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Gaza, Iconoclasm, and the State of Israel

It’s very difficult to talk about anything other than the war at this time, and this newsletter is no exception. Before I get into my thoughts and contributions on the war effort, I would like to acknowledge two matters of history and archaeology in recent news. I believe that knowledge of history and Torah offers us much needed perspective in such times.

The Ancient Gaza Synagogue.

I’m sure you’ve seen headlines such as “IDF soldiers pray in ancient 6th century Gaza synagogue for first time in decades” (Jerusalem Post, Nov 8, 2023). This topic has spurred dozens of social media posts, academic lectures and discussions. I do not want to take away from any of that, so I will just share a thought.

As some of you may know, I have a fascination with ancient Synagogues, and study their mosaics and artwork.The Dura Europos synagogue was the topic of my recent Old News episode (watch it here). The Gaza synagogue is remarkable because it shows King David playing a harp, and animals drawn towards him. The original mosaic was unfortunately damaged. The face was reconstructed based on an old photograph, and the restored mosaic resides today in the Israel Museum. Notice the similarity to the King David image in the Rothschild Miscellany, below.

King David Gaza Mosaic and Rothschild Miscellany
King David Gaza Mosaic and Rothschild Miscellany

Depicting a biblical figure on a synagogue floor is not unique, seen in the many examples from Huqoq, Hammath Tiberias, Sepphoris, Wadi Hamam, Meroth and others. The Dura Europos synagogue goes far beyond any currently known example as it displays a wide range of stories over many panels. And, it is also the earliest example we have of this feature. In the Gaza mosaic, King David’s portrayal is based upon the Threcian Bard, Orpheus, from Greek mythology. To the Torah observant Jew, this is puzzling for a number of reasons, if not outright objectionable --hence I hesitate to engage in this topic so briefly, as it can be dreadfully misunderstood. And this brings me to the second topic - iconoclasm.

Orpheus playing as the animals are drawn to him
By Giovanni Dall'Orto - Own work, Attribution,

First let me say this: As one can tell by observing the common decorative elements in synagogues from Israel and abroad, constructed and operational during the time of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, this was clearly a common practice. We can engage in the Halachic/Rabbinic sources that discuss this, and I can refer you several books to read, but to even ponder these topics one needs to first come to a museum. And this indeed brings us to another recent headline.

Iconoclasm in the Israel Museum?!

“US tourist arrested for smashing Roman-era statues at Israel Museum.” This is a headline from the Times of Israel, Nov 5, 2023. I was actually there when it happened, and I know exactly what statues were damaged. Of course, I had nothing to do with this, nor did my tour guests. I find this behavior abhorrent and obviously do not condone it.

Shattered statues in the Israel Museum
Shattered statues in the Israel Museum. Photo from the article linked above

Since it happened while I was there, I was going to write a whole article about it and engage in discussions online right after the holiday, but needless to say the world changed that day and this topic was pushed to the sidelines.

So why am I talking about now?

As you just saw with the mosaic in Gaza and in other ancient synagogues, nuance and subtlety are needed when dealing with history, archaeology, and museum artifacts. History in general and Jewish History in particular are an ongoing process of evolution, development, dead ends, and discovery. It is tempting to view the present state of things and project our understanding and values into the past. Every Ashkenazi Jewish child knows that Avraham wore a shtreimel (Eastern European fur hat, traditionally worn by Hassidic Jews), even though he was living a nomadic lifestyle in the hot Middle East. But let not small facts ruin a good story (if that I’m being sarcastic isn’t abundantly clear, there is nothing I can do for your poor soul).

I could go on, but you get the idea. We need a lot of caution when we speak about the past, but if we set out to destroy things we don’t like or don’t understand, if we don’t educate our children to respect and appreciate the past and our heritage, we can get to the destructive place much of the West is struggling with today. We view iconoclasm as a fundamentalist behavior, and fundamentalism is by definition the refusal to recognize or engage with complexity. It is ironic that much of this is done for the goal of enlightenment. Recent events have put this in the spotlight for many who were either oblivious, dismissive or supportive of such worldviews.

If ever there was need for clarity, nuance and understanding about a complex historic issue, it is the tangled complex of Jews and Israel. And if ever there was a profound desire to destroy such complexity, it is the Israel-hatred we find throughout history and the world. This brings me to my final thought.

Image created by author, with Bing
Modern Iconclasm - Image created by author, with Bing

Image created by author, with Bing
Man shattering Athena in the museum- Image created by author, with Bing

The State of Israel

The War of Oct 7, 2023 or appropriately, the Shemini Atzeret War , has changed the world. Something profound in the nature of Israel and Jews has been awoken. The unprecedented unity and also support from around the world is of historic proportions. It is now abundantly clear that anti-Semitism is very much alive, and that there are people who cannot bring themselves to condemn disgusting acts of pure evil, while feeding on Western tolerance.

There are many fighting the battle of “hasbara” or foreign relations, believing that we must find an angle through which to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that the IDF is acting as morally as possible. Or to prove double standards, bigotry, hypocrisy; or to show people the truth, that it would help us with the world opinion, which is somehow necessary in order to win the war.

In my humble opinion, this is naïve.

I mean no disrespect to people working very hard to be Israel’s ambassadors. They are doing noble work, and this work needs to be done. I actually encourage it and post wherever I think it would be effective.

When I say naïve, I mean that I don’t believe this really addresses the issue. There is little you can say or do to change the minds of people who submit to Evil, or who have their mind set on certain worldviews. It is worth the effort for people who really do care about Good, who seek to understand, and who would change their mind if offered access to other ideas and information.

We have grown to believe so profoundly in humanity’s goodness that we can’t fathom the hatred towards the emissary of that goodness. There is no question that the impact of Jews on the West has, to a large extent, enabled the Western view of the goodness of humanity.

I believe that what underlies this hatred or fear is deeply related to Israel’s mission in the world, which is what the festival of Shemini Atzeret is about. To this end, instead of Jew, I will use the word “Yisrael”. Yisrael embodies not just the aspirations of our nation to a land, which we call Israel, and not just Judaism - merely an aspect of this identity, born in Exile. In English, Yisrael is neutral enough that hopefully it doesn’t carry any of the connotations I would like to avoid in “Israel” or “Judaism”. As the Talmud explains the term Yehudim, which became Jews, it set the Yehudim, the monotheists aside from the idol worshippers, and forged the nation loyal to God and the Mosaic traditions, learning and observance. Yisrael is more. Yisrael is an enterprise, and the Shemini Atzeret War to me seems an obvious attack on its nature.

Yisrael is hard to define, because we are still struggling with its definition. Are we a race? A religion? An ethnicity? And why does the world care so much about everything that happens in this tiny country?

But it is clear to me that the connection of Yisrael to the physical land of Israel is the heart of the issue. Whether it’s the Neturei Karta who believe that the State of Israel is in essence a defiance of God's Will, or the fear of far-right Religious Zionism’s messianic dreams, or that its existence encroaches on human rights and international law. Somehow or other, the fact that we are here is the cause of our ailments. This goes beyond any religious aspect of the hatred known as “anti-Semitism”. It is “anti-Yisraelism”.

I recently read “A Brief History of Israeliness by Netanel Elinson (Hebrew), the title a deliberate parody of Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time; the composition a parody of Yuval Noach Harari’s book Sapiens. While some of Elinson’s conclusions or explanations I differ with, it is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the fabric of Israeli-Jewish society today and I highly recommend it if you seek to pursue these issues.

And if you’re available on Wednesday, November 15, 7pm Israel time, I will be speaking on Zoom about this matter from a perspective of traditional Jewish sources. It would be my pleasure if you would join me, and the meeting will be recorded for later listening.

misUNderstood: watch recording

Old News: Weekly Artifact Adventures

Embark on a new weekly journey of short videos, connecting the weekly Torah reading, the Parasha, to an archaeological artifact. It's all happening on YouTube, and I'll add the existing espidoes to date here below:

Parashat Noach

Parashat Lech-Lecha

Parashat Vayera


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