How an Archaeology Renegade Helped Save the Bible from the Postmodernists

March 1 2018

In 1972, a serendipitous encounter between the American Jewish lawyer Hershel Shanks and the famed Israeli general-turned-archaeologist Yigael Yadin launched Shanks’s career as an amateur expert on biblical archaeology. Shanks went on to found Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), a magazine aimed at disseminating and popularized the latest discoveries in the field; he has only recently retired from his position as its chief editor. Thanks to Shanks’s efforts, and bravado, the Dead Sea Scrolls were published after decades of delay and made available for study by a variety of experts. The archaeologist William Dever recollects the important role Shanks played in another controversy in the field:

[An] infamous controversy began . . . in the 1980s and 1990s with several attempts by biblical scholars to write new histories of ancient Israel. Some such scholarly works virtually dismissed the patriarchal narratives [of the book of Genesis] as legendary. Others adopted a sociological approach that seemed to ignore the theological importance of the Hebrew Bible. A few works dabbled with the archaeological evidence then available. But none appreciated its real significance or the fact that archaeology had become an independent and professional discipline with enormous potential. . . .

This controversy, first spreading among European biblical scholars and involving a few American scholars, came to a head with the appearance of a book by Sheffield University’s Philip R. Davies in 1992, In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Note that “ancient Israel” is in quotes. That’s because Davies didn’t find it; in fact, according to him, it wasn’t there. . . . Another [scholar soon] demonized archaeologists—especially Americans and Israelis—and declared all histories [of ancient Israel] “bogus.” Two other works of the same era may be cited without further explanation, since their titles give them away: The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996) . . . and The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999). . . .

Already in 1998 and 1999 I had published several sharp critiques of what was being called “revisionism.” . . . I saw much of the revisionist attacks on the Hebrew Bible as dangerously ideological. In particular, the onslaught was influenced by postmodernist notions that “there are no facts, only interpretations”; that “all claims to knowledge are only social constructs” (thus the tactic of “deconstruction”); and that “texts lead only to other texts.”

[But even] in 1995 [or] 1996, [before most scholars had done so], Hershel grasped the significance of these issues, not only for Jewish and Christian readers but also for secularists and all who value the Judeo-Christian or Western cultural tradition. . . . One thing is clear to me and, I suspect, to nearly all of BAR’s readers—a realistic, believable history of ancient Israel still matters. And many are coming to understand that archaeology is a crucial source of new and relevant information. From BAR’s early days, Hershel Shanks understood that relationship, and he strove mightily to educate the public to the issues in a way that no other publication did. That will be his legacy.

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More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Postmodernism

 

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times