By Walter Reich, a professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior
at George Washington University, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars and a former director of the U.S. Holocaust
May 30, 2007.
AFTER 2,000 YEARS of indignity and ignominy, Herod the Great has finally
gotten his revenge.
During their revolt against Roman rule over Judea between AD 66 and 72,
Jews who remembered King Herod as a Roman puppet smashed his
sarcophagus, which had been interred with royal pomp about 70 years before.
Christians have identified him as a baby killer who forced Jesus’ family to flee
Bethlehem. And Herod’s habit of having his rivals and relatives killed has hardly
burnished his image.
True, he built monumental projects – not only Masada and Caesarea but the
grand expansion of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem, the best-known
remnant of which is the Western Wall. In the main, though, he’s been a
forgotten and derided historical figure.
But now Herod is back, at least in spirit. Israeli archeologists announced earlier
this month that they’ve found his tomb, eight miles south of Jerusalem. And
that tomb has become yet another impediment on the already impassable road
to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In the land of Israel – or Palestine, as Palestinians and others call it – anything
that demonstrates the area’s Jewish past, whether above ground or below,
makes a big impression.
For Israelis, such finds are seen as an emblem of the Jews’ ancient and
unbroken connection with the land, going back 3,500 years, that justifies the
existence of Israel as a Jewish state. For Palestinians, they’re seen as a way of
legitimizing Israel – the creation of which turned many of them or their forebears
into refugees – and are therefore often dismissed as myth or fantasy.
In 1983, I saw how the unearthing of evidence of the Jewish past gives heart
to some Israelis. While researching a book on the West Bank, I visited the
Jewish settlement of Shiloh, in the northern West Bank. Archeologists were
digging at the nearby site of ancient Shiloh, which in biblical times was the first
capital of Israel.
It was in Shiloh that, according to the Hebrew Bible, the Ark of the
Covenant rested. Every evening the archeologists would display their finds.
When they showed artifacts from the Israelite period, the settlers cheered; for
them this was proof that they were now living in the ancient heart of the land
Small wonder that archeological finds like these provoke many Palestinians to
deny that such discoveries, and any other evidence of Jewish history in either
Israel or the West Bank, have anything to do with Jews. After the recent
announcement that Herod’s tomb had been found, the Palestinian response was
quick and sharp. A Palestinian official said the finding lacked scientific
credibility and was driven by ideological motivations.
But this episode of archeological denial pales in comparison with the decades of
denial in the case of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which is known to Arabs as
Haram al Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.
In 1930, when Britain administered the area, the Supreme Muslim Council in
Jerusalem noted that the Temple Mount’s “identity with the site of Solomon’s
Temple is beyond dispute.”
But at the Camp David summit in 2000, Yasser Arafat insisted that a
Jewish temple had existed not on the Temple Mount but in Nablus. And an
Arafat aide, Saeb Erekat, said, to President Clinton’s amazement, “I don’t
believe there was a temple on top of the Haram, I really don’t.”
Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian Authority president, later
agreed with Erekat, as did the mufti of Jerusalem. Arafat later went further and
denied the temple existed anywhere in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, including
Today, denial of the temple’s existence has become a mainstay of Palestinian
rhetoric. “They say that the temple was here,” a Palestinian historian scoffed.
“What temple â¦? What archeological remains?” And temple denial has turned
into temple removal. During the last few years, Palestinians have discarded
remains of the first and second temples.
This absurd Palestinian denial of Jewish roots in the land has been matched on
the part of Israelis who deny that there was a large and long-indigenous
population of Arabs in Palestine when the Zionist movement vastly expanded
the number of Jews in the area more than 100 years ago. Fortunately, the
denial of Palestinian history has been utterly discredited among nearly all
Only when each side recognizes the historical right of the other to live in the
region will it be possible to begin to talk about peace and a fair reckoning on
Jerusalem. And only then will it be possible to put Herod’s vengeful ghost back
into his haunted archeological tomb.