Arts and Entertainment


Few academic disputes are fiercer than among biblical archaeologists, and “Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land” is bound to raise the tone of the arguments by a few more octaves.

The hour-long NOVA documentary, airing on PBS station KCET on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m., follows an expedition to a remote cave in Israel’s Judean Desert, initially excavated by famed soldier and archaeologist Yigael Yadin in 1960.

In the so-called Cave of Letters, west of the Dead Sea, Yadin found skulls, artifacts, documents and, most startling, letters from Shimon Bar Kokhba, leader of the revolt against the Romans from 132-135 C.E.

It takes a certain chutzpah to presume that the iconic Yadin may have overlooked and misinterpreted some of the evidence, but historian Richard Freund, director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford (Conn.) is a man not easily intimidated.

Gathering experts from 10 other universities and the latest equipment, Freund set out in 1999 for another dig at the cave.

Freund thought that the Yadin expedition had not penetrated through the thick layers of debris covering the cave floor to a depth of 15 feet, or explored all three chambers of the cave complex, cutting 300 yards into the cliff’s side.

Using technology not available to Yadin, Freund found new artifacts and bones.

He believes they indicated that the cave had been used as a refuge before Bar Kokhba, probably by Jews fleeing after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

But his most controversial conclusion centers on the ritual bronze vessels, decorated with a sea goddess and other Roman mythological figures, which Yadin had discovered in 1960.

Yadin believed that the vessels had been stolen from the Romans, but Freund believes that the artifacts were in actual use in the Temple in Jerusalem, and may be its only surviving items.

Freund’s conclusions point to an intermingling of Roman and Jewish cultures, even in Judaism’s holiest site, but the very idea appalls most biblical scholars.

“I cannot believe that the priests allowed Roman mythological figures on Jewish religious objects,” protests Dead Sea Scrolls expert Lawrence Schiffman of New York University, adding that the political, as well as archaeological, implications of the dispute help account for its intensity.

For more information on the program, visit


Expedition Armageddon

Indiana Jones battled snakes, boulders and heathens during his archaeological quests, which sounds like great adventure to me. But I don’t recall the scene where he wakes before dawn to kneel in the dirt scraping with a dental pick for three hours. My hands are paralyzed in a claw. My knees are numb. My backside points up into the 21st century while my nose inhales the 5,000-year-old dust of Israel’s ancient past as I etch a bone from soil that last saw daylight during the early Bronze Age. That’s before the Bible. Before the great pyramids. Before most written language.

I’m in the temple precinct of Tel Megiddo, one of Israel’s most important and cryptic archaeological sites, digging gently in a 4-foot-deep pit shadowed by a Canaanite altar. By now I’m questioning my sanity for volunteering for three weeks on the Megiddo Expedition, a dig administered by Tel Aviv and Pennsylvania State universities.

I unearth a porous brown bone and accidentally knock a sliver off it. "Be careful," admonishes my pony-tailed pit supervisor, Andy Creekmore, a Penn State graduate. The trick is to match speed with diligence. "In other words, hurry up and go slow," he says. At this pace, I’ll never discover the Ark of the Covenant, even if it had ever been here.

Dates and facts are endlessly disputed in biblical archaeology, but the legends never change at Megiddo, which is listed in the Bible as one of King Solomon’s three fortified cities. Christians know it as Armageddon, where good and evil will clash in the Last Battle. "I personally hope I’m not here to see it," one fellow volunteer, Nicole Brown, a born-again Christian from Colorado, says as we wield our pickaxes side by side.

Days at Megiddo begin the same way. The alarm clock rings at 4:20 a.m. in the 8- by 12-foot dorm room I share with four other women. We tumble from our bunk beds, fumble into our work clothes, fill our water bottles, and stagger out into the dark to join the 100 or so other volunteers. Under the morning stars we hike in silence from the spartan kibbutz dorms through the grasses of the Jezreel Valley’s western edge. We are all ages, from a 70-plus retired businessman to one archaeologist’s 9-year-old daughter. We are teachers, a lawyer, two TV producers, artists and a housewife who divorced her husband and headed for the Holy Land, plus many history, archaeology and divinity students digging for credit.

We walk across land where powerful armies — Egyptian, Hebrew, Persian, Assyrian — battled to gain control of the walled city that guarded this strategic crossroads of the ancient world. Though Megiddo was abandoned more than 2,500 years ago, the memory of the carnage lives in the city’s legendary name.

The sky is graying as Israel Finkelstein, the 50-year-old head of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and one of the excavation’s co-directors, bounds up stairs cut in the side of the 100-foot mound. For clues to ancient Near East history, no other excavation competes, he says. Megiddo contains more than 22 layers of civilization, more than 5,000 years of construction and destruction. The elusive hot spot is the 10th-century b.c.e. layer, where Finkelstein is looking for clues to King Solomon’s rule.

By the end of our first week at Megiddo, volunteers report like old hands to their assigned squares grouped in grids throughout the excavation’s 15 acres. From my pit in the thin light before sunrise, I can see the sunflower fields and farmland of one of the few panoramas in Israel that looks as it might have in biblical times. Mount Carmel lies to north. Nazareth is to the east.

Our 8:30 a.m. breakfast in a grove below the city’s fortified gates signals the start of the tourist trickle. Preachers and tour guides expound. One Bible-gripping evangelist thunders: "Soon the forces of Gog and Magog will battle on the plains of Armageddon." He points toward us. "These archaeologists. They know."

Down in the pits, we laugh because we know how little archaeologists really know about Megiddo, despite four excavations since 1902. Every building, every stratum, every shard, ever date is disputed, Finkelstein says. Finds can take years to analyze, so on-site interpretations are few. Just after noon we trudge back to the kibbutz in searing heat as cicadas buzz at a high-tension-wire pitch. Lunch. Siesta. Then the 4 p.m. pottery washing to clean and catalog the day’s finds.

By my third week, I am writing postcards home: Dust. Heat. Scorpions. Like summer camp for convicts.

So why do people volunteer for this kind of hard labor year after year? "Archaeology is a sickness," explains Robert Deutsch, 48, a Tel Aviv archaeology Ph.D. student. "We pay to work in the heat and mud. It’s not normal, but I’m crazy about it."

The sickness takes hold when the earth yields up exotic artifacts and long-buried walls. It is contagious. One day I overhear Liam Gray, a Vanderbilt University grad student, on the dorm hall phone bragging with the joy of a Vegas winner. "Hey dad. I hit the jackpot," he crows long-distance. "Yeah. I found a Middle Bronze figurine." Meanwhile, Sam Jones, an ex-roofer who sold his Ford pick-up truck to pay for his trip, is ecstatic after finding a gold scarab.

But back in our square, scraping and whisking with dental tools and paintbrushes at last reveals nothing except a trove of cow, sheep and goat bones, the likely refuse of animal sacrifice. Dig leaders are thrilled: So many bones in the layer about 600 years below the Canaanite altar help prove the theory that once holy, a site remains holy, despite changes in religion and populations over millennia. Not quite the Ark, but we have been digging in search of the holy; our findings may help explain the origins of ancient Hebrew sacrifice.

I ask for transfer to an Iron Age square, where I get to help dig up 10-gallon storage pots smashed in an invasion or earthquake. While bones mystify me, the pots emerging from the ground tell a story: Mud bricks smashed on top of shards indicate the moment that a house collapsed. No book or tour guide’s fantastic tales, and there are plenty, can describe how the past feels when you are the first in millennia to touch it with your hands.

Later, I visit the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Wandering through the exhibits, I realize how the excavation has changed me. Once I loved museums. Now the windowless glass-and-marble structure feels like an orphanage. The restored pots, displayed in glass cases, look like lost children plucked from their crib in the earth. The display labels sound knowledgeable but dead. "Bronze Age. Possibly of Hebrew Origin. From Hazor." In the dirt, broken, the pots were alive.

On Winning the Terror War

Readers’ Quiz No. 2: Test your knowledge of Middle East terrorism. Simply identify the following incident:

It was one of America’s most controversial “victories” against international terrorism: a negotiated settlement with a gang of Arabic-speaking hijackers who were holding American hostages. After military action proved ineffective, a U.S. diplomat in the region decided — apparently without authorization — to pay off the hijackers. The hostages were released, but, in the ensuing furor, the diplomat, a Jew, lost his job.

Pencils ready? Name the year, the place, the terrorists and the diplomat, for five points each. For extra credit, explain the lessons for future terrorist confrontations.

Time’s up. Figured it out?

Answers: The year was 1815, the place Tunis. The hijackers were seagoing bandits known as the Barbary pirates. The diplomat was Mordecai Manuel Noah, U.S. consul in Tunis and the first Jew ever to head an American diplomatic mission abroad.

Extra credit: If you said nothing much ever changes in the Middle East, add five points. If you said things have a way of changing without seeming to, add 10 points. Fifty points if you said nothing is as it appears in the looking-glass war of terrorism.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Noah went to Tunis. America’s relations with the Moslem world have risen and fallen many times over. Jews have moved from center stage to the margins and back. America has become a world power. The Middle East has gone through independence, Arab nationalism, Islamic revolution and the discovery of oil. Yet here we are again, caught in another looking-glass war against shadowy Middle Eastern thugs who play by their own rules, or no rules. And, as always, Washington and the West are divided over how to respond.

The tactical dilemmas vary from case to case, but they boil down to one basic question. Should the fight against terrorism follow the niceties of civil society, or the cruder rules of the battlefield? Put differently, is terrorism a matter of statecraft or simple law enforcement? Are terrorists an international enemy, or common criminals?

It’s not clear-cut. Criminals enjoy elaborate protections from the moment of arrest, while battlefield foes are shot on sight. But enemies can sit down after the fighting and negotiate for their position. Criminals don’t get to have a position.

The United States today is fighting the shadow war on a half-dozen fronts, from interdicting terror at home, to chasing the Saudi-born terrormaster Osama Bin Laden, to making Libya give up the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Critics say the war lacks a clear vision. “The Clinton administration and, to some extent, the Bush administration basically look at terrorism as a law enforcement problem, but it doesn’t really work,” says Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of anti-terrorism operations at the CIA. “On the other hand, the sporadic attempts at some kind of military response don’t really work either. You’re not going to destroy a terrorist infrastructure by bombing their barracks.”

Still, there have been victories. Just last week, the U.N. Security Council rejected a bid to lift the sanctions imposed on Libya after the Pan Am bombing. Some Europeans wanted the decade-old sanctions lifted because Libya has agreed in principle to surrender the suspects under a compromise deal. Washington wanted the sanctions kept in place until the suspects are actually delivered. The council backed Washington.

It was the second victory inside a week. Two days earlier, the Supreme Court upheld the Justice Department’s 12-year struggle to deport eight members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, detained in Los Angeles in 1987 for fund-raising for the terror group. The eight claimed that they were singled out for deportation because of their beliefs, violating their First Amendment rights. The administration replied that since they were in America illegally, they had no First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled for the administration.

Victories like these send a firm message to terrorists and their supporters: You can run, and maybe you can hide, but the long arm of American justice will eventually reach you, if you don’t die of old age first.

The problem is that terrorism doesn’t really fit either a military or police mold. Military strikes are too blunt a weapon. Traditional police work is too polite and too slow. Terrorists slip across borders, kill with abandon and don’t mind dying. What’s needed is a third way.

Some experts say the answer is to rescind the mid-1970s executive order that bans assassination by U.S. agents. “We’re caught in this ridiculous position,” says conservative scholar Michael Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute. “If somebody kills an American and runs away, you have a choice of bombing them or asking Interpol to arrest them. What you can’t do is go out and shoot them.”

Washington hasn’t returned to assassinations, but it has moved toward finding that third way. The solution: unconventional legal doctrines. One is extraterritorial jurisdiction, the startling notion that the United States can punish crimes committed on others’ soil. Another is the 1996 Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act, which limits the rights of terror suspects to lodge appeals, view the evidence against them, even talk to lawyers. Civil libertarians howl about the erosion of democratic rights. So far, the courts haven’t agreed.

The new law plays a key role in Washington’s current hunt for the Bin Laden gang. Indictments were drawn up last fall against 11 members, including Bin Laden himself. Six are in custody so far. Over the last three months, they’ve filed countless pretrial motions, claiming infringement of their rights in jail. The courts haven’t agreed.

The bottom line, then, is that for all the screaming headlines, we’re not losing the terrorism war. The Palestinians have largely abandoned terror in favor of negotiations. As for Libya, “it hasn’t directed terrorist actions against the United States in recent times, because the sanctions are working,” says Cannistraro. “The answer is a coherent, integrated approach that combines diplomacy and politics. You can’t let law enforcement drive the train.”

As for the remaining terror, get used to it. “Terrorism is a chronic phenomenon,” Cannistraro says. “But it’s not a serious threat to our national security. Someone like Bin Laden kills people, but he’s not going to cause the destruction of the United States.”

Cannistraro’s sanguine view, common among professionals, isn’t popular with politicians or the public. “The problem is that everyone wants to treat the symptoms and not the causes,” he says. “It’s a common problem in terrorism-expert circles.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.