Where do Saharan Jews Belong?

When Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein spoke at Vassar College she discussed the Jews of the Sahara.  Which country does their history belong to?  France, Israel, and Algeria all seem to gain control of the community.  Rabbinical records are unclear, so it is difficult to tell which country has the right to write the history of the Jews of the Sahara.


During the end of the Algerian Revolution, France finally gave Jews of the Sahara citizenship.  They had previously given citizenship to Jews in the North, and division between the two groups had grown.  When giving the Saharan Jews citizenship, France had to review records held by the rabbinical leadership that had previously controlled the Saharan Jews.  Finding the documentation sloppy, France decided to have documentation for Saharan Jews forged.


But Israel created another body of papers for Saharan Jews.  Israel argued that all the Saharan Jews belonged to it because Israel is the Jewish homeland.  Israel did not see how France could attempt to repatriate Algerian Jews if Jews never originated from France.  France on the other hand, considered the Jews as their people.  The French wanted to unwrite an unpopular history.  If France had been in control of Algeria, then in the French logic, the Jews were French.

A Saharan Jew that believes Saharan Jews do not belong in France

If archaeology was done, we could see how much Saharan Jews interacted with the French, prior to being repatriated.  Archaeology could tell us whether the Jews connected themselves more with France, Israel, or neither.

However, both France and Israel stooped to using pseudoscience.  Nationalism has “served as a motive for extreme or unsubstantiated…claims” (Feder 11).  The Algerian government has no interest in sharing the real documents, so creating documents was the best way to claim a people.  Probing more, countries could find out information against them. Good results are easier to obtain and better if you make up your own documentation.  It is unethical, but productive, for countries to flat out lie.

Unfortunately the issue is not only limited to Saharan Jews.  Similar stories are common in North Africa and the Middle East.

Nationalism is not an excuse from following the scientific method.  If a country cannot properly follow science that sets a terrible example to its citizens.  The reason why there is such confusion about whom the Saharan Jews belong to is because too much has been made up.  The truth is hidden by lies and a lack of cooperation.

Remember to Find The Proof in the Pudding

Sure, I am proud to be an American and be part of the American culture, but I am not willing to accept ridiculous claims about our heritage.  The public must be critical of archaeological finds, because not everything is true.  Greedy, egotistical, and tricky schemers create hoaxes that while appealing, are not backed by substantiated evidence.

The Cardiff Giant

Let’s look at the Cardiff Giant.  The Cardiff Giant, one of the greatest hoaxes in American history, was claimed to be a fossilized giant, similar to giants described in the Bible’s Book of Samuel.  Really a statue, buried and then dug up on a farm, the Cardiff Giant became an instant tourist attraction as people flocked to see remains of Goliath.  With many visitors and economic impact, how did it take so much time to figure out that the Cardiff Giant was a hoax?

The answer is simple: humans have an amazing ability not to question when they get what they want.  1869 was a religious time, creationism was popular, and many people read the Bible literally.  The Cardiff Giant appeared as physical evidence that proved that Goliath existed as the Bible claimed.  The public did not question the finding because the evidence was desirable and questioning it would have negative consequences.

Also, the discovery was exciting and fun.  People love mystery and the unexplainable.  As Kenneth Feder says in Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries,  “perhaps it was the simple romance of such an amazing discovery that played at least a secondary role in convincing people to part with their hard-earned money to see what was clearly a gypsum statue” (Feder 62).  The Cardiff Giant is only one example of an ancient discovery without evidence: they are all over ranging from the Loch Ness Monster to ancient aliens.

Nationalism is a third reason for embracing hoaxes.  People in America were proud that Goliath was found in this country.  The discovery advanced and bettered America’s history, so why question it?  As an immigrant nation, there is no common ethnic background. As Philip Kohl puts it in Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote past, “the process of national identity formation is continuous and ongoing” (Kohl 235).  If Goliath was American, there is more meaning behind being American.  Nationalistic biases are not unique to America; hoaxes have occurred throughout the world, such as the Piltdown hoax in England and Shinichi Fujimura’s hoax in Japan.  Power and prestige are associated with age so these hoaxes create a false national history and pride.

The Piltdown skull combined a chimpanzee jaw and a human skull in an effort to make the English have the oldest ancestry in the world.

Shinichi Fujimura was caught by hidden camera planting artifacts in an attempt to make Japanese ancestry older.

Even after experts identified the Cardiff Giant as a hoax, the public still believed it was real.  It took time, a confession, and many scientists to prove the Cardiff Giant was nothing but a recently buried statue.  As with many other hoaxes, we must learn this lesson: be wary of ridiculous claims and no matter what ask for evidence—do not trust findings unless there is evidence.


Ancient Egypt—Discovered Remains In an Art Museum?

Growing up in New York City, I always ran.  Several times a week on my runs, I would pass the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and look into the giant glass windows that enclosed an ancient Egyptian world packed with tourists.  As a naïve child that had not visited the exhibit, I assumed that it was filled with treasures and mummies.

Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art

I was wrong; the Egyptian Art Wing at the MET consists of 26,000 objects arranged in chronological order.  Who analyzed these objects, and with what knowledge did they do so?  Why does the MET have an Egyptian exhibit if it is an art museum?

Egyptologists I have learned, not archaeologists, analyzed these objects.  Egyptologists do not need their Masters in anthropology, but can have other Masters, such as a Masters in Fine Arts.  In the U.S., archaeology is a subdiscipline of anthropology (“the comprehensive study of human species from biological, social, and cultural perspectives using both synchronic and diachronic views”) (Ashmore 4).  According to Ashmore an archaeologist is “a professional scholar who studies the human past through its physical remains” (Ashmore 4).  In comparison, an Egyptologist, according to the University of Chicago, is an individual “whose regular work involves the history, archaeology, language or culture of ancient (pre-Islamic) Egypt”.

The average person does not understand Egyptology or archaeology.  When I asked random Vassar students what Egyptologists and archaeologists do, they had similar responses–looking in the field for mummies, looking for treasures (which are the objectives of looters), “digging up stuff” and “dusting off bones”.

The average person's understanding of Egyptology and archaeology

In reality, an Egyptologist needs to be a “student of language” who analyzes hieroglyphics and artifacts to understand the past. This is contrary to archaeologists who use physical remains as well as diverse and complex methods to understand the past and humanity.  Without an education in Egyptology or archaeology, a false understanding is derived from television, movies, and other media.  Egyptologists and archaeologists are made to seem like adventurers to capture the attention of the public.

So why did the Egyptologists put these objects in the MET?  They did so because Egyptian remains are the basis of Western Art.  Europeans view Egypt as part of their ancestry, and we, as Americans, view Europe as part of our ancestry.  As Americans we are learning about our heritage by studying Egyptian art.  In addition, we have the ability to study a wide variety of ancient Egyptian art, allowing us to better understand our past.  While much of Native American art may have decomposed because of moist environments, Egypt is arid and preserves the past well.  The Egyptian collection, therefore, should be in the MET.