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

 

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times