Should the Israel Museum Take the Dayan Collection Off Display?
A recent article documents in excruciating detail what everyone has long known: Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed hero of the Six-Day War, was an archaeological looter.
After the 1967 war, Dayan had the whole of Sinai and the West Bank at his disposal. He used soldiers under his command to help him dig. He used army helicopters and trucks to help him transport some of the loot.
In an article entitled “A Very General Archaeologist—Moshe Dayan and Israeli Archaeology,” published in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (vol. 4, 2003), Raz Kletter, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, says that he has documented 35 sites “where evidence of robbing and illegal digging by Dayan exists.”
Dayan’s activities were no secret. But when an official from the antiquities department expressed concern about his activities, Dayan simply wrote back on army letterhead and signed as Chief of Staff. After all, at various times Dayan was Chief of Staff, Defense Minister and a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). He was a powerful Israeli political figure and a war hero of almost mythic proportions.
Dayan supplemented his collection with purchases from other looters, either directly or through middlemen. Eminent scholars would authenticate questionable objects for him. Articles on items from his collection were published in professional journals.
Occasionally, Dayan would donate some of his pieces to museums, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Louvre in Paris. Every now and then, the Israel Museum would purchase something from Dayan’s collection.
When Dayan died in 1981, his second wife Rachel asked an antiquities dealer to appraise the value of his collection. It was valued at $2 million. Mrs. Dayan offered it at this price to the Israel Museum. An American philanthropist agreed to provide the money, but wanted to pay in installments over time. Mrs. Dayan wanted payment immediately. Finally, a compromise was reached, pursuant to which she was paid $1 million for half of the collection (presumably the part Dayan had purchased) and she agreed to donate the remainder (presumably the part that he had looted).
The matter raises interesting questions for archaeologists and the public to ponder today. Scholars are frequently prohibited by their professional associations from publishing articles about artifacts with 056undocumented provenance (presuming them all to be looted), and museums are vilified for acquiring or even accepting gifts of unprovenanced artifacts.
Presumably, today Dayan would be prevented from excavating without a permit. Certainly much of what Dayan did cannot be defended.
Would the Israel Museum today purchase a collection of looted and unprovenanced objects?
Will scholars who regard it as immoral even to study unprovenanced antiquities now urge the Israel Museum to take the Dayan collection off display? Will these scholars desist from referring to these artifacts in their scholarly articles?
All this happened a quarter century ago and more. Has the statute of limitations expired, closing the matter for all eternity? No one would suggest that the Mesha Stele or the Dead Sea Scrolls not be displayed or studied simply because they were looted.
If averting our eyes from important looted objects (and pretending they don’t exist) would lead to any significant reduction in looting (which, unfortunately, is a worldwide scourge), that might well be considered 057the price we have to pay to eliminate (or significantly reduce) looting. Alas, this attitude—which is widespread among professional archaeologists—has had absolutely no effect on the looters. It only distracts us from exploring more likely means to discourage looting. The policy of ignoring important looted finds only serves to provide those who espouse this policy with what they deem to be the high moral ground.
We all hate looters and looting. We want to see looting eliminated and looters jailed. But the more practical among us don’t want to lose anything that we might learn from looted objects.
The archaeological establishment tells us that unprovenanced objects are worthless: Unprovenanced objects, by definition, have no archaeological context. It may be admitted that without this context they are worth less, but they are not worthless.
There’s no doubt: Moshe Dayan was a looter and tomb robber. But that should not mean that we must be denied the opportunity to study and see the extremely important artifacts and inscriptions—such as those on these pages—from the Dayan collection.
A recent article documents in excruciating detail what everyone has long known: Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed hero of the Six-Day War, was an archaeological looter. After the 1967 war, Dayan had the whole of Sinai and the West Bank at his disposal. He used soldiers under his command to help him dig. He used army helicopters and trucks to help him transport some of the loot. In an article entitled “A Very General Archaeologist—Moshe Dayan and Israeli Archaeology,” published in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (vol. 4, 2003), Raz Kletter, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, says that […]