When archaeology and politics intertwine

When archaeology and politics intertwine

Dr. Rachel Hallote will discuss the conflicts at Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon

Dr. Rachel Hallote is a professor of history at SUNY Purchase.
Dr. Rachel Hallote is a professor of history at SUNY Purchase.

Dr. Rachel Hallote is an archaeologist. She has been involved in the field for a long time, so it’s hard to remember exactly what sparked her interest in it, but she thinks it probably stems from wanting to know what the world used to be like, a long time ago.

Growing up in the Orthodox community in New Rochelle in the 1970s and attending Jewish day schools gave her a solid background in Judaism and an interest in Israel. So her focus is on Israel, and she does her excavating work there, generally during the summer.

Of course, Dr. Hallote’s background didn’t give her an academic approach to the Bible. Rather, it gave her a solid basis in “a religious approach to the Bible and to Judaism — which doesn’t really dovetail with the secular world of archaeology,” she said. Her background is in seeing the Bible as a religious document, but as a scholar, she also looks at it as a historical document. “When you’re reading the Bible as a historian, you’re using the pieces of it that are historical, and it’s viewed as one source among many sources for getting at the past,” she said. “Archaeology and non-biblical texts from antiquity are also sources. That’s the academic approach.”

Despite her understanding that the religious and academic perspectives to the Bible may be quite different, Dr. Hallote thinks it is “absolutely possible to be a believing Jew (or Christian) and to also look at the Bible critically and look at what really happened as opposed to just the typical religious agenda built on top of that. You have to be willing to take a leap of faith or to suspend disbelief, depending on which side you’re coming from. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t believe in God, that you can’t accept rabbinic Judaism. It’s almost apples and oranges.”

Dr. Hallote is also a historian; she’s a professor of history at SUNY Purchase, where her research focuses on the history of the discipline of archaeology. Specifically, she looks at how archaeology is intertwined with politics.

Archaeology itself is not political, she explained. It’s really about facts. “A good academic publication will simply publish the facts about a discovery and contextualize those findings.” When she publishes archaeological findings, she is very cautious to remain neutral and apolitical. That is generally the academic approach. “Archaeologists are not interested in proving the Bible,” she said. “We’re interested in what the evidence shows.” For example, the evidence might show that a particular finding is a water installation; what may not be clear from the evidence is whether or not the water installation was used as a mikva.

That’s not to say that archaeologists never disagree with one another. While it’s hard to disagree about facts — for example, the size of the item that was discovered or the material from which it was made — archaeologists do use other historical sources to contextualize their discoveries. So that aspect is somewhat open to interpretation, she said. But that generally is not where the politics come into play.

Politics tend to intrude when the media, or people with a political interest in proving a particular narrative, present archaeological findings. “The media tends to use — or rather misuse — archaeology for political purposes,” Dr. Hallote said. One illustration of this phenomenon is that when a holiday approaches, newspapers often run stories about archaeological discoveries related to that holiday. For example, a Jerusalem Post article published on October 9 this year — just before Sukkot — talked about excavations in Jerusalem’s City of David that revealed an ancient pilgrimage road. While the report of the archaeological team finding an ancient pilgrimage road is not political, connecting it to Sukkot and presenting it as evidence that validates a biblical narrative and demonstrates that Jews were in Israel at the time is political, Dr. Hallote explained, because “it is, in a sense, bringing the past into the present.” Although the finding could in fact be interpreted as evidence of a biblical narrative, there are also other plausible explanations for it — it could have been used by other pilgrims.

So using the finding to bolster a current political position relating to who has a historical right to the land, without also explaining that there may be alternative explanations for the pilgrimage road that do not link it to a Jewish practice, would constitute a misuse of the finding for political purposes, Dr. Hallote said.

“Using archaeological findings to emphasize something you want to emphasize is political,” she continued. And, since findings can generally be interpreted in more than one way, “for better or worse, there’s nothing in archaeology that can’t be leveraged for politics.”

Dr. Hallote will talk about politics and archaeology in Israel at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff on November 6. (See box.)

“Politics is always a part of archaeology since political players use archaeology as a pawn to make their political points,” Dr. Hallotte said. “That happens in Israel today — on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict — and in pretty much every other country in the world.”

Dr. Hallote will begin her talk with some background contextualizing how archaeology and politics always have been intertwined by discussing the beginnings of archaeology in Egypt. Then she will shift her focus to Israel and talk about the politics surrounding well-known archaeological sites, including Masada and Jerusalem. And she will explore two case studies about archaeological findings in Israel that were “used and abused for political gain.” One of the case studies involves an instance in which a pro-Palestinian group presented archaeological findings as evidence to bolster the Palestinian historical claim to the land. Dr. Hallote will argue that the group misused the finding to further its agenda by presenting only one possible explanation of the underlying archaeological findings without clarifying that that explanation does not necessarily follow from the findings and that there are alternative ways to understand them. In the other study, she will argue that it was an Israeli group that presented only one of the plausible interpretations of archaeological findings to support the narrative that Jews have a historical claim.

Dr. Hallote will discuss the underlying archaeological findings in both cases and explain how each can be understood without the bias by isolating specifically what is clear from the evidence and exploring the alternative ways in which those neutral findings can be interpreted.

Who: Dr. Rachel Hallote

What: Will talk about “Politics and Archaeology in Israel”; a Q&A will follow

When: On Sunday, November 6, at 10:30 a.m.

Where: In person at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff and on Zoom

And also: Brunch will precede the lecture at 9:45 a.m.

Cost: Beth Rishon members: $15 with RSVP, $20 at the door. Guests: $25. Zoom attendees: suggested donation of $18 is appreciated.

For more information, to reserve, or for the Zoom link: Email adulteducation@bethrishon.org

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