderates as well as radicals. Yes, the war was countrywide=
=A0=A0 It did involve massacres of Jews all over the place."
=A0=A0 Similar reactions to Mr. Ben-Yehuda come from four former students of
=A0=A0 Yadin's who took part in the excavations during the 1960s and since
=A0=A0 have become some of Israel's top archaeologists. Ehud Netzer, a
=A0=A0 professor in the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, says
=A0=A0 he hasn't read the new book but has discussed its contents with the
=A0=A0 author. "Nonsense, pure nonsense," is Mr. Netzer's synopsis.
=A0=A0 He and Gideon Foerster, a professor at the institute, coordinated the
=A0=A0 publication of the final report on Masada, which came out in six
=A0=A0 volumes during the 1990s. Mr. Foerster says Yadin cannot be faulted
=A0=A0 for calling the rebels Zealots because that was the conventional term
=A0=A0 used by scholars, and the Sicarii fit its conventional use. In fact,
=A0=A0 in his 1966 book, Yadin referred to the Sicarii as a subgroup of
=A0=A0 Zealots. He chose a term that people would understand. "Nobody knows
=A0=A0 what Sicarii means, and everybody knows what Zealots means," says Mr.
=A0=A0 Morever, it was important to put Josephus's story in context, says
=A0=A0 Ze'ev Meshel, a retired professor at the institute. The historian, wh=
=A0=A0 was extremely critical of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, had his
=A0=A0 own political reasons for coloring events, and Yadin's team tried to
=A0=A0 take those issues into account, Mr. Meshel says.
=A0=A0 When the archaeological discoveries matched the historical account,
=A0=A0 Yadin found such parallels compelling, and he described them to the
=A0=A0 public, says Mr. Foerster. "He was an excellent lecturer, and he wrot=
=A0=A0 in an interesting way, and people were very enthusiastic." Yadin
=A0=A0 offered his own interpretations, but he did so responsibly, Mr.
=A0=A0 Foerster adds. In the case of the skeletons, he says, Yadin may have
=A0=A0 gone a little too far, "but it's a side point. It's not very
=A0=A0 Yoram Tsafrir, another professor at the institute, says Yadin could
=A0=A0 get carried away speaking to a crowd, as do many scientists while
=A0=A0 talking to the news media or giving public lectures. "But to accuse
=A0=A0 him of forging the conclusions? This is far from doing justice to the
=A0=A0 man. He was a great scholar and a great man."
=A0=A0 Mr. Ben-Yehuda responds that Yadin always had a responsibility to be
=A0=A0 accurate and comprehensive, by including evidence contradicting his
=A0=A0 interpretations as well as the data supporting them. "I require from
=A0=A0 somebody who is a professor of archaeology to be very careful about
=A0=A0 what he says."
=A0=A0 The sociologist's critical analysis does get some support from Philip
=A0=A0 L. Kohl, a professor of anthropology and Slavic studies at Wellesley
=A0=A0 College, who co-edited Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of
=A0=A0 Archaeology (Cambridge, 1995). Mr. Ben-Yehuda's new book makes a good
=A0=A0 case that Yadin ignored data that went against his ideas, says Mr.
=A0=A0 Kohl. "I've got to believe that there was some sacrificing of truth
=A0=A0 going on [with Yadin], and that it was not just a totally unconscious
=A0=A0 But Neil A. Silberman, a biographer of Yadin, argues that the
=A0=A0 archaeologist was a product of his time and wasn't aware of his
=A0=A0 biases. "He was living in the period of romantics. It's very difficul=
=A0=A0 to confront an archaeologist of one period with all the accumulated
=A0=A0 knowledge that came subsequently," says Mr. Silberman, a historian of
=A0=A0 archaeology at the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage
=A0=A0 Presentation, in Flanders, Belgium.
=A0=A0 As the descriptions of the skeletons show, says Mr. Silberman, Yadin'=
=A0=A0 initial skepticism evaporated as time went on, just as that of other
=A0=A0 archaeologists did. "They got more and more in love with the story,"
=A0=A0 he says. "As the years went by, their original hesitations got
=A0=A0 Mr. Ben-Yehuda's anger at Yadin makes sense because he feels deceived
=A0=A0 by earlier generations, much as other Israelis do, says Mr. Silberman=
=A0=A0 "The intellectual outrage at discovering the tales my father told me
=A0=A0 aren't true is still really raw. It's still part of the process of
=A0=A0 Israel trying to find some possible direction into the future. It is
=A0=A0 still in the realm of contradicting, criticizing, deconstructing."
=A0=A0 For his part, Mr. Ben-Yehuda says he believes that Josephus's version
=A0=A0 of history probably was correct: The Sicarii held out against a Roman
=A0=A0 siege and committed suicide on top of Masada. But the scholar suggest=
=A0=A0 that some of the people on Masada died against their will, and that
=A0=A0 there is no honor in the actions of the Sicarii. "I would not make it
=A0=A0 a World Heritage Site. Why should we? What is the 'heritage' there?
=A0=A0 Death? Futile and unwise revolt? Collective suicide by a group of
=A0=A0 political assassins?"
=A0=A0 Still, he remains wistful for the days when he saw Masada as a
=A0=A0 national shrine and an uncomplicated symbol, rather than a morally
=A0=A0 ambiguous, commercialized tourist spot. "I have some warm corners in
=A0=A0 my heart for the Masada I knew as a kid," he says. "There is a sense
=A0=A0 of disappointment going up there and being so cynical about it."
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