A Carved Stone Is Changing Scholars’ Conception of the Ancient Synagogue

Dec. 14 2015

Discovered in the ruins of a 1st-century synagogue in 2009, a large rock known as the Magdala stone is covered with elaborate carvings that seem to depict the Second Temple in great detail. In studying it, scholars are beginning to reconsider the formation and function of ancient synagogues. Isabel Kershner writes:

Experts have long believed that in the period before the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, synagogues were used as general places of assembly and learning. . . . The more formal conception of a synagogue as a sacred space reserved for religious ritual was thought to have developed later, . . . after the Temple had been destroyed.

But the Magdala stone was found in the center of [an] old synagogue, and [Rina] Talgam, [a scholar who has studied the stone extensively], said it might have been intended to give the space an aura of holiness “like a lesser temple” even while the Second Temple still existed. . . .

The Magdala stone is about the right size for laying down a Torah scroll, so it might [also] have been used as liturgical furniture.

Read more at New York Times

More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, History & Ideas, Second Temple, Synagogue


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy