Religious Zealots Halt a Dig
Menu JTA Search

Religious Zealots Halt a Dig

Download PDF for this date

Religious zealots won another battle against archaeologists digging at a site the zealots claim was a Jewish burial ground. A team of about 50 American volunteers, headed by Prof. Robert Bull of Drew University in Madison, N.J. cut short their excavations near the ancient Roman town of Caesaria Wednesday when they were surrounded by three busloads of ultra-Orthodox Jews who accused them of desecrating the dead.

About 100 Israeli police were on hand to prevent a physical clash. Bull, who was reported last week ready to resign rather than give in to the zealots, abandoned the site on orders from the president of Drew University, Paul Hardin.

The university, a Methodist-affiliated institution, has been under heavy pressure from Orthodox groups in the U.S. headed by Rabbi Pinhas Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to halt the digging.

The project, coordinated by Drew University, employed student archaeologists from a dozen American colleges and universities who volunteered for the work. They had been excavating at the site for six weeks and were to continue for another two weeks.

The ultra-Orthodox Atra Kadisha, an organization devoted to protecting ancient Jewish graves, intervened 10 days ago and began harassing the archaeologists. They said an Orthodox boy reported to them that he had found a bone at the site which the rabbis said they “knew” was from a Jewish body. Bull said it had been established without doubt that there were no cemeteries, Jewish or otherwise, at the site. Individual remains were found but were unearthed along crucifixes and other non-Jewish ornaments and inscriptions.

CLAIM SITE WAS NOT JEWISH CEMETERY

Israel’s antiquities department, which licenses all archaeological diggings sent inspectors who concluded that the bones found were not part of a Jewish cemetery. Yehuda Neeman, the inspector for the Hadera region which includes Caesaria, said the site was a garbage dump dating back 100-150 years, on top of the Byzantine Christian area of the historic city.

But Rabbi Zeev Berlin, of Atra Kadisha, insisted that “There are dozens if not hundreds of ancient Jewish graves at the site of the excavation.” An Israeli archaeologist at the site told reporters it was impossible to reason with the zealots.

He said they told him, “We know more about ancient sites than you do.” When the archaeologist pointed out that some remains and artifacts found at nearby sites had been carbon-dated several thousands years back, he was told: “Don’t be ridiculous. Everybody knows that God created the world only 5,747 years ago.”

DIG SITE TO BE SHIFTED

Archaeologists have been working at Caesaria for 12 digging seasons spread over the past 17 years. A source from Prof. Bull’s team said the diggings for the remainder of this season would be shifted to a site about 500 yards from the disputed one.

The Atra Kadisha follows archaeological digs all over the country and claims to have found Jewish graves at virtually every site. In 1981 they succeeded in suspending digging at the City of David in Jerusalem and more recently interrupted construction of a new road in Tel Aviv because they claimed it ran through an ancient cemetery.

They do not object where non-Jewish remains are found. They claim to be able to distinguish Jewish from non-Jewish remains by the way the bones are arranged.

Meanwhile, an archaeological dig aimed at uncovering an ancient Roman city in the Beisan Valley was halted Wednesday, not because of religious pressure but for shortage of funds. About 90 residents of Beth Shean employed at the dig were dismissed from their jobs.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund