Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeology and the Talmud? Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by Haim Watzman

The appointment of five orthodox rabbis to Israel's Archaeological Council, a 37-member advisory group to the director general of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), has sparked fears of religious control of archaeological excavations. Ultraorthodox Jewish groups have long opposed excavation of grave sites they suspect contain the remains of Jews, and have often demonstrated against, and on occasion physically attacked, archaeologists working on such sites in Israel. Archaeologists maintain that the excavation of graves produces important scientific data and that they treat human remains with respect and turn them over to religious authorities for reburial after study.

While the Archaeological Council is technically an advisory body, its decisions carry great weight. The current director general of the IAA, Amir Drori, says, "I can't recall a single instance in which I or any of my predecessors has acted contrary to a decision by the council." Minister of Education Yitzhak Levy notes that the presence of five moderate orthodox rabbis on the council could aid in the search for "creative solutions" to the conflict that would be acceptable within both religious and scientific circles.

Hagai Meirom, chairman of the archaeological caucus in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, expressed fears that the appointment of the rabbis would unduly politicize archaeology. That all five are associated with the orthodox National Religious Party, Meirom noted, could lead to demands from Israel's ultraorthodox political parties that they, too, receive representation in the council. Since the ultraorthodox parties want all archaeological activity to be rabbinically approved, such representation, he believes, would mean the end of archaeological research in Israel.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America