Wednesday, August 24, 2005

King David's Palace

Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar has uncovered the foundation walls of an ancient and significant public building just outside the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem. She believes that she has found King David's palace, the palace that the Bible describes as being built by King Hiram of Tyre about 1,000 years Before the Christian Era (BCE). This remarkable find was announced earlier this month.

If you haven't heard about this story, don't feel guilty: Lots of people haven't heard about it. It has hardly made a blip on the mainstream press in the United States. A search of a LexisNexis news database covering hundreds of newspapers gets only 6 results for the search "King David w/10 palace" since the beginning of August. Searches for the archaeologist by various spellings of her name return the same results. I would not have known about it myself if I had not read an editorial about the discovery in the Jewish Exponent last week.

And no wonder the media doesn't want to touch this story: If this structure is what Mazar believes it to be, the potential political, historical and social ramifications of this discovery are enormous. Anti-Israel hard-liners have claimed for many years now that Jews have no historical connection to Jerusalem, that King David ruled from some other hill somewhere else; if this discovery is proved to be King David's palace, it places King David directly outside modern Jerusalem's walls. The fashionable scholarly opinion in recent years has been that King David was nothing more than an insignificant hill chieftain, that the Bible is nothing more than fiction and the stories it tells should be given no credence whatsoever; if Mazar is correct, this find shows that King David was more significant than fashionable scholars want to believe, and the Bible at the very least contains some accurate historical details.

Of course, I doubt we will never know whether Mazar is correct. There are too many people who are too emotionally committed to either believing or disbelieving it. The Palestinian Authority has already declared the find to be "worthless and groundless" without examining any of the evidence, implying without explicitly saying so that these "clandestine excavations" were fraudulent.

It is interesting, though, to compare the media's treatment of this story to their treatment of the so-called "James Ossuary" in 2002. For those who don't recall, a media frenzy ensued after it was announced that someone had found an ossuary (a box for holding bones of the deceased) inscribed with the words Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua, widely translated as James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, although "Ya'akov" would perhaps be more accurately translated as "Jacob." It was widely believed that this was the first physical evidence ever found of the existence of Jesus, though some expressed skepticism because of the commonness of the names. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto examined the ossuary and declared it to be genuine, although some bells and whistles should have gone off because this is not the first remarkable archaelogical find the same collector had owned. The owner of the box was later arrested for antiquities forgery. Police arresting him found implements for conducting antiquities forgery as well as articles in various stages of the forging process. The Royal Ontario Museum and others continue to maintain that the box was real.

Perhaps the James ossuary fiasco has made the media a bit more gun-shy, although one has to wonder how someone could fake a massive 3000-year-old building.

NY Times article about the discovery

Jewish Exponent article which was my first exposure to this story (Note: this article is likely to disappear very soon; they only keep stories for a couple of weeks)

A Palestinian News Agency article dismissing the significance of the find

Monday, August 22, 2005

About the "Jew Couple"

A colleague of mine recently told me the story of a couple identified on a restaurant check as "Jew couple." Apparently, some restaurants routinely use descriptions of patrons, rather than table numbers, to identify which table goes with a check. My colleague reported that she has received restaurant checks identifying her as "blond girl" or even "pretty girl." What is so wrong, she wondered, about calling two people "Jew couple" that the New Jersey attorney general would be investigating the story?

First, let me emphasize that the word "Jew" is not an offensive term. I am a Jew. I am Jewish. I use these two phrases interchangeably and see no difference between them, and many other Jews feel the same way. In fact, when the subject came up in the newsgroup soc.culture.jewish, several people were offended by the idea that the word "Jew" is an offensive term, as if being a Jew were such a terrible thing that people should not be reminded of it. One person was also offended by the idea that "Jewish" is better than "Jew," suggesting that the notion reflected the idea that "Jewish" sounded less Jew than "Jew," just like "bluish" is less blue than "blue."

So the the word "Jew" is not necessarily a problem. But there are several problems related to the restaurant's use of the phrase "Jew couple."

First, the word "Jew" is a noun, not an adjective. It is grammatically incorrect to use "Jew" as an adjective, as in the phrase "Jew lawyer," "Jew doctor," "Jew janitor" or more commonly, "Jew bastard." The adjective form is "Jewish," so the more correct form would be "Jewish lawyer," "Jewish doctor," etc. More important than the grammatical technicality, though, is the fact that these misuses are most commonly used by those who are predisposed to hate Jews. It is theoretically possible that someone who calls Shawn Green a "Jew athlete" is simply ignorant, but it is more likely that it is an expression of distaste, more likely that "Jew bastard" was implied if not stated, and Jews recognize that usage for what it is. It would be more accurate and would not be so suggestive of antisemitism to refer to the patrons as a "Jewish couple." The NJ Antidefamation League spokesman recognized this distinction when he told the media, "It doesn't even say 'Jew-ish.' It's indefensible."

But even if the check said "Jewish couple," I'm not sure that this entirely solves the problem. My colleague said that she has been identified as "blond girl" or "pretty girl," terms that are physically descriptive and would help a waiter identify the correct table. How does the phrase "Jewish couple" help the waiter to identify the correct table? The couple apparently weren't wearing any obvious Jewish symbols, such as a necklace with a Chai or Star of David, or a yarmulke (skullcap). Jews don't have any particular physical appearance. Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There are tall Jews and short Jews; fat Jews and thin Jews; Jews with thick hair and Jews with fine hair; blonds, brunettes and red-heads; blue, grey, green, hazel and brown-eyed; light-skinned, darker-skinned and even black Jews; Jews with big hooked noses and Jews with surgically bobbed noses and Jews with noses you would never notice. When people think they know what a Jew "looks like," they are usually thinking in terms of negative stereotypes. So the use of "Jewish couple" as a physical identifier suggests negative stereotypes about Jewish appearance. It is less like "blond girl" and more like "fat girl."

And quite frankly, "Jew couple" or even "Jewish couple" isn't particularly uniquely identifying on the Jersey shore. The restaurant where this occurred is in Allenhurst, NJ. Check any online phone directory and you will see more than a dozen synagogues, Jewish community centers and cemeteries of all movements, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chasidic, within five miles of Allenhurst. In fact, the term was so incredibly not identifying that the couple in question were able to show the bill to another Jewish couple in the restaurant at the time, who shared their outrage.

Apparently, this is not the first time the restaurant in question has engaged in offensive labeling of their customers. Another former patron reports that her bill once identified her as "Dirty Joanne."

Read more about it:
Table for "Jew"
Attorney General Probe
Dirty Joanne