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Rockefeller’s Contribution to Jerusalem

Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister
Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister

The Number 1 bus to the Kotel goes past the driveway of the Rockefeller Museum. Its collection of antiquities from the land of Israel makes it one of the great archeological museums of the world. On my trips to the Kotel, I had seen the top of its tower above the trees, but I had never seen the whole building except in pictures. I’ve wanted to visit it for years, but because of the matzav, the situation, I have been too nervous to go on my own. It is in an Arab neighborhood, which makes the trip a little scary. When I finally went there this week with my class from Pardes, we were accompanied by an armed escort.

My nervousness is valid. Over the last year and a half, Arab terrorists have attacked Israelis in the area more than twenty-five times. While we were in the museum an Arab stabbed a policeman in the head with a screwdriver about a block or two away. A policeman who saw the attack shot the Arab attacker to prevent him from injuring other people.

There are some who say that the Arabs have a right to protect what they feel is land stolen from them by Israel. However, that is not the root of the problem. Arabs killing those they consider interlopers did not start in 1967. In 1938 one of the most prominent archeologists of the time, G. L. Starkey, was murdered by an Arab while on his way to the museum’s opening ceremony.

My visit to the Rockefeller was on a tour associated with my course, “Sages of the Mishna.” We were there to learn about the Roman and Byzantine periods during which the sages lived, from about 100 BCE to 220 CE. We couldn’t help but notice the magnificent architecture of the building itself, even though it is much more recent than the antiquities it holds.

The hill on which the museum stands is opposite the northeast corner of the Old City wall. Looking east you can see the whole of the Mount of Olives, from Silwan in the South to the Hebrew University in the North. This was the spot Godfrey de Bouillon chose for the camp of his army of Crusaders before attacking Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives in those days was probably covered with trees. I wonder if he appreciated the view. Or was he too busy planning the slaughter all the Muslims and Jews in the Holy City? Crusader descriptions of the aftermath of the battle revel in the amount of blood they shed.

More than eight hundred later, after a trip to the Middle East John Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, decided that Jerusalem needed an archeological museum. Archeologists had been excavating in and around the city since the mid-19th century. They had taken many of the best finds back to their home countries in Europe and the U. S. Breasted felt that since the Ottoman empire had fallen and the British had replaced the Turks as rulers of Jerusalem, it would be safe to keep antiquities closer to where they had been found.

Breasted approached John D. Rockefeller and convinced him to fund a museum in Jerusalem. Some of the two million dollars Rockefeller contributed went to buy the site from the al-Halili family, who lived on the hilltop.. The British High Commissioner appointed Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the chief architect of the Mandatory Department of Public Works, to design the new museum. Construction took eight years. The British named it “The Palestine Archaeological Museum,” since it was in British Mandatory Palestine. It officially opened in January 1938 and almost immediately became known as the Rockefeller Museum.

Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum
Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum

Rockefeller got his money’s worth. The building is magnificent. The British had already decreed that all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced with the local limestone known as Jerusalem Stone. Harrison designed the building to be a combination of the best of Eastern and Western architecture. To carry out the theme, Harrison commissioned Eric Gill to carve bas reliefs in the stone. A bas relief above the entrance to the building depicts Asia and Africa with a palm tree, the ancient symbol of Judea, between them.

The building is wrapped around a lovely cloister that features a pool. Between the arches of the cloister, on both sides of the pool, small bas reliefs depict a symbol for each of the cultures that controlled the Holy Land in historical order. For example, a boat riding curly waves symbolizes the Phoenicians and a winged horse with a human face symbolizes the Muslims.

Bullet holes in wall from 1967 Six Day War
Bullet holes in wall from 1967 war

At the east end of the cloister, you can see bullet holes in the wall. The damage perhaps symbolizes the Israeli period. On June 6, 1967, IDF paratroopers fought their way through several Arab neighborhoods and arrived at the Rockefeller Museum. They were to spend the night there, and then, possibly, attack the Old City.

Meanwhile, an army officer notified Dr. Avraham Biran, the Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities that the Rockefeller was now in the hands of the IDF. Within a few hours, Biran, Nahman Avigad and Yosef Aviram, three of the most respected archeologists in Israel, were at the museum. They, along with brigade commander Colonel Motta Gur, had arrived in an armored vehicle. As they toured the museum for the first time in almost twenty years, the archeologists were joined by some of the exhausted soldiers. It must have been a surreal experience—listening to a lecture about antiquities, given by experts, as bullets periodically flew through the exhibit halls breaking windows and display cases.

They all noticed that the exhibits were exactly as they had been in 1948 when the Jordanians had captured half of Jerusalem. The only thing that had changed was that the Hebrew signs had disappeared. Some of them were plastered over. But in one exhibit hall, high on the wall, you can see the original Hebrew lettering with a rectangular frame. Several horizontal brown stripes line are also visible within the frame. The brown marks are the remains of scotch tape which held a paper covering the Hebrew lettering, hiding it from the sensitive eyes of visitors.

The exhibits themselves are fascinating. In each hall the exhibits are arranged chronologically according to their historical period. Pictures of the excavations or tels where the items were found hang of the walls above the end of the exhibit cases. The legends explaining the exhibits are typed on paper brown with age.

In addition to the items found by archeologists, there are some unusual

Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church
Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church

exhibits. The carved stone frieze from the lintel above the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the hall devoted to Christianity. At one time when the Church was being cleaned and renovated, the frieze was removed and brought to the museum for safekeeping. But when it was time to return it, a dispute erupted. Under the “status quo” agreement for Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, only the sect that owns an area of the church can clean or fix it. Since the Christian groups could not agree as to who owns the area above the door, the magnificent frieze remains at the Rockefeller Museum.

A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aksa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938
A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aqsa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938

The Muslim Hall displays carved wooden panels that decorated beams in the Al Aksa Mosque. The style of the carvings indicate they probably date from the eighth century C.E. In  1938, when the Waqf decided to renovate the mosque, they planned to discard the intricately carved panels. Someone from the museum heard about the project and convinced the Waqf to donate the panels. That is something that could not happen today.

The Rockefeller is now part of the Israel Museum (IMJ). Official ownership of the museum and its exhibits, however,  is still undetermined. A sign on one of the outer doors says “Government of Palestine Department of Antiquities,” although the Israel Antiquities Authority has its offices in the building. Therefore the IMJ has not removed any of the exhibits or made any improvements, such as adding central heating, to the museum. Since it was a cold rainy day when my class toured, and it felt freezing inside.

Someday, in the course of some negotiation or other, the museum will officially end up Somewhere. Whether or not it is in Israel, or in Palestine, or in some as yet unknown political entity, it will still be a beautiful building full of interesting finds. And maybe then it will be renovated. At that time, people who come won’t have to wear coats, scarves, hats and gloves to see the amazing antiquities.

The Disappearance of Babylonian Jewry

The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.
The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.

Farhud is an Arabic word which means “violent dispossession.” To the Jewish community of Iraq in the 1940s and later, the word meant what happened in Baghdad on Shavuot 1941. The emphasis was on the violence.

Like most of the people in my course about the Second Temple period, I had never heard of the Baghdad Farhud. What we saw at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda surprised and shocked us.     

In  1941 the Jewish community of Iraq was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Today Iraq occupies the center of what was once the powerful Babylonian Empire. It stretched from Egypt to Turkey, with coasts on the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Caspian Seas.  The first Jews there were exiles from the Kingdom of Israel, who arrived after Assyria conquered them in 720 BCE. Remnants of the ten northern tribes were still living by the rivers of Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE. He destroyed the Temple and took the leaders of that country into exile as well.

 In the early part of the first millennium, the community flourished as a center of Jewish scholarship. The Babylonian Talmud, the seminal work on which Jewish law and scholarship is based,  was composed and edited here. But later the community went through many difficult times. Most Iraqi Jews made aliyah after the founding of the State of Israel. By 2006, there were not enough Jews left to even call them a community.

When people make aliyah they bring their culture and artifacts with them.  Sometimes they establish a small museum or center dedicated to preserving their heritage. Many such institutions have been established throughout Israel. Allen and I have visited several, including the Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry in Tsfat and the Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem. They are all small jewels. Their mission is to preserve history and culture, house focused research centers, and educate the general public about otherwise unknown pieces of our heritage. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is one such museum.

I first learned about the Babylonian exile in second grade Sunday school, so it seems like I have always been aware of it. I learned about the Babylonian Talmud a few years later. In high school I even studied some selections from Masechet Brachot, a portion of the Talmud dealing with prayers and blessings. The Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita were major centers of Jewish learning for over 800 years. Most of the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud studied at one of them. The Babylonian influence on the development of Judaism is immeasurable. For hundreds of years, Jews all over the world looked to Babylonia for answers to questions of law and practice.

Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda
Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda

A room at the museum is devoted to the Babylonian academies. Several vitrines feature models of what they probably looked like. Two teachers stood in the front. The Gaon, the expert older teacher spoke Aramaic, and the Meturgam, the younger teacher with a louder voice, translated the Aramaic into Arabic, the language spoken by the people. The best students sat in front, with other students behind them. Ordinary people who came to hear the lectures stood on the back.

But contact between the Jews of what had been Babylonia and the rest of the world ceased after the Mongolian conquest of the area in the 13th century. In the 18th century, it was discovered that Jews did still indeed live in that part of the world. After the Alliance Français established schools for the Jews in the 18th century, their communities in Baghdad and other cities started to flourish again. Because the schools taught both French and English, the Jews were soon able to gain jobs in the government as the influence of France and Britain expanded in the Middle East.

As we walked through the museum, we saw exhibits that testified to the good life Iraqi Jews enjoyed: beautiful clothes, musical instruments and photos of Jewish orchestras, and skillfully made religious artifacts. The docent who guided us through the museum, pointed out one silver Torah cover, which had arrived at the museum tarnished and black. Assigned to figure out what to do with it, she brought her children’s electric toothbrush to the museum to painstakingly polish the silver. She laughed as she said, “I paid a woman to come clean my house so I could come here and clean.” She did a good job–the Torah cover gleamed, reflecting the spotlight that shone on it in its class case.

The British gained control in Iraq after the first World War.  Jews were granted the rights to vote and hold office in 1921, and several served in the legislature. They continued to do so when Britain granted Iraq its independence, under British supervision.

During the 1930s German representatives in Iraq encouraged anti-Semitism and formation of groups modeled on Hitler Youth. When World War II started, and the British were losing, Germany’s influence increased. Because it needed Iraqi oil to provide fuel for its planned invasion of Russia, it encouraged the Iraqi government to seize the oil fields in the late spring of 1941. The attempt failed. Britain, however, worried that it could lose control of its source of oil, invaded Iraq. The British army reached the outskirts of Baghdad on May 31.

While all this was going on, Nazi-influenced groups planned a Farhud, an action to destroy the Jewish community, to destroy Jewish businesses, kill as many Jews as they could, and expel those who remained from the country. They made lists of Jews in the cities, even marking homes and businesses owned by Jews with red handprints. It was planned for June 1. When the British came to Baghdad’s outskirts they did not enter the city because they did not want to upset the Arabs. The Jews believed they had been saved from destruction and decided to publicly celebrate the Shavuot holiday.

On June 1, a group of Iraqi soldiers met a group of Jews who were celebrating Shavuot. The soldiers attacked the unarmed Jews, killing several of them. The violence spread through the city. Gangs of armed Arabs rampaged through the Jewish neighborhoods for two days, killing men and boys, raping women and girls and then killing some of them, and burning Jewish stores and businesses.

The British on the outskirts of the city surely knew what was happening. Even if they had not been able to hear the sounds of violence, they most likely would have heard the gunshots, and surely saw the smoke of burning buildings. But they were under orders from London not to intervene. Stopping the killing of Jews could anger the Arabs and endanger the oil fields. When the rampaging and violence spread into Arab neighborhoods on the second day the British entered Baghdad and restored peace.

The final exhibit at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is a Memorial to the Farhud. Two columns list the names of those killed, 148 men, women, and children.  Our group sat in this room, surrounded by blown up photographs of the Farhud, to watch a video in which several survivors talk about their experiences. They spoke about watching helplessly as enraged Iraqis broke through barricaded doors and about seeing their mothers raped and killed. They talked about running up to the roof, of racing across roofs trying to escape. Later in the week, they returned to  houses full of broken or burnt furniture, or to one totally stripped of all furniture, clothing, and kitchen contents.

The Jews in Iraq never felt secure again.

On May 15, 1948, Iraq declared war on the newborn State of Israel and declared aliyah illegal. But in 1950, Iraq allowed the Jews to leave. First they had to relinquish all their property, and give up their citizenship and the right to return. They could take almost nothing–66 pounds of luggage and the equivalent of $140. That’s not much to start life in a new country. The government allowed some Torah scrolls to leave the country. The scrolls had their own ticketed seats in the airplanes. Other Torahs were smuggled out, removed from their cases and carefully rolled up and hidden.

Israel organized a giant airlift to rescue the Jews of Iraq, Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. The airlift was named for the Biblical figures who led the Jews from Babylonia back to the land of Israel in 450 BCE.  American airplanes were used because Israeli planes were not allowed in Iraqi airspace. By the time these operations ended in 1952, 90% of Iraq’s  Jewish population, approximately 120,000 people, had been brought home. Most of the remainder gradually left Iraq as well.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, there was less than a minyan left. Emad Levy was one of the last Jews. He was the Rabbi, kosher butcher, and mohel (circumcizer), when there was a need for his services. But even he knew there was no future for him in Iraq. One day in 2007 he received an envelope containing a bullet; he made aliyah shortly thereafter. Among his first stops in his new country was the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. Our guide welcomed him and as they talked she thought he would be a good match for her best friend. She was right, and the Israeli Iraqi community celebrated his wedding within the year. Emad still comes to the center to talk about Jewish life in Iraq.

Nonetheless, after over 2600 years, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world has disappeared.        

The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is located in Or Yehuda, Between Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv (outlined in red on the map)

Philistines and philistines

Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE, at  Museum in Ashdod
Pottery produced by the Philistines in the 10th to 9th century BCE. Reproductions on display at Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod

 

To those who have read the Bible, the Philistines were a major enemy of the tribes of Israel. Judges and Samuel describe constant warfare between the Philistines trying to conquer the land and the Jews trying to defend it.

Today, the word “philistine,” has nothing to do with a person’s ethnic origins. Describing people as philistines means they lack taste and do not care about culture or refinement. They are boors.

On a recent trip to Ashdod, we visited the Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod. There we saw examples of their pottery and other artifacts, and learned about their culture. The word “philistine” has now taken on a whole new meaning for me.

As one of the Philistines’ five cities, Ashdod is a fitting place for a museum dedicated to their culture and history. Their other cities were Gat, Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ekron. The locations of Philistine Gaza and Ashkelon are known. Archeologists are fairly sure they have identified ancient Gat and Ekron as well.

The Philistines were the sea people. They arrived on the southeastern rim of the Mediterranean from Crete or Cyprus around 1200 BCE. This was same period that the Tribes of Israel came to the area from the desert on the east. Both groups wanted to take over the land from the Canaanite kings. Conflict was inevitable.

As the Philistines expanded their holdings in the area, they fought the Egyptians, who at the time were the major Middle Eastern power. Much of what we know about them, apart from what we read in the Bible, stems from Egyptian sources. An Egyptian wall carving

A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets visitors at Ashdod museum
A Philistine warrior in full battle dress greets Allen at Ashdod museum

depicts a battle in the time of Pharaoh Thutmose, who is thought to be the Pharaoh of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The carving shows the Philistines, in full battle dress. The design of the Philistine metal helmets show impressive metal working skill. So do the fragments of their weapons that have been found. A metal statue of a Philistine in full battle dress stands in the foyer of the Ashdod Museum. Like almost everyone else who visits the museum, Allen and I stood next to it for a photo.

The Philistines tended to adopt things from all the cultures they came in contact with. We can see that in their names. In their early years in Canaan, names were of Indo-European origin. In later centuries they had more Canaanite names.

The assimilationist habit also show up in their pottery. The Israel Museum has almost all the authentic Philistines antiquities. What we see in the Ashdod Philistine museum are accurate reproductions of representative finds. From these reproductions we are able to see

Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum
Reproductions of Philistine pottery on display in Ashdod museum

and appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the people. Jugs dating from the 12th to 11th century BCE are northern Mediterranean in style. Later pottery show the influence of other trading peoples. The vessels in the photo are from the 10th to 9th century BCE and show a distinct Aegean influence. The red color and shape are local style, but the black color and horizontal bands are Aegean.

Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum
Ashdoda, a small Philistine cultic figurine, Ashdod museum

An approximately six inch tall clay figurine from the 12th century BCE caught my attention. She was found in Ashdod, and named Ashdoda by those who uncovered her. Half woman and half chair, she is thought to be a 12th century BCE cultic figure. When the sculptor Henry Moore visited the museum, he remarked that if he had known of her existence, he would have made her his muse.

Ashdoda’s true role in Philistine culture is only speculation. We know very little about their religion. The Bible says they worshiped Dagon. Whether he was a grain god (from dagan, grain) or a fish god (from dag, fish) no one today knows.

The discovery of a two-horned altar and an incense altar only emphasize how little we know about their religion. Many altars of the time had horns at their corners, but why does this one have only two? Did the two horns have a specific cultic meaning, or has only half the altar been found?

If they created and used all this beauty, how did their name become a label for boorish and uncultured? The worshipers of one God looked down on those who worshiped idols. They ascribed many bad traits to the idol worshipers, including a lack of appreciation of the finer things in life. Thus Philistine evolved to philistine.

For several centuries, they were the dominant people along the Mediterranean Coast. Then the Israelite kingdoms expanded. Still later the Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms strengthened and expanded, and conquered the Philistines. They assimilated into new cultures, and disappeared from history. 

But history has a way of reviving and reinventing peoples in unexpected ways. When the Romans put down the Great Revolt in 70 C. E. they were sure they had destroyed the Jewish state for all time. Fifty-five years later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Romans had to destroy it again. Determined to destroy all traces of the people who had fought them so long, the Romans gave the area a new name. They named it Palestina, after the Philistines, the ancient enemy of Judea.

After World War I, the British received a mandate to administer a large swath of the dismantled Turkish Empire. The Turks had called it South Syria; the British called it Palestine. 

Once the Philistines had been proud rulers of a large portion of today’s Israel. Today we think of them as  philistines, uncultured people lacking in taste. The re-inventions of history are not always kind.