To the Victor Goes the Spoils (and the Narrative)

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When I visited the Bible Lands Museum, I wrote about the ways in which we can frame interpretations of material history by choosing what sources we use, and how we play with the physical spaces within which this presented material lives. Now, having visited the Israel Museum, I find myself faced with an altogether different, and yet somehow still strikingly similar, topic of rumination: who chooses what information survives to be passed on, and what gets glossed over, or even intentionally buried, and how the author can, by the very nature of being the one who gets to be the author, shape and reshape history to their own purpose.

The Israel Museum is a massive museum, with far more wings than I ever would have been able to properly visit in a single day. So instead, I focused on two areas: the archaeological exhibit, and an exhibit of art from around the world.

The archaeological exhibit of the Israel Museum takes visitors on a journey through time, following the transformation of the area and the exchanging of cultural hands that the region around the Sea of Galilee has witnessed over thousands of years. Or, at the very least, following the Israeli Jewish perception of these changes across time.

Bias confronts visitors from the moment they set foot in the archaeological wing of the Israel Museum. The first label, in the first room, identifies Israel simply as “the Land” (as if this area is somehow singlehandedly the one area in all of the world that holds the upmost important – the defining land of all of humanity) and this naming pattern continues throughout the rest of the wing of the museum. But, this is, at least to a certain extent, to be expected after the distinctly Abrahamic framing of archaeology at the previously-discussed Bible Lands Museum. What stood out more to me was the declaration, boldly and loudly, that “early humans were different from us.” This is far from a disputable fact, but to choose to identify earlier humans, from the very get-go, by their differences rather than their similarities, was a striking choice to me. As I passed through the halls of these exhibits, though, I would quickly become acquainted with the fact that that this entire wing was dedicated to the underlying message of that statement: the diffusion and propping up of the notion that there is an us, and there is a them.

The us in this museum is distinctly male. This is established very early on, with the first room holding a segment of an early human’s skull next to a label that reads that “it may have belonged to a woman, since it is more delicate than early human skulls from other parts of the world.” And yes, that is a direct quote. While it is a widely held notion that amab individuals tend to have thicker bones than afabs, and this certainly may on average be the case for some bones, multiple studies have found, again and again, that afabs do not in fact have thinner skulls. Rather, afabs tend to have, on average, thicker skulls than amabs. Here we see, for the first time on my journey through the museum, but by no means anywhere near the last, a moment where individual bias towards the oppressor wins out over science and the facts of the lived experiences of the oppressed. In a society where Knesset members are actively discussing legalizing gendered segregation in public spaces, it should not be particularly shocking to see sexism on display. And yet, to see it come out victorious over science, in a museum, is disappointing to say the least.

The us in the Israel Museum is distinctly human. This is exhibited incredibly well through the statement, once again still in the very first room of this archaeological wing, that “toolmaking is a uniquely human behavior.” Putting intraspecies group stratification aside for a moment, biased understandings of science still managed to win out here with a level of confidence that left me wondering if perhaps this gallery simply hadn’t been updated in a few decades. But no. The museum went through a comprehensive renovation in 2010. By then we were well aware of the toolmaking capabilities of chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, sea otters, and crows – just to name a few. But, as far as we are aware, none of these species use written language, so humans were left with a monopoly on the ability to write these labels. And with that monopoly, at least one of us chose to convey information that left out several other capable fellow species in lieu of painting our own as exceptional.

The us in the Israeli Museum is distinctly limited to the confines of what is considered by the country to be Israel. This fact is reiterated many times throughout the archaeological wing, but to name just one, particularly bothersome, example: a 233,000 year old figurine made of volcanic rock that was rediscovered in Berekhat Ram is identified as “the oldest artwork in the world.” Not one of the oldest – *the* oldest. If the author of this label elected (as they did) not to mention the fact that this artifact’s identity as a genuine art piece is hotly debated, then by that standard, there should also have been mentioned the 500,000+ y.o. engraved shells potentially made by H erectus, along with that species’ ~500,000 y.o. zigzag engraved shark tooth, and the “Venus of Tan-Tan” from modern day Morocco, coming in at 0.7-2.7 hundred thousand years older than the figuring from Berekhat Ram. But instead, at least in the reality conveyed by the information on this label, the figurine of Berekhat Ram stands alone.

The us of the Israel Museum is also, and most glaringly, distinctly Jewish. This is seen by the descriptions in the labels that, time and time again, portray every other culture present in the area throughout history as an invading other, in comparison to the Jewish people who, were described in museum labels as, amongst other things, “brave,” “daring,” and “charismatic.” I am not on any way trying to say that these statements are necessarily false, but that they are made in the face of discussions by labels of non-Jewish people as “cruel,” “harsh,” and “intolerant,” paints a very particular narrative. One told by the modern victor.

The establishment of Palestine is written about in the Israel Museum as a “national catastrophe.” This is not an exaggeration, it is a direct quote. There is clearly one specific story being told throughout the archaeological wing of the Israel Museum, and it is a story authored by those with the most power. It is a story authored in favor of men, as seen in the description of thinner bones as belonging to women. Is is a story authored in favor of human exceptionalism (a theory that has fueled racism for hundreds of years). It is a story authored in favor of the land the state of Israel stands upon, even if this means ignoring the history of multiple other countries. And it is a story written to tell a tale that frames the Jewish people as protagonists in a tale where all other cultures present in the area act as antagonists to them.

The Jewish people have suffered massively. This is a fact, and one I feel in my bones as the child of a Sephardic Jew, born most recently in generations long line of Jewish ancestors that came before me. But in the current colonization of Falasteen, Israel is situated as the victor, and this position allows for Israel to write the history of the land. It is not a history that likely would be written by a Palestinian museum, although I can’t be certain of this because I was not allowed to visit that part of my homeland. What it is, though, is a story that uses clearly biased language, to portray Jerusalem as significantly more Jewish than it was or is. The retelling of the history of the land in this museum largely stops after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. These is a single area dedicated to Islamic rule, and one to the Crusades. And that is it. There are few specifics, and in fact few labels even, in these areas. Because ultimately, as of 2023, the Jewish people have become the victors of the land, and this position allows for any history that is not related to them, to us, to be glossed over as unimportant.

There is a lot of history in the Israel Museum. But there is also a lot of history missing. I am fortunate to be in a position where the knowledge I hold allows me to recognize this. But it leaves a sinking feeling when I look at the world around me and wonder what other history has been erased because it was deemed by the victors to not be applicable. I look at the rich white men pushing for the erasure of historical recountings of Black suffering in my home country. I look at the cognitive dissonance individuals have when they hear the largely untold fact that the last law against interracial marriage was repealed the same year I was born, just 22 short years ago. I look at the failure of many individuals in America to realize that the uptick in anti-Asian hate crime because of racist rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic came not even 40 years after widespread and often deadly attacks on Asian Americans by racist individuals who blamed the recession on the rising success of Japan’s automotive industry. I look at the incessant bulldozing of indigenous land and heritage on Turtle Island, continuing endlessly after over 400 years, and the indigenous lands that burn this week from the ravaging of the area by largely white-run colonial industrial companies – from Yellowknife to Lahaina, beyond and inbetween. I look at the way that after a few short days the news cycle has moved beyond those deaths. And I wonder. If all of this pain and suffering has been erased in our society’s collective mind in just a few short days, in favor of focusing on the suffering of others we somehow deem more important (as the news focuses on Biden’s pledge of millions of dollars to aide Ukraine while not a single cent has been sent by him to Hawaii yet). If this is how much the victors and the oppressors can refocus the narrative in a single week. How many thousands of quanta of pain and suffering and discrimination and destruction have been erased in the many hundreds of years over which the victors have consistently become the authors, and the conquered and dispossessed, those written out?