Haaretz guilty of “cultural colonialism” in article decrying “cultural colonialism”

Last Friday, Haaretz published Benny Ziffer’s thoughts on the Israeli cultural colonization of Herodium — an archaeological site in the West Bank — in an article titled Herodium turns into a cultural settlement (which I will quote extensively but not in its entirety because it is behind a paywall):

In May 2007, there was tremendous excitement when archaeologist Ehud Netzer announced that, after years of searching in vain, the grave of Herod, King of Judea during the first century B.C.E., had been discovered at Herodium, the truncated hill near Bethlehem that was the site of the king’s winter palace.

Amid the general enthusiasm, one small technical detail was almost forgotten: that the excavation was conducted on Palestinian territory. Under international conventions, an occupying power may not conduct excavations in territories under its military control, with the exception of “rescue” digs carried out to preserve an archaeological site unintentionally brought to the surface.

In the case of Herodium, where the excavations have gone on for years, there was no way of considering them rescue digs.

The controversy over the excavation at Herodium is not new; the New York Times published a similar account two weeks ago, in Anger that a Herod show uses West Bank objects. Having toured Herodium with Netzer, my personal view is that the archaeology should be allowed because I don’t really trust Palestinian archaeologists to respect any signs of Jewish (?) history, but that’s literally neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.

What is here and there is the article’s inclusion of Ziffer’s account of his personal visit to what he describes as “the monumental exhibition entitled ‘Herod the Great,’ at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.” He conducted this visit “in the company of a Palestinian archaeologist, who somehow managed to arrive at the meeting without being held up.” And here’s what he had to say:

Behind its scientific facade, I can instinctively and entirely correctly recognize that it’s an exhibition that praises a prestigious brand called ‘Herod’ – which causes the Israelis to feel important. Here, they have proof before their eyes that they also had a period of imperial splendor. Furthermore, the brutality practiced by Herod in order to promote his grandiose construction projects in some way justifies, after the fact, Israel’s brutality as a country today. So it’s clear why I, as a Palestinian, find myself outside this story.

Reflecting before a fresco depicting intertwined flowers, he continues:

I don’t blame Herod himself. I blame the fact that, against your will, all of you – even those who belong to the highest and most refined culture in your country – are blind to the moral rot that surrounds you. That nobody notices the extent to which this entire Herod festival is a provincial celebration of satisfaction with your glorious past, which may not even be your past, and may not have been so glorious.

These are rather incisive criticisms, depicting Israeli society as morally rotten much like the King the exhibit chronicles — a King known primarily for his Massacre of the Innocents and perhaps less widely but just as deservedly for having embalmed his wife, Mariamne, in honey.*

But — plot twist! — these are not the criticisms of a social outsider; they are, in fact, intended to constitute self-reflection on behalf of Israeli society. My use of the nonspecific “he” to introduce these two blockquotes, along with my switch of the I’s to you’s and you’s to I’s, &c., hopefully combined to obfuscate the fact that the criticisms they allege were recited not by Ziffer’s Palestinian archaeologist friend, but by Ziffer himself. The actual full extent of the Palestinian’s quoted indignation over the exhibit amounted to the following:

I don’t understand. Why should I feel antagonistic toward this exhibition? [Ziffer’s response to this query is included above, “Behind its scientific facade, you can instinctively** and entirely correctly recognize that it’s an exhibition that praises a prestigious brand called ‘Herod’…”]

In reading Ziffer’s account, I couldn’t help but note the extent to which the supposedly aggrieved party does not seem all that aggrieved. He tours the whole exhibit, and upon reaching the end, his only reaction is an expression of wonderment at the expectation that he should resent the exhibit he just toured.

This is not to say that there are no legitimate critiques to be made of the exhibit — while they may not all align with my overall personal viewpoint, I can still recognize some number of them as valid — but simply to point out that Ziffer has turned his Palestinian friend into a prop, a canvas onto which he could project his personal discomfort over the exhibit and what it might say about Israeli society.

Put another way, Ziffer’s concerns — “cultural settlement”, exclusion from narrative, moral rot, &c. — are not Palestinian concerns. Rather, they amount to what I would characterize as a cultural colonization of, at the very least, the Palestinian archaeologist’s presence and, at the most, his alleged viewpoint. It’s entirely possible that he agrees with everything Ziffer has to say. But it’s worth noting that, for whatever reason, Ziffer had to say what he has to say for him.

The article’s final paragraph only further underlines this observation. Upon returning safely home, the Palestinian archaeologist chimed in by email — sadly, Ziffer informs us — with one additional comment:

We can reasonably assume that the people from the village next to Herodium or from the not-so-distant city of Bethlehem will not have the privilege of visiting the exhibition, although its subject is their neighbor and a member of their village.

Notwithstanding this same traveler’s miraculous arrival at the exhibit, he does have what I would consider the most valid complaint of Ziffer’s entire article: roadblocks to cultural exchange. As mentioned above, I personally support Israeli excavation in the West Bank on the grounds (pun intended?) that it enables everybody to share in its discoveries — not only because it enables Israelis to access them, but Palestinians as well — and the exhibit’s location may pose significant obstacles for West Bank residents who aspire to do so.

But more importantly, the quotation highlights that the Palestinian’s concerns are more mundane. He’s not interested in parallels between Jesus-period Herod and Second Coming-period Israel — those parallels might make for a fascinating thesis topic at Tel Aviv University, but the archaeologist is primarily concerned with getting home safely. Speechification about why he should worry about Israelis’ provincial satisfaction with a less-than-glorious past doesn’t really do him a whole lot of good.

So, I suppose it would be entirely fair of him to wonder why, as a Palestinian, he finds himself — to paraphrase Benny Ziffer — inside this story.


*The Talmud records a debate over whether he did this in order to have sex with her. Conclusion: inconclusive.

**Considering the fact that he had to ask, I’ll just go ahead and say it: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.


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