And not just any birthday. One hundred years ago, in 1913, a small group of non-archaeological Jewish intellectuals in Ottoman Palestine founded the organization that would eventually become the central Israeli archaeology organization. It was originally called the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society. When World War I erupted a short time later, the Society essentially became inactive, only to re-emerge with a slightly new name—the Hebrew Palestine Exploration Society—in 1920 after the League of Nations granted Great Britain control of the Holy Land pursuant to the British Mandate. One of the Society’s most active members was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, whose Hebrew dictionary is widely credited with reviving Hebrew as a modern language.
In the 1920s there was still no academically trained archaeologist among the Society’s members. Enough money was raised, however, to send one of its most active members, Eliezer Lipa Sukenik, who would become the father of famed Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, to study archaeology in Berlin. Thereafter he went to study in the United States where he received his Ph.D. In 1929 Sukenik excavated what was then an astounding discovery—a sixth-century C.E. synagogue with a mosaic floor featuring a zodiac with the Greek god Helios in the center and, in another panel, the binding of Isaac as told in Genesis 22.
The Society publishes a wealth of archaeological literature, including the prestigious Israel Exploration Journal, a more popular Hebrew-language magazine Qadmoniot and the major encyclopedia of archaeological excavations in the Holy Land, with the latest supplement, in five volumes.
Alas, the decline of interest in archaeology cannot be denied. In the 1980s and 1990s the Society’s annual conventions would draw thousands of scholars from around the world. The history of the Society referred to above notes that scholars often “expressed amazement at the broad popular base enjoyed by the Society and the hunger for knowledge among the general [Israeli] public.” Unfortunately, the authors note, “Since the 1980s there has been a steady decline in the public’s participation in the Society’s annual conventions.” The initial edition of Qadmoniot, under the editorship of Yigael Yadin, was 7,500 copies. Today it does not reach 2,000. At one time the publication of an important book was celebrated at the president’s official residence. This too is no longer the case.
In 1989, the Society received the prestigious Israel Prize in the presence of President Haim Herzog. The citation recognized the Society as “the main body disseminating information about the Land of Israel in Israel and abroad.” The citation made special mention of Joseph Aviram, the Society’s leader who “has been the initiator, the planner and organizer of all of the Society’s activities.”
One of the marvels of Israel’s archaeological endeavor is that Joseph Aviram, associated with the Israel Exploration Society for more than 70 years and now in his 97th year of life, remains at its head.
On May 16, 2013, a gala reception was held at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research honoring the Society’s centennial. All major foreign archaeological institutions in Israel, including the American Schools of Oriental Research, the École Biblique, the Kenyon Institute and the 015 German Protestant Institute of Archaeology, among others, brought greetings. BAR editor Hershel Shanks was invited to express the felicitations of the Biblical Archaeology Society.
Happy Birthday, Israel Exploration Society.
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