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Past Perfect: Shall I Go to Bethlehem?, Yigael Yadin, Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June 2007.

BethlehemAs the United Nations was deliberating over a resolution that would partition Palestine and recommend the establishment of a Jewish state, Hebrew University archaeologist Eleazar L. Sukenik, was pondering the risks of traveling to Bethlehem to see an Arab antiquities dealer who had for sale some ancient leather scrolls. Hostility between Jews and Arabs in the Holy City was intense, threatening to become violent at the passage of the UN resolution, and Bethlehem was in Arab territory.

I had planned to meet my Armenian friend [Nashri Ohan] again on November 28 [1947] and go with him to the Arab antiquities dealer [Feidi el-Alami]. But my wife had been particularly adamant against my going, in view of the danger. And so I had reluctantly to call off the meeting. Later in the day, my son, Yigael [Yadin], came in from Tel-Aviv and was as excited as I was when I told him of the scrolls. But he, too, indicated, though not as vehemently as his mother, that perhaps it was not too wise. He was only with me for a short while as he had to return to his headquarters in Tel-Aviv.

Later in the evening I listened to the radio and heard that the United Nations, which had been expected to vote on that day, had postponed its decision. Here I thought was my chance. For I believed the Arab attacks would begin immediately after the vote, and if I were to go to Bethlehem it would have to be before. I therefore resolved to make the journey the next morning, the 29th, and this time decided not to tell anyone.

Next morning I telephoned my Armenian friend and told him I was coming over to see him right away. Armed with my pass I entered Zone B once again and went straight to his store. I told him I was ready to go with him to Bethlehem.

We took the bus. I was the only Jewish occupant. The rest were Arabs. All of us felt the tension in the atmosphere. My friend told me later that he had been really scared stiff by the responsibility he had assumed by bringing me on that journey. But it passed without incident.

When we arrived in Bethlehem, we made straight for the attic of the Arab house in which the antiquities dealer, Feidi Salahi, lived. Among the Arabs it is considered bad form to plunge immediately into business, and so, restraining my crude European behavior, I followed local custom and made polite queries about his health and the well-being of his family, while we sipped coffee. But I don’t know how I managed to disguise my eagerness and impatience. I was on tenterhooks all the time.

Our polite exchanges lasted half an hour. It seemed more like a year; and then our business talk started. I was grateful to my Armenian friend for sparing me the delicate task of opening. He asked the Arab dealer to tell us the story of the Bedouin. I had already heard it but it was a good tale. He told us how these Bedouin had come to him with “leather bundles.” They had been moving with their goats along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. While searching for a stray goat, they had stumbled across an opening in the rocks overlooking the sea. It excited their curiosity. They threw stones into the cavern and were surprised to hear a strange sound, as if the stones had hit and broken a piece of pottery. But they were too busy with their flocks to investigate, and so they returned the following day. Crawling into the cave they found themselves in a narrow crevice. On the floor were eight earthenware jars, five on one side, three on the other. Several of these jars were still covered with upturned dishes. Inside the jars they found bundles of leather, some wrapped in linen. While groping inside the jars, they accidentally broke some. For several weeks they wandered about with the bundles, showing them to friends in their tribe who had visited them in their tent. They then decided to come to Bethlehem, the commercial centre of the Bedouin from the Judean desert, and see whether they could get some money for their find.

He then brought out two jars, in which the bundles had been found, which he offered for our inspection. They were of a shape unfamiliar to me. He then carefully produced the leather scrolls. My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them. I read a few sentences. It was written in beautiful Biblical Hebrew. The language was like that of the Psalms, but the text was unknown to me. I looked and looked, and I suddenly had the feeling that I was privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew scroll which had not been read for more than two thousand years.

[When we returned to Jerusalem] I made straight for my study and unrolled the leathers … I was enthralled by the beauty of the Hebrew … While I was examining these precious documents in my study, the late news on the radio announced that the United Nations would be voting on the resolution that night. My youngest son, Mati (who later became a pilot and was killed in action on a mission against an Egyptian warship during the War of Independence), was in the next room, twiddling radio knobs in an effort to get New York … From time to time, he would give me a brief commentary on what had been said. It was past midnight when the voting was announced. And I was engrossed in a particularly absorbing passage in one of the scrolls when my son rushed in with the shout that the vote on the Jewish State had been carried. This great event in Jewish history was thus combined in my home in Jerusalem with another event, no less historic, the one political, and the other cultural.

News of the United Nation’s decision spread like wildfire through the city. Soon the streets were thronged with cars from which cheering youngsters were shouting the announcement to any who might have missed it on the radio. I could not remain indoors. I went out to share the joy with Jewish Jerusalem … I felt myself bursting with my own news. I had to tell someone about the great discovery. I searched for friends, and was delighted to spot two nearby among the crowd … My news bubbled forth … [I]n the turbulent joy of that night, and sensing that I was transmitting something exciting, they responded with unrestrained delight.

Excerpted from Yigael Yadin, The Message of the Scrolls (New York- Simon & Schuster, 1957).

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