America Returns Stolen Antiquity to the Wrong Address

Michael Steinhardt is an American billionaire, and a collector of Near Eastern antiquities. Part of his collection consisted until recently of objects that had been stolen from archeological sites in Israel, and sold to him by unscrupulous dealers. The American government has made a deal with Steinhardt. In return for turning over to the government stolen objects worth $70 million dollars, he would not face prosecution. But now the American government has committed a grievous act of historical folly, one that will only swell the false Palestinian narrative that they, the Palestinians, have been in the area since time immemorial for, as they like to claim, they are the true “descendants of the Canaanites,” and it is they, not the Jews, to whom the land rightly belongs. The story is here: “US gives Palestinians looted antiquity owned by Steinhardt, in 1st such repatriation,” Times of IsraelJanuary 6, 2023:

US and Palestinian officials held a ceremony in Bethlehem on Thursday to mark the return of a looted antiquity seized from a Jewish American billionaire, in what the sides said was the first time the United States has repatriated a cultural object to the Palestinian Authority.

George Noll, head of the US Office of Palestinian Affairs, gave the “cosmetic spoon” to the PA’s Tourism and Antiquities Minister Rula Maayah.

According to Maayah, the tool — which is from between 700-800 BCE — dates to the Assyrian civilization and was used to pour incense.

But the Palestinians are not the descendants of the ancient Assyrians. No Muslim Arabs were in the area of present-day Israel until the 7th century A.D., some 1500 years after the spoon was fashioned, and no “Palestinians,” of course, existed as a people – an invented people — until the 1960s. Where might the “Assyrian spoon” have come from, to explain its ending up in present-day Israel? The answer is that there are several possible explanations of how that spoon ended up at an archeological site near Hebron. Beginning in 740 B.C., thousands of Jews were transferred to Assyria by the warriors of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. That spoon might have been brought to Israel by those Assyrian warriors themselves when they conquered much of Israel (but not Jerusalem); there may even have been a handful of Jews who returned from their captivity in Assyria, with one bringing back the incense spoon for use in Jewish services.

But more likely, it seems to me, is a different story: the “Assyrian spoon” was almost certainly brought to Judea by Jews returning from the Babylonian Captivity, that began in 597 B.C. (with the first deportation of Jews to Babylon) and ended in 538 B.C. when the magnanimous Persian king, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to Judea. Most Jews chose to return, bringing with them whatever local artifacts they had acquired while living in Babylon for nearly 60 years. An incense spoon found in Babylon – though originating in Assyria, for a time the main rival to Babylon — would have been quite useful to ancient Israelites for the next six centuries; it was not until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D that Jews stopped using incense (“ketoret”) in their religious services.

The Babylonian Empire was to the immediate south of the Assyrian Empire, and there was plenty of commercial interchange between Assyrians and Babylonians. At some point, that Assyrian spoon ended up in Babylon, where it must have become the possession of a Jewish exile during the Babylonian captivity, and then, eventually, was brought back to Judea, where it remained for many centuries, eventually buried by the sands of time with other artifacts from an abandoned Jewish settlement, until unearthed by someone – possibly a Jewish archeological team whose site, just uncovered and not yet subject to adequate study, was then robbed of some of its contents by local Arabs, who are well known to despoil and disturb Jewish archeological sites in Israel. The spoon was then sold it to an Israeli antiquities dealer, Gil Chaya, who in turn sold it to Michael Steinhardt.

The Palestinians must be delighted that the Americans, in their great unwisdom, “returned” the “Assyrian spoon” to the Palestinians, as if it were their patrimony, their artistic heritage, thus supporting their preposterous claims to have been in the area the Jews have called Eretz Israel at least since 1500 B.C.and the Western world has called Palestine since the Romans renamed “Judea” as “Syria Palestina” (subsequently shortened to “Palestine”) early in the 2nd century A.D. This “Assyrian spoon” will now be made much of by Palestinian propagandists: see, they will say, here is the proof of our antiquity in this land, even the Americans recognized it when they returned the spoon not to the Israelis, but to us.” They’ll no doubt show it off to the world in the “Museum of the Palestinian People” that has been opened in Washington, D.C., to convince people that there really is a Palestinian People, with a long and glorious history. It’s not much of a museum, open only on Friday for five hours, and on Saturday for six hours; the pitiful handful of exhibits are propaganda pieces, with a heavy emphasis on the “resiliency” of the Palestinian people in the face of untold oppression from the … well, you know who.

Here’s what the museum’s website says: “The Museum of the Palestinian People is the first museum in Washington D.C. devoted to preserving and celebrating Palestinian history, arts, and culture. For decades, the story of the Palestinian people has been told by others; until now. The Museum of the Palestinian People is here to tell our stories; stories that encompass the rich history, vibrant arts and culture, of a people who thrive even in the face of adversity.” Now that “rich history” will include a spoon that has nothing to do with Palestinians, and everything to do with the “rich history” of the Jews, including the interaction of the Jews with the Neo-Assyrian Empire, whose fighters captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. (in the very period when the “Assyrian spoon” was made), and with the Babylonian Empire, especially during that celebrated episode of Jewish history, the Babylonian Captivity, that lasted from 598 B.C. to 538 B.C, and the return from that captivity.

Citing information from US investigations, Maayah said the artifact was stolen from an archaeological site near the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

Lupa Maayah, the Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, does not admit that the archeological site where the Assyrian spoon was found was also full of Jewish artifacts. She does not say — how could she?– that the Palestinians have a long record of treating Jewish archeological sites in with indifference or greed or malice. Sometimes they steal artifacts from such sites, disturbing the site before professional archeologists have had a chance to fully study it. And often they try to destroy such sites altogether, in an attempt to efface Jewish history in the Land of Israel.

The most famous example of such destruction is what took place in the Old City between 1996 and 1999, when the Islamic Waqf began unauthorized construction in the structures known since Crusader times as Solomon’s Stables, and in the Eastern Hulda passage, which allowed the area to be (re)opened as a prayer space called the Marwani Musalla, capable of accommodating 7,000 individuals. In 1997the Western Hulda Gate passageway was converted into still another mosque.

During this gigantic excavation, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) criticized the Waqf’s use of bulldozers, and said that salvation archaeology needed to be performed first. Gabriel Barkay, an Israeli professor, said the construction demolished structures dating to the Twelfth Century Crusades, and went on without archaeological supervision. He said the construction used ancient stones from early Jewish buildings and used them to make modern ones. The celebrated archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has described the project of the Waqf as “the greatest devastation to have recently been inflicted on Jerusalem’s archaeological heritage.”

As a result of the Palestinian devastation of the archeologically rich site at the Temple Mount, Israeli archeologists began the Temple Mount Sifting Project. This archaeological project was established in 2005 and was dedicated to recovering archaeological artifacts from the 300 truckloads of topsoil removed from the Temple Mount by the Waqf during the construction of the underground el-Marwani Mosque from 1996 to 1999. By 2006, the project had recovered numerous artifacts dating from the 8th to 7th centuries BCE from dirt removed in 1999 by the Islamic Religious Trust (Waqf) from the Solomon’s Stables area of the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project was prompted by Israeli archeologists’ recognition that there had been massive destruction of Jewish artifacts; when the Palestinians were excavating below the Temple Mount, in order to build a new mosque, they [those Jewish artifacts] were simply thrown, still imbedded in thousands of tons of topsoil from the Temple Mount, onto rubbish heaps.

This artifact is important as it acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location,” Lupa Maayah was quoted as saying in a statement from the US Office of Palestinian Affairs.

No, the artifact “acquires its real scientific and archaeological value” not by being handed over to the Palestinians (who live in what Lupa Maayah absurdly calls its” authentic location”), but by being studied, by serious archeologists, not held onto by Palestinian propagandists, and displayed in its proper cross-cultural context. That cross-cultural context is this: the “Assyrian spoon” is one important example of artifacts originating in Mesopotamia that then traveled to Judea, either with the armies of the neo-Assyrians when they conquered the area, or brought back to Judea by Jews returning from their captivity in Babylon, where they would have had ample opportunity to acquire artifacts that the Babylonians had previously seized from Assyrians during their wars.

And it is worth noting that the “Assyrian spoon” found at an archeological site near Hebron. Hebron is one of the four holy cities in Judaism (the others are Jerusalem, Safed, and Tiberias), the place where the Cave of the Patriarchs is located, the city that was inhabited by Jews uninterruptedly for 3000 years until 1929, when Arab mobs murdered every last Jew they could find in the city.

It was found at that site along with strictly Jewish artifacts. It is this non-Jewish artifact whose particular value is this: it tells a story of Jews who, nearly three thousand years ago, saw their history entwined with that of other Middle Eastern peoples – first the Assyrians and then Babylonians – who played such an important role in Jewish history. You don’t have to be a learned archaeologist to realize that this “Assyrian spoon” has significance only for Jewish, not Palestinian, history.

Noll touted his office’s role in returning the spoon, which he called “an example of Palestinian cultural patrimony.”

This is intolerable nonsense. The Assyrian spoon is part of Jewish patrimony, because this artifact tells a tale of Jews enduring conquest by Assyrians (almost no Jews returned from their Assyrian captivity) and by Babylonians who likely acquired the incense spoon from the Assyrians they conquered, and one among them sold the spoon to captive Israelites, who brought it back with them to Judea.

Here are officials of the American government not only lying, but uttering a lie that, in its historical untruth, contributes to the absurd Palestinian fiction that they are the true indigenous people of “Palestine,” while the people claiming now to be Jews are not really Jews at all, but the descendants of Khazars from Central Asia, or “colonizers” from elsewhere, who arrived to steal land from the Palestinians who descend, in their highly imaginative narrative, from the ancient Canaanites.

George Noll handed over an artifact that is part of Jewish history to the Palestinians, and called it “an example of Palestinian cultural patrimony.” In what way is it part of that “cultural patrimony”? Is there any evidence of some connection between the “Palestinian people” (invented circa 1967), and artifacts from ancient Assyria that ended up in what is now Israel? No, there is none.

“This is a historic moment between the American and Palestinian people and a demonstration of our belief in the power of cultural exchanges in building mutual understanding, respect, and partnership,” he [Noll] said.

If you area reputable archeologist – not necessarily Israeli — specializing in the ancient Near East, you must be appalled at this false history being offered by Noll. This isn’t an example of a “cultural exchange” that builds “mutual understanding, respect, and partnership.” It is an example of stupidity, bias, and sheer pusillanimity on the part of the Americans who thought turning the Assyrian spoon over to the Palestinians, well-known for destroying Jewish archeological sites, would be a swell idea.

“Antiquities trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar business with looters and smugglers turning a profit at the expense of cultural heritage. We are honored to join our partners today in the historic repatriation of this artifact to the Palestinian Authority,” Ivan J. Arvelo, a special agent in charge of US Homeland Security Investigations in New York, said Thursday.

“Historic repatriation of this artifact to the Palestinian Authority”? “Repatriation” of an object that only makes sense as part of Jewish history? The Assyrian spoon does not, and never did belong, to the Palestinians. It has no connection to them. It has a very significant connection to the history of ancient Israel.

The Assyrian spoon belongs most appropriately in a museum of Jewish history, as an impressive example of what was brought by Assyrian conquerors c. 740 B.C. to Judah, or more likely, brought to Israel by those Jews who were freed from their Babylonian captivity in 638 BC.

Here’s an example where there was, alas, no consultation between American government officials and archeologists of the ancient Near East. It’s too late to get that artifact back from the crowing Palestinians. But it is not too late to find out who exactly, in the government took part in this colossal error, and to demote or, ideally, to fire them.

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