A New Book Explores the Jewish Graffiti of the Ancient Near East

June 14 2018

While ancient graffiti were much more difficult to create than their modern equivalents—requiring carving in stone rather than spray-painting—they were nonetheless plentiful. Some of these scratches and doodlings can be attributed to Jews, as the historian Karen Stern has documented in a recent book. Eve Kahn writes in her review:

[Stern] has documented graffiti written by Jews, dating back as early as the 8th century BCE, at archaeological sites from modern-day Croatia to the Persian Gulf. Clusters survive at the Dura-Europos synagogue in eastern Syria, el‐Kanaïs in Egypt along the Nile near Aswan, the Beit Shearim necropolis in northern Israel, and the Aphrodisias ruins in western Turkey. They come in a babel of languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Lihyanite, and Nabataean. Some people who carved the walls were clearly uneducated, while others used neat handwriting that indicates an elite upbringing. Interspersed are markings from non-Jewish neighbors: pagan sayings, Byzantine crosses, and praise for Allah. . . .

Travelers with Jewish names wrote on el‐Kanaïs’s cliffs to record how many times they passed through the area. At Aphrodisias’s theater, Jews used graffiti to label and reserve some rows of seats close to the stage. At the hippodrome complex in Tyre, in southern Lebanon, a female merchant named Matrona painted a wall with a menorah outline plus her name and references to her market stall’s inventory of purple cloth. . . .

Relatives of Jews buried in Beit Shearim’s tombs etched its passageways with crude pictures of ships, tear-stained mourners, and armed gladiators, intended, respectively, to transport, comfort, and protect the dead. In one catacomb, an inscription in Greek wishes visitors “Good luck in your resurrection.” Stern says she does not know if the graffiti author was sincerely hoping to impart good fortune or instead showing signs of a “morbid sense of humor.”

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More about: ancient Judaism, Ancient Near East, Archaeology, History & Ideas

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East