A 2nd-Century Woman’s Financial Documents Offer a Glimpse of Ancient Judean Life

In Babatha’s Orchard, the lawyer-turned-historian Philip Esler pieces together the story of an ancient Jewish woman whose possessions were found by the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin in 1961. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander writes in her review. (Free registration required.)

Sometime toward the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 CE), a Jewish woman named Babatha, daughter of Shimon, fled [the Negev town of] Ein Gedi with a group of fellow Jews. She had been visiting her stepdaughter and ended up in a remote cave in the Judean desert, accessible only by a narrow ledge carved into sheer cliffs 650 feet above the canyon floor. Like fleeing refugees of other times and places, Babatha carried her most important papers with her, so that she would be able to reclaim her property and re-establish her life when the war was over. However, she and the Jews she was hiding with either died of starvation when Roman soldiers cut off their supply lines or were killed outright when the soldiers penetrated the refuge.

Sometime before that happened, she hid her satchel with its 35 documents, including wedding contracts, a property registration, legal petitions and summonses, deeds, and loan notes, in a recess of the cave. These documents were written between 94 CE and 132 CE in Nabatean Aramaic, Judean Aramaic, and Greek. [Archaeologists] also found several other items that likely belonged to Babatha, including a pair of sandals, balls of yarn, two kerchiefs, a key and two key rings, bowls, a clasp knife, and three waterskins. . . .

Eser’s book has all the twists and turns of a detective story, but its biggest surprise is the people into whose world we have been permitted to peer. Women, at least the upper-middle-class Jewish and Nabatean women of Babatha’s circle, turn out to have been major financial players in this world. They bought and sold property, financed ventures from which they stood to gain, and even protected their interests at the risk of legal and marital conflict when things did not go according to plan.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, History & Ideas, Jewish law, Simon bar Kokhba

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood